And reality shows are… edited!!! Fake News at 11!

18 04 2008

In a news story that should surprise absolutely no one, the Hollywood Reporter notes that this past week’s premiere of Discovery Channel‘s “Deadliest Catch” is in hot water (insert comment on terrible jokes here) for editing two pieces of film together!!

Well, of course, it’s not that simple, and the details lead us into a complex discussion of how editorial manipulation works. The show, which is called a “documentary” by the Channel and not a “reality show” (we’re trying to parse the difference here, without success), edited two shots of a storm wave and a flooded room that were shot on different days, to give the illusion that they happened together. As the Reporter explains:

Mammoth waves smash an Alaskan crab fishing boat called the Wizard, sending large swells crashing over its deck. Inside, alarmed crew members discover that their stateroom is flooding with incoming seawater.The sequence suggests that the fishermen are in danger of sinking as a violent tempest tosses huge waves against the boat.

But here’s the not-so-deadliest catch:

The boat flooded in September.

The huge storm waves were from October.

Several years ago, an ex-student of mine sent me an e-mail talking about a job he was working on — one of the MTV Real World seasons. In shocked tones he talked about a scene in which two of the contestants traded insults while using workout equipment in a gym. The thing was — the two of them had been filmed on different days. They had never been in the gym together.

Frankly, I was shocked that he was shocked (he was an editing student, after all), but the way in which footage can be manipulated for effect is quite powerful and, sometimes, surprising.

It’s an axiom that one of the things we editors do, is to create realities for the audience. We manipulate them in order to understand the feelings that the story needs to engender in them. There’s nothing terrible or evil about this manipulation usually. It’s what we need to do in order to best tell the story. (This implies that we have a story that we need to tell — though that’s a different post, one I’ll get to when we talk about The Lean Forward Moment).

In a documentary, of course, we have a responsibility to not lie to the audience about what it is they’re seeing, but the word “lie” is sometimes a tricky thing to pinpoint. We’re making choices as soon as we point the camera in one direction as opposed to another. We’re making choices as soon as we show someone’s reaction to another person’s actions or statements, and we are further refining that decision when we choose to show the reaction immediately after the line, or wait twelve more frames. We manipulate the audience as soon as we put a line of dialog or a voice over over one particular shot, as opposed to another.

Is there anyone out there who honestly believes that any filmmaking can be without choices or manipulation? If so, let me know — I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

In the case of “Deadliest Catch” the implication (as the article mentions) is that the waves caused the flooding in the stateroom. Here would be my question to the producers — was the flood caused by a storm, or was it caused by some idiot forgetting to shut a valve (for instance)? Was the water in the stateroom put there because of a storm? Because, according to the news story, that was the implication that was clear from the edit, correct?

You can see where I’m going with this, though it certainly is a slippery slope. Among other things, one of questions that we should ask ourselves when thinking about this puzzle is “How close is the implication to the truth?” What is the storytelling manipulation and how great is it? (As a side note, I’ve done expert witness testimony about a similar topic — how editing creates implied feelings and perceived facts) At the core of this, for me, is the question of just how much and what sort of choices are made in the editing.

Editing has the power to make us feel. No doubt about that. Anyone who has edited has seen that. And that is both the power and the responsibility that we have.

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6 responses

19 04 2008
Mike Barber

There is a word for it: verisimilitude.

This is such an important element to documentary and “reality” filmmaking that Barry Hampe dedicates an entire chapter to it in his book “Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos.”

You are right that it is a slippery slope. There are many shades of grey between what reflects reality and was is pure fabrication. Michael Moore, for example, has been criticized for going over the line a number of times.

(Documentary) filmmakers always have an agenda, just as journalists do — to tell a story. We all know pure objectivity in the art is a myth, but IMHO I think we do need to hold ourselves to a certain standard of integrity. What standard should that be? Should we consider ourselves, for intents and purposes, journalists for the sake of ethics?

19 04 2008
AndrewK

If the reporter thinks this is bad I wonder what he would say if he knew how dialogue is cut up on a regular basis (and I don’t just mean in reality shows).

I agree that, as documentary filmmakers, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard and not take advantage of the trust that our audience, and documentary subjects, put in us. As others have said we make subjective choices from the get go, but I think we can stay “true to the spirit of the moment”. We can manipulate w/o being dishonest. For example, if I’m editing an interview w/Bob and he says, “I love my wife, my dog, and my dad, but I hate my boss” I think it’s fair game to edit what Bob says down to “I love my dad” to illustrate Bob’s relationship w/his dad. He stated he loves his dad, but not in a succinct quote. That edit is true to the spirit, just not the letter, of what Bob said. On the other hand I think editing him so he says, “I love my boss” is not true to the spirit of what Bob said and it violates the trust between the filmmaker and the audience as well as the trust between the filmmaker and Bob.

-Andrew

19 04 2008
jaaed

Of course, in fiction two scenes such as those described are regularly filmed with a massive gap in the middle, and a regular audience is none-the-wiser even if entire scenes which were originally scripted are missing from the final film. In documentary rushes I’ve seen subjects starting to direct from in front of the camera and grow accostomed to their ‘role’ and the image they may be presenting. Some people see themselves as FICTION or DOCUMENTARY makers, others as FILM – generally all with an idea of the overall impression they want to leave their audience with.

About a year ago there was a rather large thing setting off a ‘truth in TV’ scandal in the UK, wherein a promo was shown at the BBC which seemed to include the Queen storming off out of a photoshoot in a huff. Within 24 hours it was BIG news that in fact she’d been in a bad mood which had lifted as soon as the shoot started, and that the clips had been edited out of order to create sensationalism.

This is more or less the topic of my dissertation for my MA in the NFTS. Thanks for the US-based example.

Judith

8 05 2008
Photos For The Imperfect World « H o l l y n - w o o d (Norman, that is)

[…] For The Imperfect World 8 05 2008 Last month, I talked about how a few years ago, a student of mine graduated and went to work for THE REAL WORLD and how he […]

9 05 2008
Norman

I’d be interested in seeing that dissertation when it’s done Judith! Really.

9 05 2008
James Bicknell

I’m pleased to see that we here in England are not the only ones baking under the spotlight of editorial fakery. I am a TV editor in London.

The ‘Truth in TV Scandal’ that Judith refers to was/is called Crowngate, and it continues to cast a shadow over every edit job I am involved in. It was this scandal back in August 2007 that provoked me to start my own blog on the editing process.

I have just posted on my discoveries of some small text buried in the credits of an episode of Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares USA, which stated that some of the footage may have been played out of sequence.

This type of diclaimer is something I have never seen before, not in the UK anyway. Is this common practice in America? Any feedback on this issue with a US perspective would be most appreciated.

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