Without a doubt, “authenticity” is the most overused word in the stock-media industry — and with good reason. Our worldview is now seen through a postmodern lens, which has brands scrambling for influencers to harness an audience beyond their corporate reach. Technology and social media have given rise to generations that detest interruption advertising, reachable only via imagery that appears to be authentic according to their personal aesthetic. Ad blocking has reached an all-time high, and marketers are keen to develop and discover fresh ways to drive engagement with consumers beyond a well-crafted message. As a result, this means that if you’re creating stock media, to be truly successful, you need to approach your shoots with these things in mind.
An ad for health-club chain Fitness First
The Snapshot Aesthetic
It’s important to look back to see the relevance of how brands are approaching today’s marketing campaigns. We can trace the “snapshot aesthetic” as far back as the advent of portable camera technologies. Handheld professional cameras in the hands of photographers such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, Nan Goldin, and Garry Winogrand gave rise to an aesthetic that’s right at home in our postmodern worldview.
In addition, this visual realism has been a key ingredient in Italian neo-realism, the French New Wave, and documentary filmmaking. Marketers have been using similar techniques to blur the line between news and advertising. The result is a visual hybrid — images that have a documentary-like vibe that emotionally draws in the consumer by dressing a lifestyle as something that’s attainable and real.
Ed Templeton explains his techniques as they pertain to the snapshot aesthetic
The Meaning of ‘Authenticity’
Authenticity is a stylized aesthetic to topple the notion that advertising is fiction. The “genuine article” in relation to brand-related advertising can best be described as visual content that represents a realism that falls somewhere between what is authentic and what is staged. Authenticity is often described and presented to the consumer as a “slice of life.”
Director Nacho Gayan’s “Live True” rings true
Casting real people can be a challenge — the challenge being that your real person must possess qualities that are highly appealing for video. Model Daisy Lowe epitomizes these characteristics and embodies the spirit of a telegenic personality. In the video below, she describes a shoot as not being stylized at all, when in fact, it is. With that said, she wore her own clothes and was allowed to be herself.
Dr. Martens behind-the-scenes video
Follow that lead by letting your cast bring their own clothing and apply their own makeup, if possible. As a director, it’s important to take an opportunistic approach to your shots, especially when wonderful things happen outside of your control. Allow spontaneity to happen with your actors. Authenticity demands that you take an attitude with your work that coats the banalities of everyday life with an aspirational gloss.
Real Environments Have Clutter
For some unexplained reason, quite a bit of stock imagery is devoid of life with regard to the environments where stock people live and work. The idea of stripping away the character of a location only reaffirms the clichés that our industry is known for — minimally styled sets that appear unlived in. In stock, we have to tell our stories without words. By subtracting too many things from your set to create a minimal environment, you’ve removed a major character from your story: the location.
There are plenty of ways to keep your environment real without compromising your vision for fear of capturing copyrighted materials. Shoot with a shallower depth of field, which will blur out TV programs, appliances, computers, magazines, books, logos, and any other trademarked objects. The 14mm is my favorite lens, which has a massive depth of field. Prepping a safe location takes a little more effort, especially since I prefer to hold the camera and follow my subjects. As much as I frame my shots as I’m moving, I still spend a bit of time beforehand twisting branded products away from the camera, Greeking logos, and avoiding areas that pose a risk or are impossible to navigate.
Still from Eyes Wide Shut, 1999. Kubrick often shot with a massive depth of field to show us the setting, which tells us much more about the character beyond the dialogue.
Avoiding Artificial Light
In reality, rooms are lit, not people. In stock, there’s a tendency for filmmakers to overuse high keys to light an environment. If you’re working in a room with available light, attempt to design your scenes around it. Natural light is the prettiest light. Because of greater dynamic range in digital capture, working with less lights and using practicals to shape the mood is guaranteed to make your work look much more polished.
The beauty of the highlights that practicals bring to the frame is unmatched against artificial sources. When you shoot wide, it’s crucial to have the light source in the frame, whether it be a lamp, candles, or a television screen. Motivate your artificial sources around your practicals as supplements, if needed. Lighting your scene purely by opening up your aperture to avoid grain is not lighting at all, but instead the first clue to the viewer that something artificial is happening.
Still from The Tree of Life, 2011
It’s crucial to keep in mind that you’re cultivating two contrasting ideas here: fact and fiction. It’s now up to you to use your creativity to blend this duality in your work and develop a style that has the potential to resonate far beyond just another stock shoot.