Story Strategies • Debunking The Myths of Storytelling

Myth #6 “No worries about light or sound, we fix it in post”. Or “All it matters is the story!” Which one is it?
By Story Consultant Fernanda Rossi, The Documentary Doctor

Doctor coming to town: Fernanda Rossi will be teaching her story structure and trailer workshop in St. Paul, MN in July. All info at

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The myth in all its glory
Two opposing myths: the first one the self-assured cry of the virtuoso or technophile, the second one the sneer remark of the dilettante or technophobe. Surprisingly both utter the same opening statements but with a different ending. “Burn out images? Deafening background noise? Oh, details, details!” they may say in unison, while the first group responds to the challenge with a confident, “We’ll fix it in post”, the second group will retort with disdain, “All it matters is the story, anyway”.

Can it be really fixed in post? And if not caring to fix it or can’t be fixed, can a story be appreciated and understood through the technical mishaps? Stories may be king, but kings rule with their imposing presence.

The wave of post-production gadgets, which promise to fix it all, has reached such heights that many live under the illusion that mastering the tools for storytelling is a nuisance that can be dealt with later –much later. “We fix it in post” or not caring to fix it all because “All it matters is the story” are dangerous myths that reveals its truth when balancing the budget or having the audience walk out. Let these myths be unmasked so the story will come out loud and clear and without the extra charge.

Possible origin of the myth
The dilemma of content and form, the message and the technology that carries it, and the even more insidious sheer creativity vs. sheer craft, is not new. Each era has gone through its stage of alternatively glorifying one and the other in an unfounded mutually exclusive opposition. After all, the story shapes the medium as well as the delivery technology and the medium with its delivery technology shapes the story, more famously said in the words of McLuhan, The medium is the message.

Still from the moment the caveman (or maybe it was a cavewoman) grabbed a stone to draw on the walls of the cave the beast he or she wanted to hunt, some other cave dweller questioned everything from the genius or virtuosity of that first proto-artist to the meaning and quality of the drawing. And so on throughout history. It’s probably human nature to question and create dualities.

Today, the argument might be old but the amount of technology available and our fascination with it renews the discussion with fierce intensity.

Some truth to it
In documentaries, it used to be that the truthful depiction of reality superseded technological perfection. Those days might be over. Since in post many things can be fixed, from color to sound, from erasing undesirable logos to enhancing almost inaudible dialogue, viewers are more demanding than they used to –so are distributors and everybody else in the industry.

At the same time, there is a limit to what can be done in post and more importantly there is both a material and a creative cost to the storyteller.

The real deal
Underneath the many real and apparent benefits of taking care of things in post, there is the issue of whether ultimately a story is well served with the many layers of postproduction intervention.

In art there is a distance between the hand of the artist and the object of art. A painter may have just a brush between her hand and the canvas. A writer, has a mere keyboard between the ten fingers (or two indexes) and the white screen.

Documentarians have a huge distance between themselves and the film on the finished film on the screen, the process in itself may be as long as writing a novel, yet the amount of tools needed and people involved even when minimal most often outnumbers the needs of tools and people for other artistic expressions. This thick separation has been made thicker with the advent of gadgets and like all tools they can be used for good or sheer evil.

The consequences of this wide separation for the storyteller is that some filmmakers fear the vast distance ahead of them and dismiss it altogether, hurting the chances for the story to be as enthralling as it could be. Or such gap –we fix it later- becomes an excuse to relinquish control and ease creative anxiety.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending where each filmmaker stands, the story is of utter importance and the quality of the media used to tell it is not a far second concern but an equally important one.

What to do
While some filmmakers prefer to care about the character or interviewee leaving them in half-light and un-miked, others may adjust that corner light obsessively forgetting that an incredible moment is just passing by unrecorded. As often it’s the case, the solution is not in the extremes but in a healthy middle path.

In practical terms turning off the fan that creates background noise takes one minute and cost nothing. Dimming that same sound in post, if doable at all, can take several hours and the fee of the person doing such task. So why not make a checklist for image and sound with minimum requirements. Room tone, anybody?

As per helping the technophobes bridge the gap, why not a chat with some postproduction people to learn the basics of what can be done just in case? Preparation is key on both sides of the myths.

The ultimate task of the storyteller is to… well, tell a story. In documentaries, the events unfolds uncontrolled by the filmmakers, capturing them is their most important task. Doing it well is part of the job. Imagine Van Gogh not caring about the tone of yellow he’s is using? Would it be a Van Gogh even if they’re still sunflowers?

Postproduction magic is a safety net not the destination. And a safety net is a welcoming place for both geeks and technophobes.

To think further
In a calendar where there are as many holidays as release dates for software, may filmmakers choose to put the tools at the service of their story and may they upgrade their post toys as often as they question the stories they’re telling.

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Story Strategies • Debunking the Myths of Storytelling
Myth #6: “No worries about light or sound, we fix it in post”. Or “All it matters is the story!” Which one is it?

Article by Fernanda Rossi | edited by Marcia Scott | photo by James Carman
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.

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