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Mixed Media: Swapping Formats is Business as Usual in Sci-Docs

By Brian Kubiak

From <em>The Urban Elephant</em>.

You dream of a unique opening shot for your documentary—say, an elephant giving birth in a safari park. Initially it sounds great, but then reality sets in: How possible is it to have a film crew on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week for maybe two months—on any budget?

That’s the challenge Allison Argo, producer of The Urban Elephant, had to face. She eventually decided to shoot the birth scene on Mini-DV and the rest of the doc on Super-16mm film. Mixing media, as it has come to be known, has become a regular practice in documentary-making and is successfully used by science producers faced with creating new stories with fresh viewpoints, covering remote locations and events, and maximizing the number of shoot days while working under tight budgets. Producers are challenged with reviewing scientific concepts and practices—from archeology to neuroscience to zoology—and translating them into accessible, entertaining documentaries for the general public. As many producers of historical documentaries have used multi-media materials of archive prints and film, contemporary science producers are more frequently and successfully melding stock and original media of regular and Super-16mm film, Beta SP, VHS, Digital Beta, Mini-DV, DV CAM, print- and computer-generated graphics into the documentary.

In Argo’s case, she sent colleague Malvina Martin with a DV camera, shot list and the go-ahead to give one of the elephant keepers a crash course in shooting. After months of waiting, Phoebe, the expectant mother, gave birth to a bull calf named George, and the keepers captured a shot for the story about the plight of elephants taken from the wild and transported to a man-made world.

During editing, Argo found that the “grittiness” of the DV coverage worked for the sequence, and so she did very little to modify it. “The image of the newborn calf is so extraordinary it transcends any format,” Argo maintains. “The only disappointment was that because I wanted to use the birth as the tease for the entire film, I was stuck with a shaky, not-great-quality image for my title shot.” In the end, it didn’t matter: The Urban Elephant won two national Emmy Awards.

“If it is advancing the story and if people feel they are participating in its life, mixing media will work,” says Jason Williams of JWM Productions. “Nowadays, you can throw everything at the screen, including the kitchen sink.” Williams has produced numerous science documentaries and series, including Journey of a Lifetime, Beating Time and The First Human. In most, he has shot straight on Super-16mm film with archive supplements, but has found appropriate times to deviate from the norm in order to create a highly stylized look, more material with which to cut, and more pacing materials that help make dry educational sequences more exciting. With film, he has blurred images by shooting at very slow speeds and distorted them early in the process by putting such objects as plastic coffee wrappers into the film transfer chamber.

In The First Human, a story that explains the theories and science behind the discoveries of the remains of our earliest ancestors, William mixed VHS-C-originated elements, high-end Digi-Beta origination, film stock, computer graphics and some costly animation material of an early bipedal creature, which he then re-shot off the screen with a low-end Mini-DV camera. By mixing such imagery, producers can more effectively illustrate ideas and leave a lasting impression on the viewer.

Williams believes that there’s no reason not to mix and match everything—except in cases when a specific medium interrupts the story and calls attention to itself unintentionally. “If you are doing a lyrical piece about animal behavior in which it is really important what happens with the animal, then chopping between elements can cause a problem,” he cites as an example. “The audience will be pulled in and out of different points of view, and this is something they’re not going to believe.”

Ideally, when you plan to mix media, you can separate film shots and edit them in a sequence, with video shots or other media in order to improve continuity. But what if you have shot all the film you can afford and do not get what you need for a sequence? Do you drop the sequence, or risk breaching visual continuity?

Rubin-Tarrant Productions, producers of the acclaimed series Stealing Time: The New Science of Aging, found themselves in this predicament when producing Animals Behaving Badly. Due to bad weather and squirrels actually behaving badly, they did not fully cover an elaborate outdoor jungle gym setup.

“At this point, I was very nervous,” producer John Rubin recalls. “We needed more footage, and we had to come up with it. With hesitancy—as it was not intended—I turned to DV CAM.” With minimal costs, they sent production coordinator Kurt Tondorf into the field with the camera for an additional 12 partial days over a six-week period, being careful to continue shooting in a 16x9 format to match the Super 16mm film. As all the producers have noted, if they had not done this in production, they would have had to “anamorphatize” the images in post-production, a process that can be timely, costly and frustrating. Also, any footage shot in 16x9 format is more easily transferred to High Definition.

Producing partner Anne Tarrant oversaw the edit of the sequence and found that the intercutting of DV CAM and film needed to be more aesthetically continuous and better blended. So, they ran the sequence through color correction and added a film-like graininess to the DV CAM footage. “The process took two full days to make work,” Tarrant recalls.

Not all DV CAM footage needed to blend with the film, however. “When we were shooting the animals’ perspectives, we consistently shot video, as it was a more believable situation, and left it looking that way in the edit,” Tarrant says. “With DV CAM, Rubin-Tarrant also found a practical, cost-efficient way to shoot a time-lapse of traffic and capture rare events such as a raccoon entering a garage through a cat door and eating out of a cat bowl. For the latter scene, the filmmakers set up the DV CAM, rolled tape and left the room; it took about ten hours of tape to get the shot.

To some extent all producers have relied on serendipity, but planning to mix media from the beginning can help you work better under a range of budgets and create visual consistency throughout your story. In the conservation documentary Troubled Waters, a story about the Everglades ecosystem, producer Holly Barden Stadtler of Dream Catcher Films initially approached production with a strong interest in mixing. With a modest budget and a goal of shooting three endangered species, interviews, the host, and the vastness of the Everglades, Stadtler considered all original footage needs. “I started determining what was the most critical material and what the particular medium brought to the table,” she explains.

She decided to shoot all wildlife and landscape shots on Super-16mm, primary interviews on Digital Beta, and pick-ups and special access shots on Mini-DV. She also used a video Hi-8 camera with a motion detector, hoping to capture a Florida panther in the wild, but had no such luck. To address continuity concerns, Stadtler found a single camera operator who could shoot both film and video and knew which tape stock or film worked best with which camera.

On Troubled Waters, Stadtler took the Mini-DV camera into several sensitive habitats for people-animal sequences, including visits to a woodstork colony and a panther den. “With film equipment, these places would have been difficult or impossible to go to, and if you stand back and look at it, the viewer would rather have unique access, however you get it,” she explains. In the editing room, Stadtler found that mixing media worked quite well; there were several montage sequences, however, where she decided against it, since the videotape shots, despite post-production processing, stood out too much from the film.

As producers continue to explore new subject matter, they will find a time and place within the documentary to mix media. Science producers willing to mix will have access to more original and stock footage. If it is important to match a sequence visually—there will be situations when that is not desired—then the producer can access the colorist’s eyes and the tools available to create a more seamless look. “Programming is extraordinarily permissive these days,” Argo observes. “And it affords the filmmaker new and wonderful freedoms. One should explore and utilize every format available and in any configuration imaginable.”


Brian Kubiak is a writer and multi-media producer based in Gaithersburg, Maryland.