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Video Literacy Series Reality Is Not Enough- Shooting Documentary Video

Documenting real events on camera requires more than just being in the right place at the right time. A knowledge of the basics of video production-video literacy-is requisite to producing believable and useful video.

This article is designed to help you create better presentation video. It includes helpful hints from the world of professional video production as well as suggestions of ways to avoid common mistakes. The bedrock of video literacy is that showing is always more important than shooting, and that what is shot should be thought of as visual evidence to be used as part of the rhetorical argument of your presentation.

This becomes especially important when you have the opportunity to videotape real events as they are happening. Both film and video have been used extensively to document research in the physical sciences. In anthropology and sociology, the documentary of behavior g'es back to the earliest days of motion pictures. In the humanities the historical film dates from at least as early as 1915, and both art films and films about art appear even earlier.

What has changed since the early days of film is the ease with which a camera and microphone can be introduced into almost any event. While this has been a boon to recording from reality, it has also introduced a new set of considerations, which might be called the reality problem.

Debunking Old Notions

Some videomakers seem to think that if the event they are recording is real, it's enough to point the camera toward the event and turn it on. It isn't. So you need to get rid of a couple of notions that have had great influence on the modern documentary but simply don't hold up on close examination.

"The Camera D'esn't Lie"

The first of these is that the camera d'esn't lie. Which is nonsense. Cameras don't tell the truth, either. They simply record a very coarse analog of the light patterns in front of the lens. What is a picture? On film it's the result of the clustering of silver halide or dye molecules into black dots or points of color. Look closely enough, and the image disappears. On videotape it is a magnetized signal that will cause a video tube to create a pattern of light, dark, and color on a television screen. In digital video it is a stored pattern of ones and zer'es yielding the same effect: a display of light and color on the screen.

It is only the mind of the viewer, making inferences from these shadows and color patterns that gives them meaning. Some videomakers seem to think that if the event they are recording is real, it's enough to point the camera toward the event and turn it on. It isn't. For instance, let's use a computer to grab a single frame from a video and print it out on a sheet of paper. Then we'll show it to someone who is involved with this video. "Yes," the person might say, looking at the printout, "that's Aunt Mary."

Well, no-it isn't. It's a piece of paper with a dot pattern on it. It is a highly abstract analog of a small piece of something which may have existed in the real world. Indeed, this picture d'esn't even show all of Aunt Mary. It only shows her head. And not all of her head-just one side of it.

The core of the matter is not the picture, but the human being who looks at this tiny bit of data and says, "Yes, that's Aunt Mary." The camera didn't make that decision; the viewer did.

If you want to make good, believable, useful documentaries or reality videos, you have to get over the idea that you can suck reality into a camera and blow it back at your audience. What is shown to an audience is always an analog of whatever happened, abstracted from the footage that was shot. When this is carefully and precisely done, it will have been tempered by the overall truth of the situation as the videomaker understands it and, indeed, by the honesty of the videomaker in constructing the analog.

Digital image enhancement deals another body blow to the notion of truth in imaging. Not long ago, the existence of an image was at least evidence that what was shown had happened. No longer. Digitized images and powerful computers can create scenes of things that never were, in such a way that no one may be able to judge whether what is shown is a record of something that exists or an artist's fantasy.

"Actuality Equals Truth"

The second notion is this: What was filmed really happened, therefore it is true, and will be accepted by an audience as true.

Which is simply not true. Reality has no special virtue that will shine through the footage in spite of lack of preparation or poor camerawork. The distinction between truth and reality was an obvious and necessary one in the early days of documentary film. The technology simply didn't permit much direct filming of actual events. So a documentary was expected to be true in the sense that it was based on fact and its accuracy could be verified. But it wasn't expected to be real. Most documentaries were re-creations of events, using actors and written scripts, and were often shot in a studio just like fiction films.

But the belief in the "realness" of a documentary came from the way in which the director, camera operator, and film editor selected what was to be shot and shown and organized it for presentation to an audience as an accurate analog of the situation that was filmed. And that remains true even when you point your state-of-the-art video camera at an actual event as it unfolds before your eyepiece.

"Good Footage Takes Planning"

Another problem is the widespread belief that recording an event as it happens d'es away with any need to plan the shoot in advance. Quite the opposite is true.

Serendipity can play a part in recording from reality just because you are working with actual events. Every now and then, someone chances to turn on a camera just as something interesting happens in front of the lens. But the good stuff-including the "unplanned" good stuff-is most often the result of a shooting plan that puts camera and crew in situations where something interesting is likely to happen. Indeed, the less you know about what will happen, the more essential it is to plan for contingencies.

An audience brings to any film or video-including a documentary-what in the theater is called the willing suspension of disbelief. Violate that and you may lose your audience-sometimes for good.

Thinking about what you are going to be recording and what you want to be able to show your audience should help you to develop a preliminary shot list. This should suggest where you have to go, and who and what you need to shoot to record the visual evidence you need. This should lead you to imagine the kinds of concrete images that would serve as evidence of what you want to show.

When I was teaching documentary filmmaking with the late Sol Worth, this was the point at which our students would normally ask, "How can I do that? It will all depend on what happens when I get there."

Sol would say, "Make it up. Make up a list of ideal scenes that would show exactly what you want." This is, of course, actually a process of fine-tuning yourself as an observing and decision-making instrument. The exercise of listing possible scenes will help you be ready to recognize the kinds of images you should be looking for when they happen.

Record Visual Evidence

If you cannot rely on the objective reality of whatever you have recorded to convince an audience of the truth of your argument, then in recording and editing the footage, you have to present the case so an audience will believe it. One way, as we've seen, is to find and record convincing visual evidence.

Documenting real events requires meticulous attention to what will ultimately be shown to an audience. The verifiable truth of any presentation depends on the honesty of the presenter in presenting an accurate analog of the situation as he or she understands it. But that alone is no guarantee that the audience will accept that what is shown as true-because documentary footage, every bit as much as a Hollywood movie or a Broadway play, must work within the framework of audience beliefs, conventions, and expectations. The images on the screen may be both real and true, but if they lack the appearance of truth, you may set up a credibility gap with the audience that you can never overcome.

An audience brings to any film or video-including a documentary-what in the theater is called the willing suspension of disbelief. Violate that and you may lose your audience-sometimes for good. In addition to good visual evidence, structured into a compelling argument, your video requires the appearance of truth. The term for this is verisimilitude.

For instance, when I was shooting a video called Light in Art for Hawaii Public Television, I had a long sequence with photographer Brett Weston taking photographs of the work of his friend Henry Bianchini, a sculptor. A verisimilitude problem developed in that each time we would begin a shot, they would call each other by name as they started talking. They did this rather formally, and far too often. It's a small thing, but, in our culture, friends working alone together over a period of time do not normally use each other's name frequently as they talk. They know who they are and whom they are talking to.

I knew that if this continued, when we edited the takes into a sequence, we would have them calling each other Brett and Henry far too often to seem natural. Bad verisimilitude. I asked them to stop using each other's names.

Even if what you've recorded is documentably true, it is dangerous to assume that an audience will judge the truth of a sequence in a documentary on the basis of its objective realness. A person telling the truth may behave on film like a liar. A dramatic event may look staged to your audience. Or in striving for verisimilitude you may introduce factors that harm your credibility.

For instance, when I was scripting a documentary about the battle of Midway I received some stock footage of an interview with a man in his sixties who was a marine dive bomber pilot at Midway during the battle. For some reason, the director shooting this scene had put this former marine pilot in an air force flight suit and had him wearing a navy officer's cap, but with no insignia on it. It made the man uncomfortable and it made no sense. Why put a seventy-year-old man in a flight suit to talk about something he did when he was twenty? It's bad verisimilitude.

Three Steps to Good Reality Footage

First, plan what you are going to shoot. Think about what kinds of shots will represent what you want to show to the audience. Think about where you have to be and what you have to do to get those shots. Make a shot list.

Second, shoot carefully. Don't let the reality fallacy lull you into bad camerawork. Hold the camera steady. Support it if you can. Try to work with the light so that you will get the best possible images. Don't chase the action. Try to compose the image so that it will look good to the audience and will also aid your credibility.

Third, edit thoughtfully. From the mass of everything you have shot, select the scenes that best represent the visual evidence you want to present to your audience. And put them in sequence in a way that will give your audience the best possible model of the event you have filmed, as you understand it.

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