Tag Archives: fixed rig

ARMED AND UNARMED IN AMERICA

by Carol Nahra

Two British documentaries airing this week provide nuanced and balanced glimpses of a frightened American psyche. In Unarmed Black Male, screening on BBC Two’s This World strand on Wednesday, James Jones takes a 360° approach to telling the story of the trial of Stephen Rankin, a policeman accused of murdering a black teenager. The following night Channel 4’s Cutting Edge strand airs The Gun Shop, where director John Douglas brings a mini fixed rig to an American gun store. (The films are part of a noticeable uptick in British television programmes examining all things American in the run up to the November 9 election, which continues to grip and horrify Europe). I spoke to both directors as they were putting the finishing touches on their films.

For Jones, his focus on the Portsmouth Virginia shooting stemmed from his interest in the growth of police shootings in America documented by citizens. He was thinking of approaching it in a similar way to films he made in both North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where he employed an abundance of both curated and collected footage by ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. “I wanted to make a film about how technology is changing awareness of American police shootings,” he says.“In the past the police statement has been taken as gospel truth. So there was the idea that people being able to film it on mobile phones was transforming our perception of this issue.” Whilst scouting such stories, Jones came across details of William Chapman’s murder via the Guardian’s acclaimed interactive journalism project The Counted. In a brief early morning encounter outside a Walmart store in Virginia, police officer Rankin had shot and killed Chapman at close range. Extraordinarily enough in the US, Rankin was actually going on trial in the summer for first degree murder. Like many American trials, it would be filmed. Jones had his story.

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Stephen Rankin

In a documentary that never drags in the course of 90 minutes, Jones secures an enormous range of interviews from those caught up in in the highly emotionally charged events — including Rankin’s only interview to date. The interview came about through dogged persistence, by befriending both Rankin’s wife Dawn, who features prominently in the film, and then Rankin himself. Jones found that both were really wanting to tell their side of the story: “They felt very beaten up by the local media and it felt like she was almost like waiting for the call,” he says.  

The Rankin interview succeeds in instilling viewer empathy for a man on trial for his freedom after seemingly just doing his job (Rankin argued he fired in self defense after Chapman dislodged Rankin’s Taser). But soon the film offers up two astonishing interviews providing a very different perspective. First Rankin’s ex-wife describes his obsession with guns, including continuously discussing scenarios where he would discharge against an unarmed suspect. Then Rankin’s former boss, Ken King, a highly distinguished officer, is interviewed saying: “(Rankin)  was one of these guys who could cause a riot at a church social. He could go to any event and it would just escalate out of control.”  It’s jaw dropping, powerful testimony which is impossible to dismiss.

Jones said that neither Dawn nor Rankin were aware of these damning testimonials when he interviewed them, but he has since talked Dawn through it. “She’s going to hate some of it, she really will,” he admits. “But I think the thing is, on their own terms they come across as sympathetic. The film is much more fair and balanced for having them in it. And you get a sense that there are two families’ lives destroyed by this, whatever the details of the shooting.”

The film goes on to show the ripples of misery stemming from the Walmart shooting, following the quest of Chapman’s family for justice, as well as a mother from Kazakhstan whose inebriated unarmed son also was killed by Rankin, who was never charged.  To round out this story, Jones and his team managed the impressive feat of tracking down two of the anonymous jurors, one black and one white, who describe in detail some of the thoughts behind their deliberations, to which they each clearly brought their own personal experience to bear. “The white juror that we interviewed certainly had had experiences in her life that she told us about that shaped her worldview and her view of someone like William Chapman,” says Jones. “So that was key to the jury’s deliberations. And that’s quite scary that that would be the case.”

william-and-baby-gaby
Victim William Chapman

Indeed, like so many films about the US, Unarmed Black Male offers up a vision of dysfunctional race relations. What did Jones himself make of racial tensions?  “The divide felt very stark. As an English person who lives in London where you are surrounded by people from all over the world and there are very few ghettoised neighbourhoods, it’s all a kind of melting pot, going to the south of America was a culture shock. You’d go into neighbourhoods and you’re the only white person there. And you’re viewed with great suspicion at first because white people usually spell trouble in that neighbourhood. So I was shocked that the legacy of segregation was so visible.”

Coming as a stranger into a volatile story, Jones is delighted by just how many people agreed to take part. “We were really happy with the way the film turned out. I don’t know if it’s America, or the South, but everyone was willing to talk to us. And that just never happens. Usually you’ve got like a one in three chance of people agreeing, but for one reason or another they really did want to tell their story.”

In the end, the type of mobile phone footage that was the seed for this film instead becomes a grim drumbeat of misery. In between scenes from the Rankin storyline, Jones uses such video to catalogue the many police shootings of black victims which took place, even in the relatively short time span of the film. 

Made using very different techniques, The Gun Shop nonetheless sheds light on similar terrain, notably the current climate of fear in the US which contributes to a gun death rate at least ten times higher than the rest of the developed world.  Director John Douglas says that he and the development team at Rogan Productions were very keen to find a shop whichb flew in the face of British perceptions: “It felt like we should try and move away from very stereotypical views of gun shops and gun owners. So finding somewhere where the shop was based in a community but was diverse, had young and old, and wasn’t just the community you’d normally expect.”

gunshop-publicity-still-5a
Joel Fulton, the gun shop’s co-owner

The shop they settled on, in Battle Creek, Michigan has a shooting range and runs educational classes, in addition to a constant stream of varied customers. I wondered what the owners of the gun shop made of the fixed rig style of programming they were proposing – using mounted cameras operated remotely – which is unknown in the US?  “Yeah it is unknown,” Douglas agreed. “The sort of reactions we would get would be people would think it was like a reality show or Big Brother.  It took a while. We showed them some 24 Hours in A&E and some other things I’d worked on which were not rigged but not sensationalising and treated people with respect. So I think that helped.”

johndouglas
Director John Douglas in the edit

For the six day rig shoot they kitted out the shop with 12 cameras (three would shoot at any one time); Douglas directing from a backroom gallery. Assistant Producer Rebecca Coxon manned the shop floor, seeking consent and fitting customers with radio mics. In a week of follow up filming they delved more into some of the stories, which together paint a rich tapestry of reasons underlying why so many Americans are arming themselves.

Back in London, working with experienced fixed rig editor Sam Santana (see this Docs on Screens interview), Douglas was painstakingly working to make a film which took a nonjudgmental tone. “It would be really easy to make an anti gun film. Really easy,” says Douglas. “But the way that I’ve hoped we approached it in this documentary — and to some degree all documentaries — is always to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes a bit. Because clearly whether anti gun or pro gun there’s not all that anger and rhetoric because they’re bad people and they only want to hate one another and they want to ruin everyone else’s life. They’re doing it because they feel really passionate about the issue.”

Unarmed Black Male airs Wednesday, November 2nd at 9pm on BBC Two. The Gun Shop airs Thursday, November 3rd at 9pm on Channel 4.

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Fixed Rig Focus: The Editor

Factual editor Sam Santana has worked on an enormous range of British factual television in a career spanning 17 years, including the award-winning Katie: My Beautiful Face and The Murder Workers. The last five years his work has been dominated by a genre which itself has come to dominate the British TV landscape – the fixed rig. Taking the technology from the Big Brother House and applying it to the wider world, viewers have immersed themselves in the worlds of hospitals (One Born Ever Minute, 24 Hours in A&E), deep-sea fishing trawlers, police stations, model agencies, secondary schools and even an African tribe. Santana has worked on many of them, and been instrumental in helping train a new generation of editors through a training scheme run by The Garden Productions.

sam 4
Sam Santana

 

Santana’s latest programme, Inside Birmingham Children’s Hospital, is currently running on Channel 4. The series, made by fixed rig experts Dragonfly TV,  uses a wide range of filming techniques to supplement a 80 plus camera hospital rig, including mobile phone footage, still photography, single camera crews, as well as patient car footage using GoPros. The viewer feels like a privileged observer to the difficult and very inspirational journeys that families undergo when facing health crises, and I can’t recommend it enough as an example of riveting public service television. I spoke on the telephone to Sam about how his working life has changed with the advent of the fixed rig:

In a nut shell, what is the difference between editing from the rig and traditional factual editing?

Anything in fixed rig is completely different from anything in traditional factual editing. The main difference is there is no producer. You don’t produce your actuality because there is no producer or director filming – it’s a fixed camera. From a technical point of view, with traditional factual when a director brings you his or her rushes you can immediately look at them. You cannot do that with a rig. There’s quite a lot of groundwork you have to do before you can start looking at the material – organising the material, pulling the right microphones, syncing the cameras up. So from a technical point of view that is a big difference. Also, when you’re editing something that has been shot traditionally with a director on a single camera, you have an expectation at the beginning of editing a particular scene that you know how that scene is going to turn out, because the director has shot it with an idea. When you edit a scene that is shot on the rig, you have no idea how it is going to end, you don’t know if it’s going to deliver, and so really it’s in the lap of the editor to try to make it work in one way or another.

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Jack and parents from Ep 4 of Inside Birmingham Children’s Hospital

What do you enjoy most about editing from the rig?

Really what I enjoy most about it is how really organic is. How pure it is. Because of the fact that you have to go through all those hours and hours of material, not knowing how anything is going to turn out, not having any control over what people are going to say. Because people will forget the cameras are there. I’ve done probably over 40 episodes of 24 Hours in A & E, and Children’s Hospital, and more, and all the time people forget the camera. They may be quite self-aware at the beginning but they forget it. And I think that’s what makes it so pure, so different. And on top of that you have so many camera choices and so many angles. At times it feels that, although you are cutting real life, you feel you’re cutting drama.

What are the biggest challenges?

One of the biggest cons of rig documentary editing is the sheer volume of material and the fact that actually you need the luck of the draw. Because as I was saying before, when the director goes to film, he or she has met a family, a set of contributors. And that’s why they’ve decided to follow a story -because of the research they’ve done before. With most rigs, that research doesn’t happen. So you meet somebody there and then and you just embark on that mini journey with them. And you don’t know how things are going to end. And sometimes you have less choice of who you are going to feature in your programme and therefore that makes things more complicated. So a story that on paper may feel great because it looks big that happened on the rig, it may not then have the dramatic storytelling that you would like it to have.

For 24 Hours in A&E, you get all of your 24 hours of footage, and then, once you’ve looked through it,  producers have to go out and do those follow-up interviews and dig out those background stories, correct?

Yes, for example there’s a particular story in 24 Hours in A&E, one of the last ones I worked on, where you had this tiny story of a young lad who had broken his leg. The doctor thought he was faking it, he was like three or four years of age. So medically it had nothing, you know? It was just a tiny thing. But then because we thought he was funny and quirky on the rig, we then went and interviewed the grandmother who brought him, and she gave an incredible interview that explained to you so many different things and the unconditional love which she had. It transformed the rig material. And a story that was only seven minutes in terms of screen time completely kidnapped the film I think. 

How much do you think your fixed rig experience is informing jobs you do that aren’t fixed rig?

I think whenever you go back to traditional observational documentary making there are things that you have to untrain yourself about. Because the rig provides you with an amazing amount of multicamera footage to cut to. It’s easier to create dramatic pauses on a rig than on single camera. And so you have to sort of make sure that when you go back to single camera observational documentary making that you forget the rig quickly. Because if you don’t you won’t get it done.

Where is the fixed rig genre heading?

I’m hoping that the rig will provide us a way in the future to blend itself to the old techniques. You know that if someone is talking to you, you can use their voice to take you to the rig and use the rig as an example of what that person is saying. At the moment the rig is used as a bed of shots and actuality, which is unadulterated by anyone else’s voices apart from the interview. It will be interesting to see where the rig takes us in the future.


Catch up with Inside Birmingham Children’s Hospital on All Four. For more on this topic see Fixed Rig Focus: The Exec

 

 

From Grierson to Gogglebox: Teaching the Factual Spectrum

I’m just coming up for air after a bout of intensive lecturing. I teach a few different classes for American university students in London, but my favourite, semester after semester, is my documentaries class. It is here, in a deliberately darkened classroom near Holborn, that I share the highlights of twenty years immersed in the world of British documentary. We cover the whole factual spectrum, from independent feature documentaries to heavily formatted reality, and everything in between.

Usually, my students arrive having been exposed to roughly two kinds of factual fare: worthy subject based documentaries, like Ken Burns’ marathon series that their parents watch, or the far-from-real world of the Real Housewives or Kardashians. If I’m lucky these days, and frequently I am thanks to Netflix, they will have streamed a few American documentary features like Blackfish or Girl Model. They know Sherlock, and Doctor Who but have never heard of Louis Theroux or the term “fixed rig“. They are a blank slate when it comes to British factual, and I have fifteen weeks to make my mark.

I have to begin by introducing them to something else they have never heard of: Public Service Broadcasting. For while the BBC is in a perilous state at the moment, with no reprieve in sight, the PSB tradition it stems from is crucial to understanding just how the Brits got so great at making documentaries. I wrote my entire MA thesis on the topic. It’s important.

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John Grierson

In class, after we look at the notion of public service broadcasting, and how it was extended with the creation of Channel 4 in the 80s (also, sadly, under threat), we turn to John Grierson, who coined the term documentary, defining it as the “creative of treatment of actuality”. We have a look at Grierson’s most famous sequence in his seminal film Night Mail, which shows the postal train rhythmically chugging north to Scotland, to words by W.H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten:

We learn just how Grierson came to make propaganda films for the British government, by dipping into Britain Through A Lens: The Documentary Film Mob, made by the excellent Lambent Productions. It includes a clip from Grierson’s box office hit Drifters (1929), about the British herring trade. While I recognize I need to tread softly and not show Drifters in its entire, silent, black and white glory, my students were gratifyingly engrossed when I showed a modern take on deep sea fishing, Channel 4’s recent The Catch, a fixed rig series which was mesmerizing from start to finish.

After our crash course in PSB and Grierson, we look more in depth at contemporary examples of Grierson’s creative treatment of actuality, in its many guises. We explore the topic with the help of a specially curated Flipboard Magazine; I often ask students to use articles in it as a starting point for further research. We also hear from a number of leading filmmakers – Kim Longinotto, Brian Hill and Christopher Hird have all been recent guest lecturers.

As students gear up to make their own three minute film for a final project, it’s critical for them to see how a simple construct can make a powerful film. Marc Isaac’s beautifully made first film Lift – shot entirely in the elevator of a tower block in East London – is a great example.

the lift
Lift

While it would be a joy to spend our entire time looking at the work of talented British independent documentary makers, my charges are about to enter the real world and many are hoping for a career in television. So a large chunk of our time is spent looking at the world of formats, with the occasional help of the always entertaining Gogglebox and Charlie Brooker. My students are surprised to learn just how many of the American shows they watch are British formats made by British production companies. But our focus is not so much on this crossover as on those reality formats in the UK that traditionally haven’t had a hope in hell of appearing on mainstream US television. In the hopes of fostering transatlantic fertilisation, I spend a lot of time exploring the intersection of public service and reality, looking at how some UK production companies are doing both, in really interesting ways. For more on that, stay tuned…

Fixed Rig Focus: The Exec

24 Hours in Police Custody
24 Hours in Police Custody

I know way more about the Luton police station than I ever thought I would. I know that sometimes Detective Sergeants have to have impassioned telephone debates with the Crown Prosecution Service (which are always, in a very British way, extremely polite, but nonetheless called a “huge fight” afterwards). I know that if they succeed in getting the charge they are arguing for, such as a GBH upped to Attempted Murder, that they are quite likely to follow up the phone call with a silly dance and quiet gloating to every colleague they come across for the next ten minutes. I know that desks are often a mess, that who makes the tea has little to do with rank, and that no one really wants the responsibility of fetching abandoned hamsters from a house where carnage has occurred. I know all this because I never miss an episode of the utterly outstanding 24 Hours in Police Custody. The Channel 4 series is the latest in a rapidly growing crop of “fixed rig” television programs, which have, quite simply, transformed my television viewing in the last few years. They have taken me behind the doors of real life British communities, placing me front and centre of dramatic, transformative moments – and all of the even more compelling quiet moments in between.

Simply put, the fixed rig takes the technology of the Big Brother house – multiple cameras operated remotely – and transplants it to the real world. In the experienced hands of some of the most talented factual film-makers in the world, magic then occurs. What is most compelling about every fixed rig series I have seen, is watching human interactions occurring in as natural a setting as possible – that is, without the intrusive presence of a camera crew. Yes, those being observed know that cameras are there, but filmed 24 hours a day for weeks on end, they very quickly cease to play up to the camera. “Fly on the wall” is an overused, much criticised term, but it is perhaps most appropriate here. An enormous amount of behind the scenes labour goes into bringing about the quietest of scenes.

The original real world fixed rig series was The Family, which I wrote about after it debuted in 2008. Over a mackerel lunch at a Shoreditch Vietnamese restaurant with independent producers Magnus Temple and Nick Curwin, then Channel 4 Commissioning Editor for Documentaries Simon Dickson hatched the plan for the Family. He commissioned Temple and Curwin, then of Firefly Productions, to make an eight hour series on a single family. Twenty one cameras filmed them for four months, audiences were hooked, and a new genre was launched.

Five years on, and hundreds of hours of fixed rig programming later, I feel the time has come to look at how this way of filming has infiltrated British broadcasting – and is having an effect globally. I recently interviewed Nick Curwin, who has spent much of the last half decade overseeing a raft of award winning series, from The Family to One Born Every Minute. In 2010 he founded The Garden Productions with Magnus Temple, where they have make 24 Hours in A & E, which has sold to more than 100 territories around the world, and 24 Hours in Police Custody, which first aired in September.

Nick Curwin
Nick Curwin

Did you ever think you would be here, just a few years later, seeing such a change in British television?

NC: I don’t know how many rig shows are in production today – there seems a lot – so that seemed unimaginable. On the one hand, I think the main people who were having that conversation at the time really felt, right from the get go that we were on to something. There was a fantastic belief that this was going to be amazing. We were very very excited. It’s brilliant that it has become a prolific idea but I don’t think we would have anticipated it at the time.
When I first started making factual television, I thought if you could somehow or other instead of revisiting things that had happened in the past, if you could throw a net over actuality circumstances and show them actually happening wouldn’t that be a fantastic thing? So the rig in a way is a way of doing that. It was all about, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to film these things as they actually happened. But you’d need this vast array of cameras to do it and you’d need to be in the right place. So that’s where we ended up with the Family because it was Simon’s suggestion to say why don’t we use that in a family home.

What are the biggest difficulties in making a fixed rig series?
NC: Now it is difficult for different reasons. If we’re doing 24 Hours in Police Custody, to find a police force which allows you to put 70 odd cameras on the walls of their police station is very difficult. Likewise 24 Hours in A & E you say to a hospital what you want to do and they say ‘you’ve got to be kidding!’. So that’s very difficult and it’s very hard to win that access. Although we now have that track record – if they can talk to people we’ve worked before that helps us. With The Family we didn’t have that track record, we didn’t really know what it was going to be like, so it was hard to articulate that. And of course it’s an incredibly difficult private situation, a family home, so they’d have to in a way be very brave to let us do it.

But in a way one of the hardest things from our point of view was not just persuading a family to let us do it but finding the right family. Because in a way we always thought we were sort of making a drama rather than a documentary, but the people in it were also the writers. We didn’t tell them what to do so they were the writers, the producers and the stars. So they were the providers of the content in every possible way. So you had to think really cleverly about what sort of person would be able to provide the best possible content.

The editing is key to all these programs, isn’t it?
NC: Of course. We have been blessed with fantastic editors. But that’s very difficult as well — it’s another challenge we face. Because we’re making thirty episodes of 24 hours in A & E at the moment and 20 hours of Police Custody. That’s 50 hours and the editing is key. So trying to get fantastic editors to do that is very difficult. But we have this magic bullet for that which is an editor training scheme. We have brilliant editors in charge and then we hire inexperienced young editors and we use is as a training opportunity and train them in the edit.

24 Hours in Police Custody has some amazing scenes. What have been the particular challenges?

NC: Finding Luton was a huge challenge. It took something in the order of a year to get accesss to a police station to make that so quite obviously an extended period of development. I suppose the other challenge we face with that production is it’s not purely a rigged show – it’s a hybrid. It’s quite a big rig – it’s not as big as 24 Hours in A & E but it’s more than three times the rig for The Family and nearly double the rig for One Born Every Minute. But we also have three or four roving camera crews who are filming in a more traditional way, out and about. We were nervous about putting together rig and non rig material. It’s worked fine in the edit but we didn’t know it would at the time. And our previous experience with trying to do that hasn’t worked very well. In the first series of The Family we filmed loads and loads of them out and about and didn’t use a frame of it because it felt really odd to put the two things together. So that was a challenge, seeing whether that would work. But with 24 Hours in Police Custody, because the two things dovetail so perfectly together – when we have a cop interviewing a suspect in the police station and at the same time other cops are searching that suspect’s house, and they come back with something that is useful to the interrogation – then it just has to go together. So that really helps us I think.

24 Hours in A&E
24 Hours in A&E

What is it about the rig that yields such compelling material?

NC: One of the thing that you get from the rig that you probably can’t replicate unless you are using a rig is the fact that you are cutting around multiple cameras. And the effect that that gives you is something that is a bit more like drama. So you are much more connected emotionally with what is going on and you are observing it much more closely. And you can’t do that with a factual program in a scene of actuality unless you either have more than one camera or ask people to do it again and film as you do with actors. But you can’t ask people to do it again in a factual program because obviously it is not real anymore and you’ve got no authenticity. So you have to have lots of cameras.

The rig partly gives you the ability to be everywhere – so we’re in multiple places in a police station at once, likewise in a hospital. And that enables you in turn to, for example, make a show out of just one 24 hour period where if you had one camera you couldn’t. But it also dramatically affects the quality of the scene so in the interview rooms in 24 Hours in Police Custody, we have four cameras in there and also they are remotely controlled, so we are getting different kinds of shots. And so a scene edited from that footage is always going to be much more engrossing than a scene from one camera.