February 28, 2022

Visual Stories Need Context

I didn’t like Ascension, one of the 2022 Oscar nominees for best feature documentary, because, in my opinion, it doesn’t rise to the level appropriate for a nomination. It perhaps would have been a better viewing experience for me had I seen it before the nominations. A nomination creates expectations.

The trailer overpromises. The director under-delivers.

My suggested logline: Many routine shots of Chinese people working while we listen to annoying ambient music and occasional snippets of conversation with little context.

Yes, there are some moments of stunning cinematography — and you see many of them in trailer. There are also long moments of well-composed but otherwise dull shots whose interest inheres in the extent to which we find the situations curious or confounding.

I know I promised to make these less reviews and more commentaries on what I learned. So here it is:

The audience needs context, especially if the trailer is going to promise “an inside perspective on modern China.” The cinematography is certainly “inside.” But we’re given little help to understand the “eye-opening visuals” that are telling a “universal story.”

How to do that? That’s the tough question.

While I’m a big believer in using text to keep the audience oriented, I’m also aware that’s a delicate dance.

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