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Sounding the Board

By Story Consultant Fernanda Rossi, The Documentary Doctor

(Reading time: 5:22 minutes – 766 words)

Doctor coming to town: Fernanda Rossi will be teaching her story structure workshop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, February 6th. All info at www.documentarydoctor.com.

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Can sound shape a film? Does it affect structure? Sound issues rarely come up in conversation in a consultation unless it’s in the form of a disclaimer, such as “We haven’t mixed the film yet,” or “There is that wind noise but the sound designer said he can tone it down.”

I was pleasantly surprised when one person opened my eyes, or more precisely my ears, to how sound can shape a story. A couple of years ago I was at the New York premiere of Billy, The Kid, by Jennifer Venditti, with whom I collaborated. Sitting right behind me was the sound designer, Damian Volpe. We were chatting away when he pointed out that because only the main character, Billy, was “miked” and everybody else was picked up with a boom, Billy was the “sound” protagonist, which was very much in tune with the point of view of the film: the convoluted and isolated world of an outcast teenager with an undefined behavioral condition—or was it just being a teenager?

Since then I have always pondered how much sound can shape or focus a story or storyline. And the more I thought about it during consultations, the more I was convinced that the answer is: much more than we actually take advantage of.

Sound design is a very subtle and flexible tool in filmmaking. According to Wikipedia, “Sound design and editing are the manipulation of audio elements to achieve a desired effect.” Not surprisingly, the entry is tagged as incomplete and unbalanced. I say not surprisingly, because sound design is a neglected art. Few budget for it in spite of its importance.

That desired effect that a filmmaker should achieve is the creation of a coherent and consistent sound world. In My Perestroika, sound designers Barbara Park and Peter Levin, from Splash Studios, enhanced and unified newsreels and archival footage with library sounds, location recordings, and foley. The most purist vérité filmmakers would cringe, but, eventually, even they would have to weigh whether the gaps in sound make the “real world” the filmmaker is trying to capture more unreal.

Just as the Director of Photography/Cameraperson creates a consistent color palette during color correction in post, in order to keep the film’s visuals from jumping all over the place, the Sound Designer should create a smooth audio track, allowing the audience sink into the story without being distracted by technical inconsistencies—unless that’s the desired effect, to remind the audience that this is a mediated experience.

These days the eye is much more forgiving to visual inconsistencies than the ear is to sonic ones. Audiences don’t notice or are not bothered by a shaky camera or a burn-out shot as long as the audio keeps them engaged. On the other hand, most people can’t tell that it was the permanent audio jumps and the discontinuities in background noise, to name two common audio oversights, that took them out of the story. Instead, they might attempt to attribute their disengagement to something else, to a scene or character that was not interesting.

The same goes for me in a session. Is the apparent structural problem just a sound imperfection that will be resolved? Or am I relying too much on what the sound will do? Here are some sound questions with an ear to shaping the story: Who in the cast are you going to mike, and how? Everybody with portables? Expensive but doable. Just main characters? Boom everybody? This can be disruptive: your characters might be self-conscious with a massive dragonfly hovering over their heads. Do you have room-tone? How about getting background sound in a separate channel so it doesn’t sound like the character is talking in a fish tank?

Once in post, the most common issues to consider are the following: is everybody audible? Are there sounds of cars or jackhammers or wind that need to be taken out? If it is impossible to remove them, can they be “completed,” continued till the end of the shot, so as to not disrupt the background? Can you add other sounds to complement the scene? Maybe not, because you’re a vérité purist; or maybe you can have a lot of foreign sounds, because you’re an experimental documentarian. And then there are the narration and music questions to consider, which are a whole other discussion on their own.

All stories get enriched by good sound design and sound designers can work magic, but you have to give them the rabbit and the hat first.

Conclusion: In a story noise becomes sound when we give it meaning.

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Sounding the Board Case Study: Musings about Sound
Article by Fernanda Rossi | edited by Marcia Scott | photo by Tania Retchisky
published by Documentary Educational Resources

Fernanda Rossi, 2006-2010. All rights reserved. This article can be reprinted in its entirety for educational purposes only, as long as no charges of any kind are made. Partial reproductions or modifications to the original format are strictly prohibited.)

Posted on January 20th, 2010 in Doc Doctor |

Interviewees with Character

By Story Consultant Fernanda Rossi, The Documentary Doctor

(Reading time: 5:10 minutes – 610 words)

Doctor coming to town: Fernanda Rossi will be teaching her trailer workshop in Toronto, Canada, January 16 and both her story structure workshop in San Juan, Puerto Rico, February 7th. All info at www.documentarydoctor.com.

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Kryssa Schemmerling, producer and director of Our Hawaii, a documentary about the veteran surfers of Rockaway, New York, had interviewees … a lot of them, as she put it. Or were they characters? Or a mix of both? Our Hawaii was becoming our problem because too many interesting people were crowding the screen, making them unidentifiable and consequently flattening the story.
 
In documentaries people become characters when they participate in a dramatic arc or are explored in a multilayered fashion; hosts, when they lead the narrative; interviewees, when they convey information in a consistent form; and vox populi (or “man on the street”), when they make a short, random, and often anonymous appearance to share their opinion. Other living and non-living forms can be characters too, from penguins to water, but I have yet to see them as interviewees.
 
Being the complex living forms that we are, and since our speech is highly developed, it’s hard to distinguish absolutely between characters and interviewees. Kryssa, her editor Eve, and I could have spent a lovely day debating whether the surfers were characters or interviewees, whether this film was a portrait or essay, and whether it could be made into a supposedly more marketable character-driven story, all the while flaunting imaginary cigars in the air and adjusting invisible glasses on our noses. I can’t afford to indulge in such debates during a session. The issue at hand was very clear: there was a group of people in the film whom we needed to relate to and we weren’t.
 
First, we needed to be able to identify them. I suggested analyzing their predominant speech patterns and content to restrict their appearances on camera to distinctive functions.
 
We started with surfer and real estate broker James, who tended to speak in generalities. This trait made him a good candidate to be a disguised host and thus lead or wrap up scenes. Using him anywhere else would throw the scene out of balance. He also shared anecdotes and personal stories, but these we had to forgo to avoid diluting his function.
 
John, who not coincidentally always talked right after James when together, loved specifics and would re-enact situations with his body language. He was perfect to expand on whatever topic James had already introduced to the scene.
 
Bobby was interviewed separately and was the philosopher of the group. He liked to go deeper into the reasons for their choices. His personal stories were detailed, poignant, and sometimes hilarious, but they threatened to become a documentary within the documentary. Once Kryssa and Eve agreed that Bobby’s function would be to deepen the scenes, they chose to keep all his insights and only a few of the more important personal stories. How to chose which ones? They would keep only those which informed us about the historical moment, such as avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War by faking psychosis, and would stay away from personal details unrelated to history or surfing.
 
And so we proceeded with each single person in the entire documentary throughout the day. Of course there was more to the film than surfers talking: amazing historical footage, some vérité scenes, and incredible poetic montages were all nicely woven together by the expert hands of editor Eve.
 
In the course of the session, by thinking about what Kryssa had and how it was functioning, instead of what it could have been in a parallel world of filmmaking, we could transform each surfer, along with his wife, from a talking head to a storyteller.

Conclusion: A head that talks is not a talking head: it is a speech waiting to be shaped into a story.

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Interviwees with Character Case Study: Our Hawaii by Kryssa Schemmerling
Article by Fernanda Rossi | edited by Marcia Scott | photo by Tania Retchisky
published by Documentary Educational Resources

Fernanda Rossi, 2006-2009. All rights reserved. This article can be reprinted in its entirety for educational purposes only, as long as no charges of any kind are made. Partial reproductions or modifications to the original format are strictly prohibited.)

Posted on December 16th, 2009 in Doc Doctor |

The Story after the Story – Part II

By Story Consultant Fernanda Rossi, The Documentary Doctor

(Reading time: By Story Consultant Fernanda Rossi, The Documentary Doctor

(Reading time: 5:15 minutes – 689 words)

Note to readers: This is a follow-up to the previous issue.

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Lately, to the dismay of many, two statements have gained popularity and adherents. One asserts that the budget for the marketing and distribution of a documentary should be equal to the overall budget of the film. The other claims that it takes several years to complete the distribution cycle of a film. For the filmmaker that sees creativity only in the making of the film, the prospect of spending so much time in distribution and of having to raise so much money to get their film to their audience can be daunting. However, as Therese Shechter was thinking of a story outside the film in production in Part I, Nancy Schwartzman was doing the same in distributing her film The Line, about consent in intimate relations. Her creativity wasn’t limited to what would go into the film but extended to how the film will travel the circuit.

Today, an innovative approach to distribution and outreach is not a surprise but a must. During our consultation to work on her rough cut, Nancy was already very aware that her documentary would be just part of the story, the larger story of her activism and overall message: consenting to a sexual relationship is not necessarily agreeing to everything that can possibly happen between two people.

Her long-range vision had a positive impact on the session. In discussing the structural issues of her rough cut, she didn’t seem too attached to any details, even to any order of scenes: this was not for lack of a point of view, but because she was thoroughly aware of what mattered. Her focus was on creating the right vehicle to initiate a larger story, or stories–-those collected from the audience as they gained new awareness on this topic. Having had the experience of starting the Safe Street initiative, she knew how to use the web to create that interaction. And she knew how to maximize a dollar. Therefore the idea of raising money and spending time to continue the making of the film in real time and in real life was filled with promise.

One of the most interesting ideas she implemented was to play with the title of the film, The Line. After a screening she passed around stickers with the question: “Where is your line?” and then photograph those stickers for the collective group blog: whereisyourline.org and also made available through the Flickr photo album service. Thus the story inside her film continued actively with the audiences live and online.

That teacher of semiotics mentioned in Part I foresaw a world of interactive storytelling. Today I think he wasn’t just seeing the future but also recalling the past, a time when we used to sit around a fire collectively building the stories that would become mythology. We are sitting around the flicker (or Flickr) of our computers building a new mythology.

Conclusion: There are no more audiences, just storytellers pausing until it’s their turn to talk.

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Story after the Story – Part II – Case Study: Case Study: The Line by Nancy Schwartzman
Article by Fernanda Rossi | edited by Marcia Scott | photo by Tania Retchisky
published by Documentary Educational Resources

Fernanda Rossi, 2006-2009. All rights reserved. This article can be reprinted in its entirety for educational purposes only, as long as no charges of any kind are made. Partial reproductions or modifications to the original format are strictly prohibited.)

Posted on November 25th, 2009 in Doc Doctor |

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