Monday, February 14, 2011

Re-enactment and Specialty: A Fine Line

Part 2
          A dummy from a costume shop was outfitted in a black hoodie and wing pants.  Producer Martin Khodabakhshian used the dummy as a stand-in for Jordan Burnham, who had survived a suicide plunge from a ninth-floor window.
          “This was more of an experiment – I didn’t know if it would be cheesy or offensive,” Khodabakhshian recalled.
          He considered a drop of the dummy from the bedroom window, but decided the image would be “too much”.   Instead, the dummy was thrown from the hood of a car, and filmed as it plummeted downward, silhouetted against a white sky.

          Powerful images, for sure, but Khodabakhshian wondered if they might be too...something.  Uncertain, he consulted E:60’s management team.
          “It’s not just you deciding in the end this is right for what we’re doing,” Khodabakhshian said. “There’s nothing wrong with getting input from the subject, photo editors, bosses and peers.  They help you decide if you’ve gone too far or not far enough.”
          Producers walk a fine line on re-enactment and specialty B roll.
           E:60 executive producer Andy Tennant produced a piece in 2002 on a former Buffalo Bills running back, Doug Goodwin, who had received a heart transplant in Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. The story included re-enactments of the donor heart harvested in Boston by two surgeons, flown to New Jersey, and shuttled across the George Washington Bridge minutes before the bridge was closed.
          The re-enactment was so lifelike that some at ESPN thought Tennant had shot the story live.  Tennant ultimately added a ‘re-enactment’ font at the start of the sequence.
          “The way you shoot a re-enactment will determine how it’s accepted by viewers,” Tennant said. “If it’s shot to match the time of day, at live speed, off the shoulder, it will give the appearance that it’s live and the story is unfolding.
          “We discuss re-enactments often – how to do them – where to draw the line – what’s over the top and what’s acceptable.”
          The history of re-enactment is as old as the re-enactment of history.  So said an Oxford professor of metaphysics, R. G. Collingwood, who died in 1943. “History is the re-enactment of the past in the mind,” he wrote.
          Film re-enactment enjoyed a watershed moment in 1988 in documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’s award-winning “The Thin Blue Line”.  Morris’ re-enactment of the murder of a Dallas police officer, based on interviews, trial testimony and evidence, was so persuasive that it resulted in the over-turning of the conviction of a man sentenced to death.
          In the last decade, cable viewers grew accustomed to re-enactments in the programming of the History, Discovery and Sci-Fi channels.
          But a 2005 documentary film, “Mighty Times: The Children’s March” – about a 1963 civil rights protest by thousands of children in Birmingham, Ala. – was controversial for its use of re-enactment.  The filmmakers, Bobby Houston and Robert Hudson, recreated scenes with vintage cameras and distressed film stock to shoot more than 700 extras, trained dogs, period autos and fire engines at various locations in Southern California.  Real archival footage and re-enacted footage were woven together.  Shots from other cities were edited into the footage from Birmingham.
          Of “Mighty Times”, Errol Morris wrote in an essay for the New York Times: “Surely this is not a question about re-enactments.  It’s a question about fraud.  If someone presents a scene as a real event, and it has been produced after the fact, it’s a re-enactment that’s a deceptive practice.  It’s a false claim. It’s a lie.”
          Morris made a broader point:  “Critics argue that the use of re-enactments suggest a callous disregard on the part of a filmmaker for what is true. I don’t agree. Some re-enactments serve the truth, others subvert it. There is no mode of expression, no technique of production that will instantly produce truth or falsehood. There is no veritas lens – no lens that provides a “truthful” picture of events. There is cinéma vérité and kino pravda but no cinematic truth. The engine of uncovering truth is not some special lens or even the unadorned human eye; it is unadorned human reason.”
          “The brain is not a Reality-Recorder. There is no perfect replica of reality inside our brains...Many people believe they have found a way around the eccentricities of the brain by substituting a camera, but this only defers the problem. It does not solve it. Even photographs have to be perceived. They have to be seen. There is no shortcut around the Cartesian riddle of separating reality from the appearance of reality. There is no shortcut to reality. The brain is all we have.”
          E:60 producers have used re-enactment since the show’s inception in 2007.  Producer T. Sean Herbert, whose resume includes CBS News’ ‘60 Minutes’, had never shot a re-enactment in 20 years in network news before he came to ESPN.  The difference, Herbert noted, is because ESPN, as a sports network, does not have the same standards and practices as a news network. 
          “It’s always a delicate balance,” said Herbert. “If you’re asking your character to do what they normally do, that’s okay.  At ‘60 Minutes’ we could have a generic walking shot, or a shot behind the desk or typing at a keyboard – something the character had done a gazillion times and might do that day.
          “Conversely if you took someone to the middle of a desert, or to a concrete bunker – anything that didn’t happen or never happened and is unnatural – that might be pushing the boundaries. 
          “Re-creating is okay – you duplicate what they do, whereas, creating is asking them to do what they haven’t done before.  Staging is not organic, and in my mind it’s not real or authentic.”
          Herbert cited his piece last fall on Preston Plevretes, a college football player who nearly died from Second Impact Syndrome.  It included specialty shots of Plevretes as he held a football and wore his letterman’s jacket, and of his mother as she peered at a pre-injury photo of him.

          “Would they normally do those things – not necessarily,” Herbert said. “But I was in her foyer at her home so I was comfortable asking them – to have him wear the clothes he wore, and to have him hold a football he actually owns, and to have her at the bottom of a grand staircase holding the photo in her arms.”
          Producer Lisa Binns, who also worked for ’60 Minutes’, recalled her piece on Andre Lampkin, a Texas football player whose legs were amputated as a result of bacterial meningitis.  She re-enacted the night he became ill with POV shots of Lampkin in the shower, at the refrigerator, and falling down.

          “It falls in line with what this show tries to do – you might see something like that in a movie,” Binns said.  “As long as the viewer is aware that it’s not actual video and not altering or taking license with the facts.
          “A purist would say any re-creation is too much.  The rule of thumb at other networks was ‘oh yeah, that’s a great story, but how can you tell it visually?’ And if you couldn’t you might pass on the story.  But considering how the medium has evolved, if a story should be told, you should be able to use visual tools that are out there.
          “A producer might say to a character ‘show me what you were doing’ and somebody might perceive that as acting.  But a print reporter would do the same thing.  What’s wrong with asking them to emote and show what they did?  What’s the difference?”
          Producer David Salerno re-enacted a scene in his piece on running back Maurice Jones-Drew last fall.  He shot Jones-Drew under a showerhead, with water cascading over his head.

          “It wasn’t a special shower – he wasn’t pretending anything – he was in a contemplative mode,” Salerno said.  “It wasn’t overt – it didn’t feel emotionally over the top to me.  In the Burnham piece I wouldn’t have chosen to have the mother bang on the door.  I like to be more subtle and not as overt.”
          Neither re-enactment nor specialty shots are addressed in ESPN’s new Editorial Guidelines for Standards and Practices, although “the intention is to continually grow the documents - they may be something to consider at some point,” Senior Vice-President/Director of News Vince Doria wrote in an e-mail.
          “I’ve never been comfortable with re-creations in pieces that are clearly investigative, or examples of enterprise journalism,” Doria continued. “The credibility of that sort of work relies heavily on accurate reporting and hard facts. The interjection of actors re-creating a scene clearly can increase the dramatic impact of a piece, but too often, I think, may over-dramatize the facts in ways that don’t reflect accurately what actually occurred.”
          Re-enactments and specialty shots in the Burnham piece were scrutinized, Tennant said, because the principals acted them out, they looked real, and the subject – clinical depression – is sensitive.
          “Every story gets treated differently,” Tennant said. “This subject matter was very sensitive, but the producer argued that the family was comfortable with it.  At no point when we watched it did anybody question the integrity of the piece.”
          In the end, four of Khodabakhshian’s dummy shots were approved. The first three are in a ‘falling’ sequence that includes a shot of Burnham looking upward and opening his mouth as if to scream.  In the fourth and final, the dummy floats upward, to symbolize Burnham’s recovery.
          “To me it’s more about doing it tastefully cinematic and dramatically than just doing it to have video,” Khodabakhshian said. “I don’t think there are any rules beyond not offending the family or doing something they wouldn’t be on board with.”

posted by Steve Marantz, February 14, 2011

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