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Palm Springs Festival – Part 3: The Video Editing Workshop and Moving Forward and other Issues with the Child Assault Documentary I have been shooting

I spent an important day away from the photography side of things to do a Video Editing course with Fletcher Murray.  The course itself was educational and I got to ground myself better in the important post-prod side of shooting video.  I have been undertaking a doccie last couple of years concerning the front line services, including counsellors, forensic doctors and police department involved with the dark issue of dealing with the deluge of child assault cases in the main township of Cape Town called Khayelitsha where as many as 1 in 3 children will suffer some form of sexual abuse by the time they are 18.

I have shot a fair amount of footage – mainly talking heads though – but have been unable thus far to move it forward.  One problem has been technical, falling a bit flat at the first edit stage partly.  In the past pre-digital era, editing was more formulaic but these days, editing is increasingly one of the most important part of the doccie production process and knowledge of it and technical know-how of prem pro or final cut is essential even if I am not going to edit the final cut myself ultimately.  It is not just techinical though – knowing what to cut and what to keep – even when I know my story intimately has been difficult for me.

Taking the course was important and will allow me to begin to move the doccie forward again.  But it is not just on the technical side where I had issues:

For starters, while being a strong and important topic to tackle, in practice there is not much leeway of what can be shown.  I was hoping to depict the gravity of what was being dealt with and essentially the ‘unseen horror’ (which could never be shown directly for obvious reasons) through the emotions and reactions of those working with the issue.  But what has happened essentially given the monumental task of achieving access through South African Governmental departments and of course the police force is that access is very controlled and restrictive and what essentially I have is a whole load of talking heads.

Professionals are also hardened to the issue and it is very hard to capture the emotionality of the subject and therefore the ‘unseen horror’ with people who have to protect themselves and form a professional barrier between their personal feelings and the terrible nature of what they deal with on a day to day basis.  And it is especially hard when the access is limited to a series of interviews.

I also realised a while back and even at the Palm Springs Photo Festival where I was pulled in so many directions – from photography to time lapse and then back to video editing – that I have very much spread myself a bit thin professionally and something had to give.  I see myself as a photographer first – but also know that I got into it as a photojournalist with a love and training in essentially telling linear stories.  The days for doing that in photography are essentially gone or going but in documentaries the possibilties are there and very much relevant.  I certainly feel that I will possibly end up in this field one day – but for now I have had to put the documentary on the back burner as I decide what to do and how to get the essential B-Roll that will make or break the doccie.  I have ideas and with more ideas about editing and the principles behind it will certainly help.

The Thing about On-screen Interviews…

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I have done a few interviews in my time – usually to get the information for a written piece or for quotes to go with a photo story but never on film for a doccie.

Turns out that – as a rookie – setting up can be as daunting for the interviewer as it is for the interviewee.  The whole process transforms completely and to be honest – works against everything that helps make for a free-flowing sound interview.  For any broadcast journo this is all of course obvious and part and parcel of the job – but not being used to the process it is interesting to quickly go over a few of the issues I faced:

The first thing that changes is the ease with which I was used to communicating with any subject – with video – even the basic canon 5d mk II set up – you suddenly create a whole host of barriers to simple fluid communication and the interview becomes a slave very much to the technology that sits between you.

For starters there are a couple of glaring continuous 800W lights on the subject and extra film crew hovering just out of shot that makes the subject and interviewer less at ease – Mostly though – the prob with on-camera interviews are things like the fact that you suddenly have to ask the subject to paraphrase questions continuously (as I’ve said before the piece will focus on first person narrative and talking heads.. my voice won’t be on the film).

This then means that you have to stop and start sometimes which breaks the ease and flow of natural conversation.  Being constantly still and quiet on the set as well so audio doesn’t pick up any extraneous noise is also an issue for someone like me who fidgets and moves a lot naturally.

Simply put – the problem with on-film interviews is that the process itself gets so much in the way.  For a piece that is all about examining the emotions of those working on the front line of child assault cases, it is proving to be an issue and I am looking to work round this.  Ultimately, I think sacrificing some technical polish from interviews for more comfort and better on-screen reactions from the interviewees is def worth it.

In this case, it was lucky therefore that our subject – Dr Genine Josias – one of the forensic doctors involved in the project has a great presence and is natural and calm (more so than I am!) in front of the camera.  This made the process more relaxed and much easier to handle.  My film crew are also much at ease and helped also put Genine in a good space.

Two old tricks that came in handy – common to broadcast interviewers – that work very well is:

1/ The pregnant pause:  After an answer always give the subject time to add more.  Never ask the next question immediately.  This technique is especially useful with professionals who are used to the interview process. It is usually during these simulated moments of discomfort that the best and most unique answers can be attained.

2/ Get to chat and connect with the subject beforehand.  This greatly helps to put them at ease.  In my case, I have years of contact with many of the subjects on the film so this is not a problem.  But certainly, with people that I don’t know so much, it is worth sitting down and having informal chats with them before the whole circus begins.

Our next interview situation will be with front line service counsellors and we have the added dimension that a Xhosa interpreter will be used.

Success with the tv interview process all comes down to putting the interviewee at ease in my humble opinion.  The more time I have doing this, I am sure the better it will get.  Whatever though – I do feel much more at ease behind the camera and can’t wait to get back to where I belong!

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