Anyone who is familiar with the work of the modern American film industry will understand the importance of the action movie. They have been a weapon in Hollywood’s arsenal since the 1980s, together with their older cousin the 1970s disaster movie. “The Towering Inferno” and “Poseidon Adventure” became “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Terminator”, and “Die Hard”, but all offered the same formula of action and, most importantly, pathos – because if you didn’t care about the characters, then the drama and suspense that accompanied the action has no meaning.
Since then, Hollywood has created the genre of the action movie as a theme park thrill ride: film as a rollercoaster where spectacle transcends traditional notions of film making. The origin of this modern genre can probably be traced to director Jan de Bont’s 1996 film “Twister”, which subjected audiences to an hour of tedious sub-plot about the state of Bill Pullman’s marriage before they get what they paid for. It made no pretence to story telling, had terrible dialogue, but it gave audiences the experience of “being there” in the middle of a giant tornado ripping middle America apart. A genre was born.
If there is anyone who has taken the idea of Hollywood-theme-park-thrill-ride and made it his own, it must be director Michael Bay, who has apparently based his entire career on the concept. Bay was credited in an interview with a directorial style was known as “f**king the frame”, the modus operandi being that every single frame of his films should be so full as to wring the last ounce of experience out of it. Anyone who has seen one of his “Transformers” films will know the feeling of having been visually assaulted by his work – an entire franchise based a range of toys with a visceral visual style and sound design that pummel the viewer into some form of submission due to sensory overload. Eye candy as a weapon of mass destruction.
There is some academic analysis of his directorial style which breaks it down into a number of techniques he uses again and again. Shots are often ultra wide to create a sense of epic scale; frames are composed using intersecting planes of movement both across and through the frame; the camera moves all the time, even when it’s unnecessary; actors speaking dialogue are shot with long lenses as the camera moves around them to envelop them in swirling background; scenes are cut fast in a jarring style, so the eye barely has time to take in each shot. The result is both to imbue every single scene of his films with a strange epic grandeur, and to visually overload the viewer with so much movement and cutting that the eye can see it but the brain can’t interpret it. It’s what gives his work such visceral impact – you simply don’t get time to take in everything you’re seeing.
What has any of this got to do with stills photography?
I recently saw some of the shortlisted pictures in the Sony World Photography Awards professional category, and most of them left me cold, as if the judges had never seen any other contemporary photography and therefore didn’t recognise how it felt when you thought you had seen the same thing many times before. I shared them with Pascal, as we discussed that perhaps part of the problem was that so much had been photographed so often that we had reached an age where we had literally seen it all before.
We then segued into a discussion about the type of work that get’s recognised by competitions. I remembered seeing a photograph that had won a “travel” competition that featured a skier mid air jumping over a road on the side of a mountain. It had made me wonder if that was the best travel photography then I should probably give up. Since then I have often felt that winning images seem to be more about the difficulty in getting to a location to get a picture, or the directorial complexity of setting it up, than about camera craft or story telling. Sometimes it seems that to be recognised as photographers, we must learn to ski, dive, abseil, or paraglide, and if that fails then charter a helicopter or learn to fly a drone.
I know that part of the role of photography is to show something new or something familiar in a new way, but is the heroism and difficulty of “being there” more important than photographic skill and artistic vision? If you go somewhere difficult and shoot a picture in “P” mode, is that a greater accomplishment than great story telling or something with a unique vision?
I suggested to Pascal that to make a winning photograph you had to take an underwater picture of a Buddhist monk in saffron robes swimming with a humpback whale and a calf in a lake half way up a mountain that’s the result of a melting fjorde caused by global warming next to a volcano that was erupting as a skidoo jumped over it. Pascal rightly pointed out that it should also be shot with a drone. Piloted from the side of a helicopter. Shot using a 100Mp camera. Stitched into a 200 gigapixel image. So you can see the threads in the monks robes. With sharp corners.
I told Pascal that Dear Susan really should be promoting the Michael Bay philosophy of cinematography as the future of photography, as a way to maximise DS engagement across all channels and social media platforms. Fill every frame of every photograph with as much brightly coloured stuff as possible to make every shot a sensory overload. Pascal liked the idea so much that he thought it would make a good challenge.
It turns out that Michael Bay’s unique attitude to the film making process goes by another more media friendly moniker -“Bayhem”.
And so we have the “Bayhem challenge” – to submit the most maximal photograph that you can. Maximum impact, minimum meaning; don’t leave any square inch of the frame unused.
Photographs in this thread were taken with a Sony A3000 E mount camera and E 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 OSS lens, and are unapologetically non-maximal. In fact, the selection was chosen for their stillness and simplicity, which I find calming – and which is what you might need after watching a Michael Bay film.
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