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Photography and the connection

John McCain's background visuals

Mccain_green I like John McCain, and although he's not known for his oratory skills (he's better in a town hall setting), I was looking forward to a good performance in what surely was the most important speech of his life last week. It was not a disaster for Senator McCain, at least not for the supportive live audience in the hall, but I was really surprised by the lack of energy, emotion, and clear structure in his address to the Republican National Convention. I'm not talking about the content — that's outside the focus of this blog. By comparison, Barack Obama's speech last week had better structure and flow and higher levels of emotion and energy. John McCain's speech paled in comparison to Obama's and also to Sarah Palin's speech the previous night. (What people remember are the emotions, and people will remember that they liked the way Palin connected with the live audience.)

CNN's Jeffery Toobin called McCain's speech "shockingly bad." Fox News analyst Karl Rove said "it was the best speech he's given on a teleprompter...but it still wasn't all that great...." CNN Political Analyst Roland Martin gave Sarah Palin an 'A' for both style and structure; he gave McCain a grade of 'D' for his speech. Watch this clip of Martin's analysts below.

When visuals go bad

I listened to McCain's speech live on radio. But when I saw the speech later on TV that night I was puzzled by the odd use of visuals that were projected onto the 52x30-foot screen behind the presidential candidate. It turns out I was not the only one. The media has been talking all weekend about the strange image (most call it a photo, but it's clearly video) of what appears to be a large mansion (or sorority house?) with a huge green lawn out front. What, people were asking, did it have to do with anything? Even Chris Wallace from Fox News commented immediately after the speech: "It was a green backdrop behind him, it was a big lawn in front of a big house. You thought what the heck was that? It looked like it could have been one of the McCain mansions."

Above: A video image of Walter Reed Middle School appears behind
John McCain.

When I saw the image of all that beautiful lawn, I couldn't stop thinking of the 1980 classic comedy, Caddyshack.

Stagecraft snafu?
As it turns out, the first image appearing on screen behind McCain was not of a mansion, but of Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood California. (The school is not happy about its image being used for a political campaign without permission.) Even if you recognized the image as a school, you'd still be confused as to why a school is behind John McCain during the early parts of his speech. Indeed, he doesn't talk about education until halfway through his speech (with a blue screen behind him at that time). So many in the media are assuming that the campaign staff meant to show Walter Reed Army Medical Center (photo) not Walter Reed Middle School. But that makes little sense as well since few people would be able to identify the hospital or make the connection to the speech even if they did.

West_wing But if the video is not a slip-up, then why the use of this particular middle school? What was the emotional connection they were going for, and what was so special about this school? Well, it seems this particular middle school featured prominently in a scene from a fictional TV series called The West Wing. (Look at the clip below and you'll see the same school behind the Democratic candidate for president, Matt Santos, announcing his bid for the presidency.) Is it possible someone thought that this image might be recognized, at least at some subconscious level, and that a subtle connection with the presidency might be made? MSNBC reported that when asked about the middle school image, McCain's campaign replied that "it's simply a generic photo, like others used and it had no specific meaning." But here's the rub: images always have meaning, though it may be different from what you intended. The term "generic photo" is just one step away from "clip art," both of which should be avoided by serious presenters.

Above: Walter Reed Middle School used in a scene from The West Wing.

Above: The Walter Reed video backdrop, complete with a flag waving gently in the breeze, branches bending in the wind, and someone walking across the screen from left to right and into the building. As McCain pauses for applause after he thanks President Bush for "...leading us in these dark days," we see that someone begins to go up the front steps of the middle school behind the senator. So now we may be having three thoughts: whose mansion is that? who is that person with the backpack? and what does any of this have to do with the content of the speech?

When visuals become distraction

You must always have a clear reason for using a visual. Usually, visuals underscore a message or illustrate a point, but visuals are often used to make the audience feel something emotionally, or even just to set the mood for the speaker's message. That's OK, but much thought must be put into this. Whatever the intended effect of your visuals, you do not want the audience's attention to drift as they try to figure out what the visual is or what it has to do with your words.

Above: The video projection of a field of corn appeared after the Walter Reed Middle School image.

The New York Times online reported that a campaign spokesman said the background scenes were intended to showcase images of America. “The changing image-screen was linked to the American thematics of the speech and the public school was simply part of it.” However, the screen did not change very often at all. After the middle school picture and the corn field, a video of blue sky and a waving flag remained the backdrop for almost the entire speech. The idea of subtly changing images linked to the changing themes of the speech is an interesting idea, but if this is what they tried, it didn't work. In an old Wired article, Edward Tufte said that at the very least "a presentation format should do no harm." I'm not sure how harmful the screen was for Senator McCain, but it didn't help. It's a shame because that screen had a lot of potential, if used right, to augment the speech.

Above: This video projection of a waving flag was on screen for most of the presentation, giving the impression (at least on TV) that McCain was speaking from inside an aquarium.

The tight shot
While the live audience saw the full backdrop image, the great majority of people saw only the dreaded green screen behind John McCain...again (the blue screen wasn't much better). Didn't someone check to see how the close-ups would look on TV? The wide shots looked fine, but the green and blue on the tight shots not only look bad but are inviting people to chroma-key John McCain's image into who-knows-what in the coming days (here's an example already). Below I took advantage of the green and blue screens (makes creating a mask in Photoshop very quick work) and placed alternative background images to change the visual mood of the shot.

Green_screen   Bluescreen 
The tight shots featuring the original green and blue screens.

Mccain_westwing  Mccain_patriot

Mccainlincoln2   Mccain_flag2  
A few sample alternatives to enhance the speaker's on-screen image.

It could have been worse
So the use of visuals were a bit off for John McCain's speech, but at least he didn't commit death-by-PowerPoint. (Below is an image of what that might look a few more alternative approaches).

Above: If an MBA prepared John McCain's visuals.

Above: If Lawrence Lessig prepared John McCain's visuals.

Above: If Takahashi prepared John McCain's visuals.

Above: If Apple prepared
John McCain's visuals.