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Every Song A Story: Making A Personal Connection Written by on April 8, 2015 | 27 Comments

One thing that I’ve noticed over the years at the Eurovision Song Contest is that pretty much anyone can describe what they like or don’t like about a song – it’s one reason why Juke Box Jury is not only an easy listen but allows for you all to have a lot of debate in the comments. Describing faults in a song is easy, because everyone knows what a bad note sounds like, how to describe it, talk about key changes, verse and chorus structures, voices that work together or not al all, and so on.

The same is not true about the visual side of things. From shot selection and framing, to adding in movement and depth, and telling a thematic story, the Song Contest is full of visual media, yet there’s not a huge amount of discussion beyond “that’s a hot mess”. In short, cinematography plays a large part in the Contest, but it’s not an area that is easily discussed.

Time to try to change that.

Taking a lead from Tony Zhou’s filmic series ‘Every Frame A Painting‘, I’m going to explore the visual world of the Eurovision Song Contest. Along the way I’m going to try to give you all a basic grounding in some film school techniques to help us all discuss the rehearsals and stage performances that we see on the screens ahead of the live shows in May. What works, what doesn’t, which countries are complementing the audible with the visual, and which are just filming a live gig and want to get in some flashy steadicam moves with little thought to how they work with the lyrics and composition?

This is ‘Every Song A Story’

Personal Connections With The Sound Off

In this introductory episode, I talk a little about the goals of  ‘Every Song A Story’, before showing you how important the visual element is by taking away the audio. Why is it that one song works well with no audible assistance, and another song becomes a shadow of itself? How are these moments used to connect with the viewers at home (and in the Jury Room), and what happens if this connection is not made?

Now watch the second episode of ‘Every Song a Story’, as I talk about framing and storytelling.

Every Song A Story will run weekly throughout April. It might even last into May, and if we see something nice in Vienna there might be a special edition. We’re not sure yet how far this can go, so we look forward to your reaction a little more than normal. Leave your thoughts in the comments, or reach out directly to ewan@escinsight.com.

About The Author: Ewan Spence

British Academy (BAFTA) nominated broadcaster and writer Ewan Spence is the voice behind The Unofficial Eurovision Song Contest Podcast and one of the driving forces behind ESC Insight. Having had an online presence since 1994, he is a noted commentator around the intersection of the media, internet, technology, mobility and how it affects us all. Based in Edinburgh, Scotland, his work has appeared on the BBC, The Stage, STV, and The Times. You can follow Ewan on Twitter (@ewan) and Facebook (facebook.com/ewanspence).

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27 responses to “Every Song A Story: Making A Personal Connection”

  1. Robyn says:

    This had made me think about last year’s stage. The performance area was so huge that any artist who attempted to use the entire space just ended up feeling lost in it (France, Ireland), while artists who focused their performance to a smaller, specific space (Austria, Sweden), had the most success. Switzerland and Poland were good examples of staging that used more of the stage area, but it was done thoughtfully and sparingly so it didn’t leave any gaping holes.

    I look forward to the next video!

  2. Ewan Spence says:

    Robyn, thanks for the comments. The empty space can be used effectively if it is thought about – Koza Mostra and Alcohol is Free springs to mind, but as you’ll see in the essay, it’s about deciding on story, themes, and motifs. Choose them correctly and you can do very well. Space CAN be used, but it’s much easier to misuse.

  3. Zolan says:

    Ah, this really expands the space for exploration and conversation — Looking forward to more.

  4. It all sounds and looks so obvious – don’t the delegations all employ people to get this right? Surely the BBC are experts in event shot selection? Or have they yet to get to grips with modern day Eurovision, where staging is as important as the vocals…

    I suspect that Sweden might feature a lot in this series!

  5. Shai says:

    I like the video and the idea behind it.

    I do hope you will expand the lessons to periods of old contests. The whole visual element of the show started way before 2010 and it will be interesting if you use examples from the past that worked well or didn’t work at all.
    See it as an history lesson in visuals of the contest.

  6. David Mann says:

    Extremely interesting Ewan. I hope Guy Freeman is watching! And I think he needs to be.

    The BBC coverage of the 60th Concert didn’t engage me as a viewer at home as I felt it should have done – there were far too many long and sweeping camera shots over the standing crowd and even from up where I was sitting in the ‘gods’.

    I was thinking back to the much less sophisticated tv shows that used to be done at the Shepherds Bush Empire (BBC TV Theatre). Then the focus was squarely on the artists and their performances. Technical wizardry only allowed the occasional cutaway to the audience – look at a creaky old episode of Crackerjack for that. Look at an audience participation show like the Gen Game with Brucie – did you actually *see* the audience? No – the focus was on the contestants and the star.

    Did we get a good long look at the amazing footwork of the Riverdance dancers? No, sweeping shots from the balcony instead. Not showing the footwork is a consistent fault on Strictly I think – compare current shows with an old episode of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ – even one from the Wogan years.

    And I don’t think Petra or Graham appeared in full screen facial shots individually at all while doing their presenting pieces to camera. No engagement with the viewers.

    Could you take over as BBC director please?

  7. Ewan Spence says:

    David, one of the (many) things that riled me in terms of cinematography was a simple fact – Petra and Grahame kept standing on different sides of the shot. There was no visual consistency to the hosts (note Ant and Dec… it is ALWAYS Ant on screen left os they read like the act name). Maybe it’s the new style, but for me it was a little thing. And when you start building little things on little things in a three minute ESC show… it just feels, as Sharleen would say, “A hot mess”.

    Our goal here is to give us more language to go beyond “hot mess” in May and be able to critique with some more strength.

  8. Ewan Spence says:

    Shai, the immediate goal is to build up a working ‘language’ of basic techniques ahead of May. After May, we’ll see where it goes. There are certainly key moments in history that are worth a look (Sing Little Birdie is a good one to look over )

  9. Ewan Spence says:

    Martin, compare RLPA at Copenhagen, and RLAP at Hammersmith, but think of the story being told and if the shot magnifies or weakens the story at each point. Why does the camera rise happen at the emend in Vienna, but the BBC used a ‘rise’ metaphor on the lighting rig at the first chorus?

  10. Ewan Spence says:

    Thanks Zolan, the aim is to be weekly for four more episodes.

  11. Sharleen says:

    Yes, I am the filmic geek normally amongst us (all hail Kubrick!), but it was Ewan that showed me the work of Tony Zhou with his video dissertations on YouTube of style and genre (really worth checking out) and we workshopped the idea of using it as a basis to discuss Eurovision entries in terms of camera and staging a few months back.

    Ewan is doing a bloody good job of it. Far more descriptive than my usual ‘thats a hot mess’.
    What came out of the weeks of watching close-up is how well the likes of small countries such as Lithuania and Slovenia can get it so right far more times than wrong.

    Interesting how you bring up the BBC 60th broadcast too David Mann. I was incredibly annoyed by the camera work on Lordi last week. So many useless cutaway shots to give a sense of fast pace and action, that if anything just detracted from what is an action packed stage performance that screams more close-ups. But you know, why would you would want to engage as a viewer with ugly looking monster artists that won a silly song contest?

  12. Michael Jaker says:

    Brilliant stuff. Thanks Ewan.

    I have no clue about these things, having never worked in TV, film or anything similar, and so this is totally fascinating for me.

    And it really does explain why my whole ESC party felt flat as a pancake during Molly’s performance, despite us hoping for a potential winner / Top 5. It just felt so messy and the effect was to make it anything but powerful (for a song supposedly about powerful people).

  13. Seattlesque says:

    A great addition to the ESC Insight repertoire, Ewan. Thanks for adding this. To echo David and Sharleen, the 60th show to me was shambolic; even where the set designers had been creative, the shots we were shown seemed off and distracting. A hugely disappointing show.
    And you’re making me look differently at Molly’s performance, as well as some past qualifiers that left me incredulous (e.g. Andreas Pojavis). Thanks for the new angles on the show.

  14. Chris says:

    Excellent example of why escinsight gives you that little bit more – love it

  15. Mo Comfort says:

    This is exactly the sort of thing I was wanting to hear about but I didn’t know I was missing it. I am definitely going to have a read up on these sorts of things when I get the time to. But thank you Ewan for the start of what I think will be a fantastic series.

  16. joni says:

    Great stuff Ewan, as always!
    I’m just curious though: I remember last year you were praising the UK entry quite heavily, including the presentation and camera angles, during the 2 weeks in Denmark. Even after the jury final, which basically had more or less the same presentation as the televised show (I think it’s on YT somewhere).
    What do you think went wrong between the first rehearsal and the Saturday night? Was it just a case of the UK press getting a little too excited? I agree that the performance was underwhelming (I had predicted top 5 at the very least before it), but still think that if it had been as powerful as the preview performance, things could have gone differently (not saying it would have won, nothing except for an euphoric fairytale could have beaten Conchita, but at least top 10.)
    I’m interested in your opinion! Looking forward to the next video!

  17. Ewan Spence says:

    I think UK press getting excited was one, but also not compensating enough for the drag of closing last in a 26 song strong Contest is another (with 27 this year I’m going to try and not make the same mistake). The simple answer is that it did not work down a TV camera on the night – the harder question is if it was always like that and we missed it, or if it was there and then it flopped.

  18. Ewan Spence says:

    THank you Mo, much appreciated. Hopefully we’ll give you enough ahead of may to see something new in the Contest.

  19. Ben Cook says:

    Really interesting Ewan, looking forward to seeing the rest of them.

    As for Molly.. still don’t agree with the theory that singing 26th made a bit of difference when The Common Linnets had only been on the stage 5 minutes earlier and came 2nd. I can’t believe 5 minutes makes that much difference.

    I agree the staging and camera angles were a big part of it though, as well as Molly’s lack of stage presence, lack of conviction in the vocals in the early part of the song, and the miserable look on her face. Such a shame because I still think it was a great song.

  20. John Lucas says:

    Can only echo the praise really – fascinating stuff.

    Macedonia last year strike me as a country that really dropped the ball badly with the staging. Slovenia stood out as a country that really got it right and probably qualified as a result.

  21. Ewan Spence says:

    All I’m going to say about Slovenia 2014 (at the moment) is “Michael Bay”, and you’ll have to wait until episode 3 to discover why!

  22. DD says:

    The BBC have an unhelpful habit of always wanting to feature the backing singers in all solo artist performances. No one cares who is doing backing – Sweden realised this years ago – and they litter the stage creating a bad aesthetic. So did that unnecessary drummer last year too. Sadly I fear they will make the same mistake this year. At least if they try a “nightclub” setting – and if they can dance too – it might work.

  23. […] last week’s introductory episode of ‘Every Song a Story‘, the pressure is on to deliver! Your comments have been very […]

  24. […] on from ‘Personal Connections‘ and ‘Framing‘, our third essay in ESC Insight’s look at the visual […]

  25. […] Song Contest is coming to a close. Previous essays  have looked at the power of making ’Personal Connections‘, using ‘Framing‘ to tell a story, and the lessons that Michael Bay’s […]

  26. Hebbuzz says:

    About making the connection, watching this video I know realise why Glennis did not get to the final. Her handmoves were aggressively rejecting the viewer instead of friendly inviting the vieuwers like the singer from ‘Cest la vie’ and Zlata in ‘Gravity’ did.

  27. […] and elegant or looking disjointed and chaotic. As we’ve seen on Ewan’s series “Every Song a Story“, camera angles, which are agreed by both the delegation and the camera crew at the host […]

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