Essential Question 4: How are language, sound and image used to manipulate the message? Part 1

As a word, "manipulation" has a bad reputation.  But the original meaning of the word manipulation comes from the French word for "handful." When we examine the meanings listed in the dictionary, we see that manipulation means "to operate with the hands in a skillful manner."  But it also means to control or play upon "by artful, unfair or insidious means to serve one's own purpose." Manipulation is a necessary part of the creation of film and television.  You have to handle images and words -- sort them, organize them and put them together -- in order to make a message meaningful.

Words and Images

Handling language is a complex affair in the production of the documentary because the language is largely designed to be heard, not read.  A documentary producer has to write a script for the voice-over, conduct interviews and edit them to select only the most relevant and useful soundbites.  The most challenging part of the process consists of organizing the language to present information in a sequence that is compelling.

Different techniques are used to convey a message within a limited time period using images and sounds.  The most important one concerns the way you represent a person's language.  For while the subject of the interview controls what he or she chooses to say, the producer controls the choice of language and image, a producer can make an individual look strong or weak, believable or phony.

How Music Affects Emotions

Music is one of the most important techniques used to encourage viewers to have an emotional response.  Music can be added to make something look more playful, more suspenseful, more dramatic and spectacular, and more fearful.  Lots of times when we are watching, we do not notice the impact that music can have. A pretty ordinary or ambiguous image can be give a clear and dramatic meaning through the selection of music.

Camera Techniques

And of course the camera itself, while it captures some aspects of perception, shapes images just by choosing what to focus on and by the very look of the image itself.  Camera techniques like the close-up, the pan, the angle shot, the freeze-frame, the time lapse and the aerial view al influence our perceptions of a scene.  And of course, lighting, activity within the frame, the pace and rhythm of the editing all work to influence our emotional responses to the image.  A producer and editor can do wonders by using many different images of a single scene to make something look more exciting and interesting.  This kind of manipulation is increasingly necessary because according to the experts, television has nurtured a set of expectations that everything be visually dynamic.  Perhaps this is a natural bias of film and television, or maybe the public has simply been trained to expect that television present a fast-paced and ever-changing visual display.

Target Age:  Middle School and up

Materials Needed:  VCR and monitor, videotape of examples

Video Materials: Segment 4 contains two parts.  Part A is a demonstration segment thatshows a repeated visual sequence with two different narrations; Part Bcontains a segment from a documentary that students need to complete bywriting different kinds of narration.

Focus Question:  How do words change the meaning of images?

Goals and Objectives: 

  1. Students will write scripts that distinguish between the points of view of involved participant and detached observer.
  2. Students will learn how words can re-shape the meanings of images. 
  3. Students will understand how much control a producer has over the meanings that viewers construct through effective use of language.

Activity 1
Playthe Part A of Segment 4 that shows a sequence of images representingtwo different points of view about the Los Angeles riots.  Discuss withstudents what they noticed about the sequence.  Introduce the conceptsof involved participant and detached observer. In this sequence you will notice two different points of view about themotives and feelings of riot participants.

Invite students todescribe the similarities and differences in the words and phrases ofeach of the two narrative voice-overs.  You might point out to studentsthat both voice-overs are making a claim about the motives of therioters, but they do it in different ways.  Invite students to explorethe questions:

Which point of view is more believable to you?

How are specific words and phrases used to convey information about the participants' emotional states?

Activity 2

Dividestudents into two groups before watching the remainder of Segment 4, aone-minute-and-26-second visual segment about a baby learning to climbstairs.  One group is designated to represent the involved articipant -- for example, the baby himself, parent, grandparentor caregiver. The other group should represent the detached observer -- for example, a psychologist, social worker, orphysician.  These sub-groups should break down to work in small teamsof two or three for the remainder of the lesson.  View the rest ofSegment 4 and have the teams start brainstorming on how to write andappropriate voice-over narration.

View the segment at least twomore times at intervals during the writing process so students canexamine the visual sequence while they are working on their scripts.

Considerthat an average person speaks at a rate of 125 words per minute whencalculating how long students' scripts should be.  Have studentstime the length of the segment and then complete the math to determinethe approximate length of the scripts.

When the groups havecompleted their scripts, have one member of each of the teams stand upnext to the TV monitor and read their scripts while you play the videosegment.  After every team has performed its script, discuss what kindsof words used have had the most impact in relation to the images.

Discuss: What other points of view besides participant and observer might be used as voice-over for these visualimages? Try writing narration for these different roles.