Somewhere between fact and fiction

Pinched budgets and taxed resources are the sorrowful lot of the documentary filmmaker. While most face a struggle to get their dream to the screen, history producers face the added challenge of sometimes having to recreate the past in order to record it. It doesn't help that by blurring the line between fact and fiction they invite unfair comparisons to Hollywood - and no doc-maker can hold serious hope of going explosion for explosion with the latest Schwarzenegger flick. Laine Drewery of Toronto's Fastlane Productions sums it up: 'I don't think there's any trick to what Hollywood does. It's organization and money...' To put it another way, Mark Samels of WGBH's American Experience contends, 'If documentary filmmakers or television producers had 'big' available to them, I think almost everybody would grab for 'big'. 'Big' protects you. You seldom have 'big' available to you.'
October 1, 2001

Pinched budgets and taxed resources are the sorrowful lot of the documentary filmmaker. While most face a struggle to get their dream to the screen, history producers face the added challenge of sometimes having to recreate the past in order to record it. It doesn’t help that by blurring the line between fact and fiction they invite unfair comparisons to Hollywood – and no doc-maker can hold serious hope of going explosion for explosion with the latest Schwarzenegger flick. Laine Drewery of Toronto’s Fastlane Productions sums it up: ‘I don’t think there’s any trick to what Hollywood does. It’s organization and money…’ To put it another way, Mark Samels of WGBH’s American Experience contends, ‘If documentary filmmakers or television producers had ‘big’ available to them, I think almost everybody would grab for ‘big’. ‘Big’ protects you. You seldom have ‘big’ available to you.’

Recreations represent a significant allocation of resources, soaking up between one percent and 10% of a production budget. So, before yelling ‘action’, filmmakers need to have concrete answers to two significant questions: Why? And how?

‘Think very clearly about why you want to do the reenactment, and to what purpose,’ cautions Larry Engel, co-founder of New York-based Engel Brothers Media. ‘Don’t get hung up on how it’s supposed to look, or how it’s supposed to be processed, or what the latest gizmos are, because without being able to answer the big ‘why’ questions, the ‘how’ and ‘what’ don’t matter.’

Answering the ‘why’ isn’t necessarily a solely esoteric exercise. Finding the balance between fact and fiction – testing a viewer’s tolerance for blending the real with the contrived – requires filmmakers to walk a fine line. ‘From our standpoint,’ explains Samels, ‘there are things that break the suspension of disbelief in the audience. We’re operating on a thin crust of audience trust and we can break through that really quickly.

‘Do you have to do it?’ he questions. ‘Is there another way? If you do have to do it, what is the essence of what the recreation should contribute to the program? If it’s simply treading water to get some exposition done for the story line, maybe there’s another way to approach it. If you attempting to create a space in which all your othernarrative elements can co-mingle and exist, and the audience can enter that space and feel comfortable in it, then it’s really worth it and you should think hard about how to achieve that. [But] realize that from our standpoint, the default is for it not to work.’

Once it’s decided that recreations are needed to tell the tale, it’s up to the filmmaker to make sure they fly, a task made more difficult as audience expectations are raised by Hollywood comparisons. As always, history producers believe work should start with the story, taking the time to define exactly what they want to represent before they set out, nailing down both the purpose of the recreation and the intended emotional invocation. After that comes the mechanics – and the really hard decisions.

Robert Gardner, president of Gardner Films in Baltimore, stresses that the most important initial decision a producer makes is which cameraperson they go with. Gardner underlines the need to hire experience. ‘It’s a very big mistake to try to do reenactments with a cameraman who has never done reenactments before,’ he cautions. ‘It’s really worth the money to find someone who’s done fiction work, or commercial work, and is used to dealing with wholly contrived situations.’

Once you’ve settled on the person behind the lens, Tom Naughton, CEO of Virginia’s New Dominion Pictures, believes a director is the one who can make or break the shot. Naughton is also a firm believer that each shot should be built on solid understanding. Dominion has a staff of at least 15 researchers on hand to go over every detail of the story before the script is written. Says Naughton, ‘Research is what you build your stories from.’

With the people behind the camera hired, producers need to turn their attention to the bodies in front. The topic of actors creates more debate among filmmakers, and most stress caution. David Grubin of New York-based David Grubin Productions, which produced Napoleon for Devillier Donegan Enterprise’s Empires series, cautions against trying to get too literal. ‘If I were to show you Napoleon as an actor, you would say: ‘That’s not Napoleon. That’s an actor.’ Unless, as in a fiction film, the actor can get into the part and do the dialogue and the whole thing. But, in the context of documentary, it becomes illustration. I’m trying to dramatize it to get your imagination into it. I don’t want to illustrate the past in recreations. I’m trying to evoke it.’ Gardner agrees: ‘If there was a rule, the rule would be don’t ask anybody to act. When you ask them to act – unless you have a really good actor – it just looks like crappy acting…If you feature a character too much, they start looking like an actor in goofy clothes.’ Gardner also stresses that recreations should avoid dialogue unless the actors can carry it off.

To keep the illusion alive, many filmmakers choose to shoot actors from behind, or use shadow and lighting techniques to hide their faces, illustrating the event versus the people experiencing the event. ‘We tend to favor shots that don’t show faces very often,’ says Samels. ‘But, if you look at our catalog, we’ve got shows that we jokingly refer to as ‘full-frontal’ recreations.’

When a handful of bodies are not enough, some producers turn to non-professional reenactors to help them populate the frame. Internationally, there are hundreds of amateur groups that reenact eras out of personal interest. Margaret Koval of London’s Goldfarb and Koval Productions says she and partner Lynn Goldfarb have turned to non-professional reenactors several times. ‘Choose people who know what they’re doing,’ suggests Koval. ‘It’s nice if they know more than you do about the topic and the look of the age, because it takes a lot of weight off. There are a million decisions – ‘Should we shoot that green-colored shield?’ ‘Well, did the Romans even have green paint?’ It’s nice if somebody else knows all the answers. ‘

For Canada: A People’s History, Laine Drewery took the use of extras one step further, including them in the actual shooting process. ‘I like to use what I call the ‘idiot camera’. It’s a $3,000 digital camera – a tiny little thing with a flip-out screen. I have two or three cameramen shooting the wide shots from the observer position. Then, I give one of the reenactors this idiot camera, and say, ‘Don’t try to shoot. Don’t behave like a cameraman.’ I want to see it from the point of view of the participant. I go through the tape, and most of it’s junk, but there’s always half a dozen great shots of the confusion… It brings you from observer to participant. It gives you a real sense of drama and action. I like the jarring of a different perspective.’

Although extras are great for filling space, most doc-makers suggest keeping the use of them in check, as the cost of feeding and possibly sheltering them can become overwhelming. Instead, many subscribe to the ‘less is more’ philosophy.

Recalls Drewery of Fastlane’s shoot: ‘We realized we couldn’t compete with Hollywood in terms of staging battles – we couldn’t afford to call on 1,000 extras for a couple of shots. So, we would limit the number of wide shots, because the wider the shot, the more people, and the more everything’s got to be right. We decided that God was in the details.’

Favoring a series of tight shots in place of sweeping panoramas – the loading of a musket, a cannon discharging, a burning fire – can overcome limitations imposed by resources. But, filmmakers like Gardner warn it can become claustrophobic, and should be carefully considered.

Samels suggests filmmakers use foreground objects to obscure parts of the frame, thereby reducing the amount of space that needs to be filled. He calls the tools he uses to accomplish this ‘smudge factors’ – framing, focus, contrast, color, lighting and composition. Explains Samels, ‘We do a lot with focus – subtracting as much as possible, so the audience has to fill it in. One of our mottos is: ‘Realism is your enemy’.’

There are many tools that can be used to reduce the stark reality of the recreated shot, slow motion being a common favorite. Grubin filmed a speeding bullet at 2,500 frames per second so he could slow it to an agonizing pace, creating anxiety in the viewer. Gardner swears by fire and smoke – real smoke if possible – which makes the shot dreamy. He also suggests combining light and smoke, which creates a three-dimensional, surreal environment. ‘Some people call these invocations rather than reenactments,’ explains Gardner, ‘because they’re trying to evoke a feeling of the past, rather than literally showing [it].’

There are also high and medium tech solutions to most reenactment problems. Gardner swears by his steadicam, which eliminates the need for a dolly track, and says he used a Jimmy Jib (a small portable crane) for all 60 days of his Islam shoot. Grubin also advises producers to look beyond the obvious when shooting recreations.

Grubin recalls one experience with a mounted soldier during his Napoleon shoot, when he tried to hold on to a horseman’s blade. ‘The problem is that as it comes towards the camera, the sword goes out of focus. It’s very hard to hold something so tight in focus. So, I rented a piece of equipment they use for sports. You often have to rent equipment used in other areas that have bigger budgets.’

There’s lots of money to be spent in post, but the pay-off can be significant. As Grubin recalls, it’s possible to put 15 actors in front of a blue screen and turn them into an army. Working in film, therefore, offers more flexibility in post, and both Gardner and Samels swear by the look of the medium. ‘We almost invariably shoot our recreations on film,’ says Samels, ‘because we find that video is too immediate, too realistic. Oftentimes we use different kinds of film stock, including Super-8 which has a grainy, unrealistic, more stylized look.’

Mediums and technology can be mixed to create any effect necessary. As Larry Engel explains, the vagaries of a format can show as strengths on the screen. ‘I shot in Super 16 and shot the reenactments with a Cannon xl1 mini DV. I ran the film at schmear speed – I slowed the shutter down so that it was somewhat stepped – and ran it from there. I mixed that in black and white – then reprocessed it in the avid as we were layering – sometimes adding color, sometimes changing the color to be super-saturated, sometimes making it black and white, sometimes bleeding one layer in color and letting the other go black and white. There were a variety of color and motion techniques that we brought to bear.’ The techniques that have the most impact are the ones that take viewers away from the solid.

Finally, one of the most important aspects of recreation is often overlooked by many producers – the sound. ‘We believe that one of the key elements in approaching the visualization of a historical documentary is sound,’ explains Samels. ‘Sound can create a bigger environment for the kind of budgets we’re working with, more easily than creating a visual.’

Whatever the approach, history filmmakers offer a note of caution about turning to recreations. ‘You can spend a lot of money and a lot of time on processing stuff with great equipment,’ says Engel. ‘But do you need to do it? I think we overkill on processing in terms of our storytelling techniques these days. It’s like we don’t want to rely on the reality that is before us anymore. We think there’s a need for something else, but what that need is derived from I can’t tell…We’re supposed to be making documentaries, but now we’re turning them into fiction.’

‘Ten years ago, it was a pretty distinct line between historical documentary and docudrama,’ states Samels. ‘That line has become more blurred as people use more and more elaborate, and in some ways aggressive, recreation techniques borrowed from fictional films. That has pushed the boundaries of historical documentary a great deal. In some ways it’s allowed for a visual approach to subject matter that didn’t have any visual record. In other cases, it’s been the poor man’s Hollywood approach that has, at times, failed.’

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.