Aesthetically speaking, the first two nights of the Republican National Convention were a disaster. Where the Democratic National Convention leveraged the restrictions of the Covid-19 era to create something approaching entertaining television, the RNC hauled out an endless array of speakers, and nearly every one of them stood behind a podium and spoke in roughly the same cadence and volume as all the rest. Even worse, the camera angles and the visual framing of the programming lacked the kind of variety that might engage viewers on a level beyond, “Look at the people who are talking.”
As a case in point, watch this 15-second video clip to see a shot that recurred over and over throughout the convention’s first night:
Watching that first night, I was struck by how frequently the shot displayed in this clip popped up. It seemed as though every single speech featured one or two moments where the camera pulled back in a graceful arc, receding from the speaker for no apparent reason other than to look kind of impressive.
The first time it happened, I was kind of taken with the scope of it, perhaps because so much of the start of the convention had been drab and lifeless. The third time it happened, I wondered if the Republican Party only owns three cameras and was deeply committed to using one in this extremely particular way. By the end of the night, I was as numb to this shot as the handful of others deployed throughout.
The camera angle most often used to film speakers was an unflattering, head-on shot that flooded them in a garish pool of bright, white light. The lighting was also more flattering to lighter skin than darker skin. Watch the speech from South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and notice how much harder it is to read his facial expressions when the camera cuts out to a wider shot from the closeup it’s usually situated in. Now, watch the speech from Donald Trump Jr. to see just how readable his expressions are from a wide shot.
The DNC often used similar camera setups to present its many speeches. But in those cases, the setting of the speeches, frequently carried from party members’ homes, was varied enough to make them feel incredibly different from one another. And some of the DNC speeches benefited from genuinely intriguing filmmaking choices. Barack Obama’s speech was mostly filmed in a single shot of the former president that slowly zoomed in on his face as he spoke, beginning in a wide shot that suggested the sweep of history (surrounded by icons of the American Revolution as he was) and ending in a close-up that allowed for greater intimacy.
Did everything tried at the DNC work? Nah. The convention had its share of boring and bland speeches. But it did have variety.
Variety is one of the single most important tools in a filmmaker’s toolkit. If your eye is looking at the same thing, over and over, your brain eventually decides that it knows what you’re looking at, and your mind starts to wander. That’s why the practice of meditation will sometimes involve fixing your eye on a point in the distance, then trying to hold that gaze as much as possible to observe your thought patterns and try to improve your focus. The technique is designed to use your brain’s craving for variety to force you to examine just when and where your mind wanders, then yank it back in line, increasing mindfulness.
But in filmmaking, an overwhelming visual and tonal sameness is death to the audience’s attention span. If you’ve ever watched big, loud action movie and found it boring, it’s likely because too many action movies pitch everything that happens as so massive and so epic. Without any changes in pace or stakes and without strong framing and editing, your brain eventually loses interest. (Here’s a great YouTube essay on this basic concept.) A similar effect is traceable in, say, the ultra-serious superhero movies by director Zack Snyder, which pick a single tone (which we might call “gray”) and stick to it throughout.
That trap of visual sameness is precisely the one the RNC fell into. The harsh lighting and repetitive camera setups made it hard to pay attention for very long, and the American flag backdrop — designed for maximum patriotism — eventually started to feel like a projection screen behind the speakers, as though they and it were being composited together in a computer in real time. First lady Melania Trump’s speech at the White House on night two was presented with a similar flatness and lack of visual imagination, including many of the same camera angles as those on display at the main convention setting.
Even when the convention cut away to short documentaries and montages about the greatness of President Trump, those montages were all edited in the same quick-cutting, stutter-step method. Eventually — and perhaps inevitably — they began to feel monotonous (though never as monotonous as the parade of speakers). Every element felt as though all involved had chosen a couple of approaches they believed would look good, then decided their work was done.
What’s particularly damning about the result is that a coronavirus-era convention takes away some of the biggest obstacles of presenting an aesthetically interesting convention, especially for a TV audience. Once you can leave the confines of a convention hall to showcase other facets of the party and the country, you have a full range of interesting visual options available to you that don’t involve people standing on a stage behind a podium and delivering a speech.
The delegate roll call at the DNC, for example, underlined the country’s vastness and visual splendor. The roll call at the RNC was ... the same shot of a delegate stepping forward in front of the same backdrop, over and over again, to cast their votes for the same man. (The RNC also attempted its own version of the DNC’s shoutout to the states, but it ended so quickly and was so haphazardly edited that it barely registered.)
I don’t want to write off the RNC after two bad nights. The DNC smartly tweaked what didn’t work about it as the week went on — most notably shifting its strategy for big keynote speeches after vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris’s address fell a little flat when played as a more conventional speech in a big, mostly empty auditorium. The next night, presidential nominee Joe Biden’s convention-capping speech was much more modulated for the event as it stood, not as it had been.
But forgive me if I don’t have faith that the RNC will make similar tweaks in its second half. A hallmark of the Donald Trump aesthetic more broadly is the way in which it finds one thing it likes — all that gold! Putting his name on everything! — and runs it into the ground. I suspect we’re in for two more nights of a convention that cloaks hero worship and horrifying politics in the blandest possible visuals.
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