ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Crossing Lines —

Only your buddies know exactly how to send you veering off the rails into completely well-tread, insane arguments that can last for hours or days if you let them. That’s why they’re your buddies. If they were your enemies, you’d be screwed.

One good discussion that just pokes my emotional hornet’s nest with a stick is the nature of reality in documentary form.

I know, it doesn’t sound overly exciting or even something to get even slightly cranky about…. but it’s truly fundamental, to a person telling a story in visual form from a collected set of images and recordings. If you pretend it’s non-fiction, it should be somewhat real. The problem that immediately rises up is what is real and what steps one takes in the process of going from reality to a documentary may or may not upset the “realness”. This can suck up hours. It’s a tornado of controversy.

Let’s get the basics out of the way.

Hundreds of hours of human life are spent recounting, to people either getting a film degree or who decided to take an elective class:

  • When you shoot something with a camera, you have inherently made a choice where to aim that camera.
  • When you start shooting, you have made a choice to record reality at that point, from that angle.
  • When you stop shooting with the camera, you have inherently chosen not to record that reality.
  • Later, you will assemble your shots, therefore making choices on what to shoot.

From these stated premises comes the following variant conclusions.

  • You should be extra careful when you shoot a documentary because the potential to mislead and misdirect is so great.
  • You should not be extra careful and just try to make a good film from the reality-based material.
  • There is no such thing as a documentary as people think it means.
  • Must Kill Michael Moore.
  • Even though it doesn’t really show realty, it is possible to provide an accurate semblance of reality, as one would expect a news program to be.
  • News programs are even worse because they make every attempt to claim they are reflective of reality.
  • What is truth?
  • What is reality?
  • If anyone needs me I’ll be in my bathtub killing myself.

Personally, I buy into the idea that you can, utilizing care towards the subject and methods of filming, produce a relatively useful semblance of reality in documentary form. But it is so easy to mess up, and the reality you end up portraying may be totally different than what you ever expected your film to be about.

Documentaries have been around a long time, but two factors have changed in the past few years: Michael Moore and Digital Video.

Moore’s his own thing, and I do enjoy his films (even though Fahrenheit 911 shows a lot of earmarks of being rushed out the door), but they’re a different style of documentary, more Op-Ed pieces with video sidebars, couched together with really funny editing and a lot of moments of farce mixed in with claims of facts and situations and demanding/requesting people take action as a result of the statements in the film. This is a different breed of documentary than has often appeared before, and even the pre-Moore documentaries that do have a similar approach never got the worldwide attention his films do.

Digital Video, meanwhile, has dropped the cost of documentary shooting through the floor. I remember shooting with 16mm film (actual, spokes-in-a-line-of-kodak-film film) and the cost for me worked out, after development costs, to about $3 a minute. Compare that with an hour of Mini-DV tape which can record an hour for the same price. And you can re-use the tape if you screw up badly. And then, and this is critical, you can really really fuck with the final images really really easily.

Previously, manipulation of imagery on any scale beyond in-camera tricks or utilizing on-set manipulation to fake reality was prohibitively expensive. You could do it, but you had to have a lot of time, a lot of money and it was pretty noticable. That situation is no longer the case. You can change things on the fly, modify colors, fix up sound, and altogether make that sad little collection of 720×480 (or 1920×1080) frames do whatever the hell you want them to do.

So for my two little critical events, Moore and Digital Video, here are the outcomes.

People who are intent on deriding or castigating Moore’s assertions in his film have gone about it a number of ways. Some of them are simply to compare numbers or stated facts. Fine. But others have gone after whether his film is a “documentary” or not, where the edited sequences fall in real time, what full speeches the decontextualized statements come from, and the rest. And the thing is, almost no documentary can sustain that sort of attack because all documentaries edit. If you make editing an inherently evil process, then all documentaries are evil. And if you dislike choices made in the film about what to say, then you will easily find a pile of inconsistencies or omissions you don’t like. I contend that documentaries are no more or less flawed a medium than they ever were; the issue arising is laying an awful amount of load stress on a filmic architecture that can’t sustain it. Class dimissed.

Digital Video, however, is a much more intractable problem. Like I just said, the cost of digital video is so much cheaper than film ever was and digital video tools are now ubiquitous and amazingly powerful. Here’s some footage I shot out of a plane, which I then threw into a tool called “Deshaker” which is a plugin to a free tool called Virtualdub. It’s 12 megs and in Windows Media format. Sorry about that.

But the point, for people not wanting to download it, is that the original footage is shaky and a little messed up. There’s a small window in this footage showing it “after” I process it, where all my shaky camera work is gone. In other words, for free, I was able to eliminate camera shake, an ability the best-funded Hollywood blockbusters could not easily do through the majority of cinematic history. If you look for it, you can see shaking cameras everywhere in top-notch productions, because there was nothing that could be done. Now, for absolutely no cost, the image can be manipulated to take this problem out completely.

And there we have the lines I discuss.

We, filmmakers or people who just shoot video for fun, have at our disposal the ability to do almost anything we want to an image. Just a browse among Ryan Weber’s VFX Page shows how much you can do with hand-rigged effects combined with digital trickery.

So that’s the line. How much do you manipulate beyond even what editing does, and still consider your work truthful?

I’ll disclose that several things were done to the BBS Documentary digitially. Color correction occurred, fixing badly tinted scenes. Sound was punched up to make someone’s voice stand over the background. Boom mikes were digitally removed from scenes where they showed up in frame (it turns out the Canon XL-1’s viewfinder is inaccurate). I removed myself from reflections in windows and shiny surfaces. In one case, I removed someone’s stutter from their voice.

Do any of those cross lines? They don’t cross any of mine as I made the film. But they may cross yours.

My friends have done things in their films, and I have heard of things in the commentary tracks and message bases of other films, that I think cross my own lines. Adding items to shots. Indicating that two people didn’t eat together when they did. Indicating two people never met when they did. Having an actor play one part of an interviewee unwilling to be on camera. Omitting footage that makes concrete statements to prefer more vague ones.

But in our heated discussions, our back and forth, they don’t see crossed lines, don’t feel like they’ve hoodwinked anyone any more than I feel I’ve hoodwinked people by removing boom mikes. I’m so ready to stand on my own deceits and think that I’m doing the viewing audience a favor that I end up cornering myself into pointing at someone’s similar intent and crying “for shame” at them. That’s a crossed line too, I guess.

These are the things you think over, in your medium or sphere of choice. Little omissions, little constrictions or expansions, with the best of intentions, but the ever-painful situation of deciding whether or not you’ve gone too far.

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  1. Halfway through a rather lengthy response, I realized everything I was trying to say could be summed up with the phrase, “honest intentions.” Allow me to briefly explain. has several definitions for the word “documentary,” but I thought this one fit the best: “presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, as in a book or film.”

    The most ridiculously extreme example I can think of is this: let’s say I take a picture of a model car. I have documented that model in that exact space in time. Now let’s say I move the car a fraction of an inch and take another picture. I now have another document. Now let’s say I take thousands of photographs of that little car, moving it a little in between each picture, and I then run those pictures through a projector. Now I have stop motion animation. That stop motion film is not a documentary. It is not a factual representation of the events that occurred. If, let’s say, someone were to have mounted a camera and taped the entire process, then that film would be a documentary.

    Check out this link. It’s a guy playing drums … except that, he can’t play drums. It’s real footage, but It’s been edited together to portray something that didn’t happen. Is this still a documentary? I don’t think so.

    When it comes down to removing boom mics or correcting under/overexposed shots, for me those things fall under “honest intentions.” By removing your reflection from a shot, I don’t think you’re honestly changing the story or events that are portrayed in your documentary, and I don’t think that was your intention. However, when it comes to “creative” editing, or consciously making things appear in a manner different than they unfolded in real life … I think the line between a non-fiction and fiction becomes blurred.

  2. Andrew says:

    Ode to the philosophy of the documentary maker. It is much harder then it seems, as with news being balanced, fair, giving enough time to the right areas, the right questions, it’s all difficult. Editing down something to a manageable viewing size is difficult too, having done some of that kind of editing myself.

    Editing errors in filming is not a problem, since you have to edit it all anyway, and it has to provide a clear message – rubbish audio wouldn’t really make a watchable documentary.

    But it isn’t just filming and outputting, which is basically “live news” or similar filming (such of sports events) – documentaries need the editing, it is what makes them documentaries and not just “coverage” or “interviews”. 🙂 It needs to go somewhere, it’s easy for me to say when it is too much – editing questions, answers, and voiceovers so they are different from the truth, from facts, really.

    Neat thoughts on the issue Jason and Rob.

  3. IC says:

    Definitely some good points. Ryan Weber’s excellent stuff reminded me of the amusing “multiple jason test” you showed us at pilgrimage 2004.