Boer War Page 46
Our Anglo-Boer War Experts
|Filmmaking Behind the Scenes: Using Experts - Every producer must decide how he/she will use subject experts in a documentary; use some or none; use them indoors or out? Below a primer on how experts have been used by others and why we broke with convention and developed innovative techniques to bring out the best in our experts.|
|Historian Experts on Television: A New Approach
Three characteristics have defined how television has traditionally used experts (subject authorities), in documentary programs.
1- Experts are Shot Inside
2 - Experts are Shot "Off-axis"
For some reason - probably because the interviewer/subject expert and the cameraman are never the same person and stand side by side - in documentaries where no interviewer is ever shown, this "off-axis" convention was continued by producers, even though the reason for using it had totally disappeared. So experts are now commonly shown talking to someone who is never identified, "into space" from which no one ever appears. The audience wonders, just who is the expert talking to? And why do I have to look at the side of his/her face all the time?
3 - Experts Talk On and On - And the Editors go Snip, Snip, Snip
What's worse, because they feel out of their depth, perhaps in awe of the "expert" - perhaps even a celebrity - they have come to interview, they can't control the interview and can't prevent the enthusiastic, but rambling expert, taking the bit in his/her mouth and running off track. "Tape is cheap" is the usual watchword and for "protection" he shoots miles of footage. Traditionally, it is the editor, months later, whose task it is to try to piece together interview clips that make sense out of what was "collected" by others in the field.
The result can be disjointed programs which discomfit a viewer when interviews jump abruptly or the story line jerks inexplicably to a new subject.
"THE EXPERTS" : NEW DIRECTIONS:
But virtually all "star hosts" stayed in a studio. After all, they were the celebrity, the centre of attention, not the story, not the location, not the program. Besides, no producer could afford to pay a star to "go on location" for a documentary. The rare ones who did, never "used the location" because they could only afford do the simplest stand up of a memorized speech in the briefest sort of "Kilroy was here" kind of clip. Instead of sitting in a chair in a studio, a very expensive Peter Ustinoff, was quickly propped up stiffly - if amiably - in front of an Italian church to deliver the speech he had memorized in London, then whisked off to the next location.
Ken Burns: Against the Stream? Many consider the wonderfully crafted 1990 American Civil War series by Ken Burns, as charting new directions in documentary. He refused to join the rush of other documentarians to recruit a celebrity host to hype his show. He decided to break with convention by choosing to improve the program itself, not just the "wrapping."
He introduced the wholesale use of "voices from the past," which he used as major building blocks in his shows. He also introduced modular film construction, building his program with nuggets of stories - instead of run-on narrative - and sign posted the changes with black and white titles/slates borrowed from silent films.
He refused to wallpaper his sound track with synthesizer music like everyone else, using instead, wonderfully measured period acoustic music to set off his story lines.
But Burns stayed very traditional in other ways. His huge and epic 11 hour show on the American Civil War was made virtually entirely indoors, where his camera shot all the pictures, his pianist recorded the sound track, and his voices recorded their lines. And he chose to use the old style "living room" setting for his experts; and they all talked off-axis to an unseen director. And like the vast majority of producers of history documentaries, he chose - with rare "artistic" exceptions - to avoid using real historic locations. Like the vast majority of history documentarians he focused on the archival record to the virtual exclusion of actual historic locations.
New Directions - to a Dead End!: Following Burns, but not his example - it probably believed he had made an "arts program," not a history documentary on the Civil War - the Smithsonian Institution, in its own huge 1992 "Great Battles of the Civil War" series, deliberately set out to improve on two of Burns' traditional stylistic conventions, first, by going to actual historic locations, and secondly, by taking their experts out of the house and into the field. They get a plus for that. Unfortunately, the innovation was still-born.
Their experts - enormously knowledgeable American historians like Edwin Bearss - lacking proper guidance from non-expert directors - were allowed to stand there and talk on and on about all sorts of abstruse military details that no television audience could ever have the slightest interest in.
The editors putting the shows together later, clearly felt helpless at trying to find something useful in the miles of recorded interviews so they just let them play on and on.
The Smithsonian thought it had taken a step in the right direction just by taking the expert on location, but lacking useful direction, he still talked on and on, and on. It was tedious; it was boring ....
What's worse, the experts on location were never asked to explain the sites they were standing on. This left the audience - as the experts rattled on and on - looking over the historian's shoulders wondering what happened back there anyway? They never found out, and so many wonderful television opportunities were wasted.....
So, fantastic experts were stood on fantastic historic locations but neither were ever used properly and no interplay was ever set up between the two. Countless other documentaries since have carried on and compounded their errors believing that having the expert on location was what it was all about.....
Most television producers and directors have missed the essential point governing experts and locations - it is not about taking the expert on location, you should be taking the audience!
The conclusion; Stay-at-home Ken Burns did far better with his "old-style" expert interviews - and created far more riveting television - with wonderful chair bound experts like Shelby Foote, shot indoors, than the Smithsonian directors managed to produce on real historic locations. Badly directed experts, in unused locations, can never win audiences away from good experts shot in chairs, even if they are indoors....
But where the Smithsonian was failing ..... others were succeeding.....
Simply Among the Best: The British Show the Way
Historian John Romer travelled to ancient sites in the Middle East during his series on the Ancient World, and talks straight to the audience in his enthusiastic one-man talk show. Essentially he is still the old teacher in front of the blackboard, though his backdrop is more viewer friendly to television. He mostly uses the location as a backdrop as he stands and talks on and on, waving his hands about, too often not focusing on anything in particular on the site. At his best, he shows and tells, as he walks and points out some significant artifact or inscription.
Historian Michael Wood, another super enthusiast with a gift for television communication, in his programs on the ancient world ("In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great", "In the Footsteps of the Trojan War"), "works with the site" more often, and better than Romer. Since his show, like Romer's, is basically a one-man talk show, in which he has to cover a lot of ground all by himself, he too, is often forced to use the location as a "disengaged" backdrop, one tangentially at best, connected to what he is saying. But TV viewers no doubt prefer his enthusiastic location work - where history really happened - to the room or studio where most other chair-bound, experts are found, droning on."Connections" superstar and historian James Burke is a master at television communication and probably the best host/expert/presenter ever on documentary television. He never allows the audience to become bored and uses historic locations marvelously.
The "expert-as-host" technique created by these historians offered major improvements to the traditional documentary form where footage is just cobbled together from network libraries and attached to a narration line perhaps book-ended with a celebrity host in a studio. And they brought in millions of new viewers to see that television history when tied to a location by an enthusiastic expert, can be interesting and exciting entertainment.Their innovative contributions:
They used the television camera's power to go to wonderful and exotic locations that a viewer would otherwise never see. They showed that real historic sites are as mesmerizing as period footage and can be used to create wonderfully communicative television. 2 - The Expert Talks Directly to the Camera and the Viewer - not into space.
History hosts, Romer, Wood, and Burke, talk enthusiastically to the camera, directly to the viewer, not to some disembodied "off-axis" producer or director. It connects them powerfully and personally with the audience. The audience knows that "They are there for me and talking only to me." 3 - The Expert Talks on Topic - is focused instead of rambling on.
Since they are all subject experts as well - and the directors - they know exactly what they want to say, and never stray off topic on location. They can avoid having to "make sense of the interview" later in the editing room. Their shows hang together much better than traditional documentaries cobbled together by editors trying to do the best with what the director sent them. No anguished cries of "Why didn't he ask him that?," "Why didn't they shoot that?" in their editing rooms. But: Overall these historians produced great television as well as great history. If they had one failing it is that one man had to carry an entire one hour show by himself. No variations of voices, or experts, to alter the tempo of presentation. Inevitably, this led to a "sameness" in the tonality of the programming and sometimes things dragged, and some viewers strayed...
The Experts: Our Approach
Instead of using one gifted expert as a host (like Burke, Romer and Wood), we decided to turn all our experts into compelling host/presenters, letting each in turn become the host of his/her particular section of the program. And instead of having the experts we used "hold forth" indoors (like other producers were doing) we took our experts to historic locations to get them to "bring the past alive" in the places where the events took place.
We have always chosen to shoot the experts in our productions - like historians Hattingh and Snyman (above and left), and Madame Spitfire (below), "on location."
Though it is enormously time consuming, far more expensive, and car, airplane and people noise interfere with the recording sessions, we believe it makes for a far better television show when the expert is actually on site explaining where and how a historic event took place.
We believe that television audiences are immediately more interested in an outdoor "reality-based", "show and tell" approach, than just another living room "news type" interview program.
We believe that the most engaging conversations take place when you are looking into the eyes, (e.g. left) of the person who is talking, not at the side or back of his/her head. We believe television audiences feel the same way.
It is why, in all our documentary shows over the past twenty years - whether television, film, corporate, or instructional - we have deliberately defied conventional wisdom and had all our "experts" talk directly into the camera, not "off-axis" as everyone else was doing. And we did it even though none of these shows had hosts of any kind, but were traditional documentaries.As long ago as 1981 in "Dene Family" (1st Prize, American Indian Film Festival, San Francisco) we had our interview subject look directly into the camera while talking. We continued the practice again in 1986 in our first one-hour television documentary "My Land is My Life" (Golden Sheaf, Yorkton, & Bronze Medal, behind a National Geographic Silver, and PBS Hawaii Gold, at the Houston Texas International Television Festival).
This technique has only been possible because our cameraman has been, not only the director, but the subject expert as well, on all the programs we have ever shot over the past 24 years. So performers come to regard - and talk to - the camera eye as his eye as he enthusiastically cajoles them into performing into the lens.
We believe this is one of the main reasons why the show won such outstanding viewer response and charmed awards jurors all over the United States into awarding this documentary series an unheard of 80 major international awards - including 60 Gold, Silver and Bronze medals) - to seventeen different programs, in a period of a year and a half.
Again in the "Anglo-Boer War," a traditional documentary, which is not host-driven, we avoided the "missing interviewer" convention, but chose to connect all our experts powerfully and directly to the TV audience. Rather than having an expert talk "off-axis," we let him/her become the host for their segment, in the style of Romer, Wood, and Burke, and engage the audience directly, by talking straight into the camera at our director/cameraman.
Since we have often seen experts poorly utilized on location, we have developed the "interactive module technique," essentially a template on how to capitalize on working with experts on location.
The "interactive module" is designed to compress the most interesting information, show the best locations, and get the expert's peak performance, and thereby create a "one-of" performance designed to keep the average viewer engaged.
We believe that whenever shooting experts on location, the focus should always be - on the audience.
Deliberately departing from the conventional practice - of having the expert simply stand there and talk on and on, and sorting out the interview later in the editing room - we produce an "interactive module" on site, in which the expert's peak performance is woven into the location.
Since our director/cameraman (historian John Goldi) is a subject expert himself, he is able to direct the experts and tell them exactly what he would like him/her to say and do.
It is "interactive" because it is a creation - on site - between the director/expert and the host/expert. Each contributes 50% of the informational content; the director controls 100% of the language, the delivery, and the performance.
It also is/must be, interactive between the expert/host and the location.
Finally, its aim is always to set up an interactive relationship between the expert/host and the audience, by side-stepping the usual off-camera interviewer convention.
It is a "module" because it is a single performance. What ends up on screen is all there is, the beginning, middle, and end; there are no outs or left-overs, so commonly created in the traditional style "expert" interviews.
It is not a documentary style technique - "you just walk and talk and we'll follow you with the camera" creating miles of footage from which the editor has to find the "good parts" later - but a more scripted "Hollywood" feature film style of shooting because we only shoot "good parts" which are put into the program. There are never any "outs" left on the cutting room floor.
Because the interactive module is a crafted performance, and designed and deliberately created to display a feature of a historic site, it is rarely covered with "cut-away" pictures. ("Cut-aways" were traditionally designed to "escape" from unending interview faces, to more interesting pictures.)
Left, a superb exemplar of our preferred "expert-as-host" technique, Talana Boer War Museum Curator, historian and author, Pam McFadden, of Dundee, South Africa, is given free rein to rise to her best as a host, offering television audiences a punchy enthusiastic performance by an energetic, motivated, and authoritative personality, delivering good information in simple language, and weaving the whole thing into a wonderful historic location.