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

Canadian historian John Goldi explains what happened at the most famous train wreck site in the world, outside Frere, South Africa, where Winston Churchill was captured after a battle in November 1899.

John Goldi, the director of "The Great Anglo-Boer War: the Canadian Experience," is a Canadian historian with a special passion for exploring historic sites. He has walked in the footsteps of Rommel and Montgomery at El Alamein, in Egypt, and Libya, discovered the bones of Franklin's starving men in Canada's high arctic, trod where Jesus stumbled in old Jerusalem, followed where Alexander the Great marched in central Turkey, and explored the paths were Speke, Burton, Grant and Stanley once trekked in Zanzibar and Central Africa.

John Goldi read Modern History for his Hon.Ba. at the University of Toronto, did graduate work in Education towards his Ba.Ed. at MacArthur College, in Kingston, ON, and did his Masters work in History at Queen's University in Kingston, ON. He taught history for 13 years in East Africa, Ontario, and the North West Territories, before combining his profession (history), with his hobby (photography) to begin a new career writing, directing, shooting, and editing film documentaries for television in 1979. His work has won him 117 international film and television awards.

John Goldi has done contract work to research, write, and produce numerous history programs and TV spots for Parks Canada, including ones on: "The Battle of the Windmill," "Fort Wellington," "Fort Malden," "Fort George," and "The Trent-Severn Waterway: A Route Through the Ages." The latter, half-hour 16mm film, is probably Parks Canada's most successful video ever, having sold many thousands of copies out of its museum store at Peterborough, ON.

"The Great Anglo-Boer War: The Canadian Experience" is John Goldi's largest history project to date. He gleaned his research from over two hundred Boer War books he amassed for this project, and sifted through thousands of photos and prints, to log some 6,650 pictures he logged as possibly useful for his program. To round out his research, he spent two months in South Africa - with Producer Joan Goldi - and travelled 11,000 km by car to hundreds of Anglo-Boer War locations, some 83 of which are used in the final program.

Because he combines skills as a historian/expert on this project, with that of being the director and cameraman***, John Goldi csc, has been able to draw out powerful performances from the 15 experts he features in this program and get them to deliver enthusiastically directly into the camera lens. It is strong testimony to his power as a historian and filmmaker that, after seeing a rough cut of his original 2 hour program, History Television contracted him to increase the show length, first to three, and then later again, to four hours.

** John Goldi csc.

The Canadian Society of Cinematographers, the professional organization of the film and television cameramen of Canada, awarded him its top honour, the 'csc' , "for outstanding achievement as a cinematographer.")

Three characteristics have defined how television has traditionally used experts (subject authorities), in documentary programs.

1- Experts are Shot Inside
Virtually all "experts" featured in television documentaries are photographed inside - a studio, an office, a home - and are usually, just sitting in chairs, talking - the proverbial "armchair experts." This has been done traditionally because it is the easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to "shoot" an expert. It's also the best way to make quiet recordings. At it's worst it has led to the interminable "talking heads" television, when long interviews are used to wallpaper and drag out a show which does not have enough picture material for the story it wants to tell - when you don't have a picture, a location, or a relevant scene, just go back to the expert in his chair...

2 - Experts are Shot "Off-axis"
Documentary producers have always shot experts "off-axis", looking away from the camera, talking to someone else in the room who never appears and is never identified. This strange custom, slavishly followed by virtually every documentary producer, originated long ago from news shows, when a host or interviewer engaged the expert in a conversation and the camera cut back and forth between two people who appear on camera facing each other in chairs. Quite properly, the camera played the part of an eavesdropper, watching as two people talked "off-axis" to each other. Being an eavesdropper, the camera was ignored by both. And they both ignored the camera, pretending it - and by extension, the audience - didn't exist. The viewer - merely a voyeur in this interview - felt shunted aside, and only marginally involved. (Old style documentary shows like "60 Minutes" still do this. The viewer is made to feel privileged to "overhear" a celebrity interviewer like Mike Wallace talking to a subject who also studiously ignores him/her.)

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
Directors, sent to "shoot an interview", have rarely themselves, been the subject experts, and so - since they are mostly out of the "information loop", whether it is medicine, architecture, or military - as a defensive mechanism, they have the experts talk on and on, until they have wrung him/her out. They keep the camera rolling to make sure they get "enough coverage" for the producer, and the editor later on. Often, since they are not themselves knowledgeable on the subject, it turns out later, they didn't ask the right questions or focus on the right material.

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.

Celebrity Hosts:
Some producers picked celebrity hosts to talk straight to the camera, hoping that a Hollywood actor or media star would attract attention to a program which they feared would otherwise be passed over as just another forgetable documentary. None of these hosts ever has subject area credibility, just star power. So a Hollywood comedian might suddenly become transformed into "the expert" host or voice for a serious war documentary. Aside from the "celebrity wrapping" the program that followed was the traditional fare.

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.

Our Experts Feature the Historic Sites: Historian Pieter de Jager stands in front of a large stone farmhouse that was blown up and burned down during the Anglo-Boer War by General Walter Kitchener's men which included the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles. He asks us to picture the scene, "You can imagine, the women and children coming from it, as the soldiers ordered them to leave the house immediately."
They Just Don't Get It: The Smithsonian used television directors who clearly were not subject experts themselves, and were overawed by the Civil War experts they had to direct. So they could not "guide," let alone "tame" their experts into giving useful on-camera performances.

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 ....

Feedback: #3: Toronto, ON - "I thought it was terrific. How it was put together. Lots of these other documentaries have far too much gobbledegook, too much stuff that means nothing in the narration. The way you tell the story is great. I never buy this stuff off TV, but I said I gotta have this show. How do I get it?" (On The Great Anglo-Boer War:The Canadian Experience")

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

Three British host-driven shows broke new ground in documentary television programming. Instead of importing a celebrity as host - and having him memorize the script and try to sound convincing - British producers turned the experts themselves into hosts. These historians became "celebrities" by virtue of their enthusiasm in conveying their expert knowledge in simple ways directly to television audiences. They dumped wholesale the "off axis" convention in documentaries. They showed clearly how engaging television can be when a host goes on location, talks directly to the audience, and explains the historic site to them.

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:

Our Experts Bring the Past Alive: Illustrating the best techniques of Romer, Wood, and Burke, historian Johan Hattingh on the Modder River at Paardeberg, shows us where Boer women and children were dug into the river bank during a 10 day bombardment by British guns, (Feb. 18 - 27, 1900), and points to the place where hundreds of dead Boer horses and oxen were dragged at night and dumped into the river.
(From the "Great Anglo-Boer War: the Canadian Experience" a four hour Television special produced by Goldi Productions for History Television.)
1 - The Expert Went on Location - leaving the chair, the studio and living room far behind.
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.

Our Experts are on Location: Historian John Snyman points out the gap between two rocks, where a friend told him his grandfather, a Boer, lay during the Battle of Spion Kop (Jan. 24, 1900), sniping at the British on the hilltop near the white cross, which marks the position of the main trench, and became known as "An Acre of Massacre."
1 - Our experts are shot on location
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.

Our Experts Talk to the Camera: Demonstrating our preferred technique for handling experts - on location and talking into to the camera lens - Madame Spitfire on the Chilkoot Trail, in Skagway, Alaska, shows clearly why talking directly to the camera is so appealing to TV viewers.
2 - Our experts talk to the camera/audience
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.

Our Experts Bring History to Life: Historian John Goldi brings the slaughterhouse of Magersfontein alive for TV audiences, by pointing to where the Boers were hiding in trenches in the middle distance, well out from the foot of Magersfontein Hill, and explaining the massacre where hundreds of British Tommies were cut down in a surprise ambush at dawn on Dec. 15, 1899.
In our internationally acclaimed Canadian heritage television series, "Outdoor Adventure Canada," we directed the hundreds of experts and interviewees, to look deliberately into the lens as they talked for the camera. Since there was a fellow enthusiast "expert" behind the camera, they responded magnificently with wonderfully warm and engaging interview clips.

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.

Our Experts do Site Demonstrations: Historian Johan Hattingh, standing in the midst of the battlefield at Paardeberg, shows the audience a bullet riddled remnant of the battle still lying, where, 100 years before, Canadians won international fame for bravery and pluck.
3 - Our expert takes part in an
"Interactive Module"
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.

Our Experts Only Talk to the Camera/Viewer: Grietjie Erasmus - speaking directly to the camera - points to marks on her family house made by British canon fire during the Battle of Biddulphsberg in May 1900. She tells the audience that, during the battle, her great-grandfather was so terrified that he refused to come outside and had to be removed bodily from the house to safety.
Our preferred technique produces an "interactive module" which is process and product at the same time.

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.

Essentials of an Interactive Module
An interactive module:
- is
a set piece, about 30 - 40 seconds in length, with a beginning, a middle and an end

Our Experts Interact with Historic Sites: From the foot of the Anglo-Boer War's Woman's Memorial in Bloemfontein, South Africa, Historian Sannette Greyvenstein, talks movingly - straight to the camera - about why the Boers revered Emily Hobhouse "a British lady, in fact an enemy of our people," the "Angel of Love," and points to the cairn where her ashes were placed in 1926 by the Afrikaner people, as a supreme show of respect and honour for this unique Englishwoman.

- it is not a "happening" but a created piece, deliberately constructed on site. (By it's very nature it cannot be cobbled together in the editing room from location interview footage. Likewise it cannot be shot by hired freelance cameramen "doing interviews" or shooting footage from a list. And because one never knows what the location will look like beforehand, you cannot write it out or design the performance until you get to the site. This style of shooting demands that the producer/expert/director/cameraman must be on location.)

- it must be an "interactive" creative collaboration between the TV program director and the subject expert. The program director suggests the module he wants and makes sure content, language, structure, and pacing, are boiled down into the essential message that is both, true to the story, and one appealing to and suitable for TV audiences. The performing subject expert suggests amendments to conform to his/her expertise.

Our Experts Bring People to Life: Explaining the first modern war that targeted civilians, Historian Pieter de Jager tells the story of "Old Mrs. Otto" who refused to leave her house (background) even though she was told she would be shot if she did not. Pieter says she stood defiantly in her doorway (behind), pulled her dress aside and shouted, "Go ahead. Shoot me. I've a great heart. You can't miss it." Her home was burned; this exact replica was rebuilt after the war.

- it must be "interactive" between the subject expert/host and the site, to bring the site alive and make sure the audience can almost see the events that took place on that location. It must be a clear and deliberate demonstration of the historic site. Just standing - or walking - on a location and talking on in general terms about loosely related subjects - or giving a vague tour - is not allowed. If the experts do not clearly explain the site on which they are standing, why bother bringing them - and the audience - there?

- it must seek to establish a strong "interactive" relationship between the subject expert/host and the audience. The whole purpose of an interactive module is, to let the expert interpret the site/location for the audience and guide the eye of the viewer so he/she can visualize the historic event that took place within the picture frame he/she is seeing. And the language and subject matter must always be conformed to what an average viewer would be interested in knowing about. Nothing less, and certainly never more...

- the interactive module must be "active" and always involve deliberate subject movement or demonstration on or around the site

there must be enthusiasm and conviction in the delivery. Our director always "pumps up" our experts before a performance and encourages them to be passionate in what they have to say. We refuse to subject our viewers to experts - whatever their credentials - who are unenthusiastic, dull, or plodding.

- the clip must be brief and punchy. Droning on by an expert - however eminent - is strictly forbidden.

- the performance must always be delivered directly towards the camera/audience and only towards the camera/audience. The expert talking to the director or producer behind the camera - deliberately avoiding eye contact with the camera/audience - is regarded as an unwarranted snub of the very people for whom we are making the program - the television viewer.

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.)

The Perfect Expert-as-Host: Historian Pam McFadden, standing in the "eye of the storm", by the cairn where General Penn-Symons was fatally shot, looks directly at the camera, asking the audience to imagine the scene as the British general fell, while trying to rally his men to renew the attack against the withering Boer fire sweeping down from the top of Talana Hill (behind her), during the first battle of the Great Anglo-Boer War.
In effect the "interactive module" is designed to be its own set piece, its own picture. In fact, it is counter-productive to cover up what is essentially the best kind of engaging "on-site teaching" or "demonstration" television sequence.

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.

c Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996 & 2000