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Story and Image Part 1
By Ron Steinman

 

I want to say something about style, execution and presentation for the documentary film. Technique is sometimes the easiest part of the film. Especially given that many of those involved in filmmaking quickly become adept at using the new software that regularly appears. For that reason many who make independent fiction films spend more time honing the look and feel of the film, the color and sound, the cuts, dissolves and effects, better than one would think considering an often paucity of money. That is not the case for the non-fiction film. Too often the documentary filmmaker seems content to get the story finished and into the marketplace, rather than spend additional time in making the picture crisp, the sound audible and the effects, well, effective.

The documentary film may be the only medium where a compelling story will matter more than, finally, how the film looks. The filmmaker can shoot his story with a low-end camera using poor stock, `cheap lenses and barely workable microphones. The film can come across as if shot by an amateur. It may even have weak or suspect reporting, and shoddy writing. But if the story is compelling and the characters strong, those two elements alone invariably help the filmmaker overcome the problem of something that looks like home video or, in the old days, 8 millimeter film.

The culprit is cable where postproduction work is almost non-existent. Postproduction costs money. Cable works on small budgets and slender margins. Using almost video exclusively, the final product for air looks thin, seems to have no depth, and often has a weird patina or shine. If the producer, whether as individual or with production house, is to make a profit, there is not much money for what an executive for a cable network once described to me as “the niceties of film.” He went on to say, “ the audience more often than not does not know good from bad in a documentary anyway, so why should we care?” I thanked him for his insight and exited his office as quickly as I could.

In television when I worked in film, we took pride in how the piece looked when it played on the air. It mattered to us in television that the audience deserved the best quality we could give it. Connecting with the audience was important then, and it should be now. Giving the viewer a palatable image, however strong, emotional and daring, was uppermost in our minds. It still should be. Sadly, it is not. To make something better does not interfere with creativity. It in itself becomes a creative act. It enhances the possibility of getting your message across to the viewer in a compelling manner. As a producer, you need the time to give your documentary that extra something that will link the story you are telling to the person seeing it for the first time. But there is a problem, especially in cable. Each day that a film lingers beyond the usual three months it is in production, means there is less profit for the company making it. Most cable documentaries do not hold quality as a goal. That would be asking too much in that highly competitive world.

In making an independent narrative film, you usually have nothing but time. Typically, there is not much money to support your endeavor and there is no scheduler for a cable network breathing down your back to finish your project so it can have a slot on the schedule. But when you are a producer for hire, you have no choice but to conform to the will of your masters. Producing documentaries or hybrids for cable is a world of its own. I will soon tackle that in another column.

It is a shame that some documentary filmmakers prove lazy when it comes to giving their work the best quality possible. I understand too well how costly it is to enhance the color and sound. Money is always a major consideration making an independent film of any kind. But if you cannot hear what the characters are saying, why see the film? If the images are fuzzy, hazy, and lack color, if the blacks and whites and grays all seem as if they are one, the audience will react in kind and turn from your work. I do not include the world of video art, often subsumed under the rubric of the avant-garde, an area filled with all the tricks of editing and shooting, but none of the soul of a meaningful film. Just because inexpensive cameras are available, and more recently easy to learn desktop editing, does not mean I have to sit through an often disjointed and rambling discourse that uses diverse and mismatched elements and images that are only clear in the mind of its creator. I leave that criticism, which I hope will be fierce, to art critics who seem better able to interpret what I can only call self-indulgent juvenile drivel.

We never forgive sub par standards for a non-fiction writer, a novelist or a poet. They, too, often create something so powerful that we find it their work impossible to ignore. Yet, these other artists are strongly demeaned for their efforts if in the end what they create does not meet the standards of worthy art. I exclude painting or sculpture because these are inanimate arts and the stories they tell are self-contained by the restraints of physical movement. Why give film this leeway?

Without a compelling story, there will be no documentary film. I know that sounds simplistic. Some filmmakers compose their documentary in the field where they shoot everything in sight and then hope they can find the films essence in the cutting room. The other method is to have a plan, to know your story as well as you can before you shoot a frame of film. Be prepared for the unexpected, though because it sometimes changes everything. Even with a reasonably defined story, the unexpected can and should be welcome. However, do not become mesmerized with your film because of a compelling story, a powerful interview or a one-time image or set of images unique to that film.

Finally, the audience, and often the reviewer, sometimes ignores many of the elements in a film that deserve criticism, good or bad. When critics and the audience gloss over the making of a film, they do a disservice to that film and all future films. Form and content must mesh. They must compliment each other. If they do not, we will soon forget the piece as a whole, deny the art, and rarely remember the message.

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At NBC News for 35 years, Ron Steinman was bureau chief in Saigon, Hong Kong and London, was a senior producer on Today and wrote and produced for Sunday Today. At ABC News Productions, he produced and wrote documentaries for A&E, TLC, Discovery, Lifetime and the History Channel. He has a Peabody, a National Headliner award, a National Press Club award, a International Documentary Festival Gold Camera Award, two American Women in Radio & Television awards and has been nominated for five Emmy's. He is a partner in Douglas/Steinman Productions, whose latest documentary, "Luboml: My Heart Remembers," aired on PBS' WLIW/21 and the History Channel in Israel, April 29, 2003. He is the author of, "The Soldiers 'Story", "Women in Vietnam," and most recently, "Inside Television's First War: A Saigon  Journal," University of Missouri Press, 2002.

 

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