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Old February 29th, 2008, 08:42 AM   #1
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Ethics of audio in documentaries

I just finished doing some sound "editing" on a doc. I read Jay Rose's book which was helpful. I think my doc sounds much stronger now with added thumps and huffs and crashes.

But where is the line between capturing the truth as it is recorded and misrepresenting reality?

Is adding extra noise to a bike crash in a documentary morally questionable? I keep thinking of that Time magazine cover of OJ simpson with the airbrushed three day beard.

Does anyone else ever question this?
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Old February 29th, 2008, 09:01 AM   #2
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"Reality" is playing back what one camera left running in one spot sees. It's CCTV or surveillance video. The moment you make choices about what and where to tape, where to move the camera and editing you've created "unreality" . . . and that's why it's very important to be as circumspect as possible with documentary footage.

If you have to ask, you've crossed the line.
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Old February 29th, 2008, 09:17 AM   #3
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The moment you chose to make a documentary you've crossed a subjective line. You've chosen this subject - for whatever reasons appeal to you - as important enough to show to people. What you will present will be your subjective view - even if you choose to show CCTV or surveillance video. It's always a subjective viewpoint.

There is no objective reporting. Everyone has a viewpoint and an agenda.

The current buzzword is "Balance". Are you 'balancing' your viewpoint with counter point? Do you even care to? (You certainly don't have to.)

In terms of production 'enhancement'. When you boost the gain, when you color correct, when use artificial lighting - you are altering reality as percieved by the senses - so that it is represented by the reality as percieved by the technology.

At what point does your enhancement mis-represent the reality? That would be the 'line' I draw. Did the mic not pick up the sound as well as MY ears? Then I'll enhance it.

A perfect example in a doc I made illustrates the point. I was shooting a person at work in a strange environment, when they got a cell phone call - and took it. I could hear the cell ringing in real life - it wasn't captured in the shoot because of wind noise - so I put one in in post. Is that 'enhancing' or 'mis-representing' the moment? Our ears don't hear the wind noise that rushes over a mic, is it more 'true' to leave it in or filter it out? I think if I had chosen to replace the cell phone ring, with some sort of ring-tone that 'made a statement' - then I would have been guilty of 'crossing the line' of mis-representing the moment.
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Old February 29th, 2008, 09:42 AM   #4
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I'm sure others who have done nature recordings will chime in, but for years most of the nature films have sweetened audio adding or sometimes totally replacing the captured on-location audio.

I guess it's a matter of what you are sweetening and if you're changing the tone of the documentary to make a point or make your point. The recent Nova episode I worked on totally replaced all the sounds of the box the apes used with canned sounds because it made it sound better for the audience. I didn't see anything wrong with that and almost nobody would know the difference if they weren't there when we shot that scene. So, I guess it's really up to you if you think you've gone too far.

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Old February 29th, 2008, 10:17 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Matt Buys View Post
...But where is the line between capturing the truth as it is recorded and misrepresenting reality?

Is adding extra noise to a bike crash in a documentary morally questionable? ..
The reality is that a bike crash does make a sound....

If the original recording was not able to capture that sound then it would seem realistic to try to re-capture the authenticity of the event as much as possible.

The misrepresentation part is when you try to hollywood it up and add something that could not have existed.
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Old February 29th, 2008, 02:06 PM   #6
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Well, on the opposite end, I find the total lack of ethics or standards in the documentary industry really appalling. I also don't buy the argument that since the camera is intruding anyway, why not fake other stuff too. That's a copout. If the footage and audio aren't genuine, what's the point in making a documentary, let alone watching one? I'm more forgiving of nature documentaries because a lot of that stuff would be simply impossible to capture legitimately. But in this era of reality tv blending the lines of journalism, showmanship, and entertainment, I think we need tougher standards, not continually searching for ways to justify cheating and lying. It cheapens the whole genre. Sorry for the rant, but this is a real sore spot with me. As far as your question about adding extra noise to that bike crash -- egregiously wrong. I don't see any gray areas at all there.
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Old February 29th, 2008, 03:05 PM   #7
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Look, one central reality here is that there is NO recording system on the planet (with the possible exception of sophisticated binary recording played back under controlled circumstances) that can record and reproduce a sound field which is an accurate re-creation of what something sounds like in reality.

If you're listening to a monkey chatter in a tree, your BRAIN de-emphasizes the sounds of the wind and the leaves and whatever and lets you concentrate on the MONKEY sounds.

So, if the attempt at sound sweetening is to present the viewer with a MORE realistic experience, - essentially bringing up the monkey against the background to create a better sense of what that monkey actually sounds like - I think that's totally congruent and fair.

I agree with the camp that says ALL documentaries are necessarily works of judgement. And an honest doc uses whatever tools are necessary to present the audience with as authentic as possible an experience.

And when and if there's a line that might be crossed - ONLY the documentarian's personal moral compass can make that call.

That's just the way it works.

The author decides what to write and not write.
The shooter decides what to shoot and what NOT to shoot
The editor decided what scenes to leave in, which to edit, and which to leave out.

And absent outside direction, when we sit in the seat, it's our JOB to make those choices as well as we can.

BTW, directly to Marco's point - what IS the real sound of the bicycle crash? The sound recorded from 1 foot where the crash generates a terriffic sound? The SAME SOUND recorded from 10 feet away where the crash is modest at best? Or how about the VERY SAME crash recorded from 20 yards away with a long lens - where the sound of the crash is virtually indistinguishable?

They are ALL completely REAL sounds of the crash - but their viewer impact is TOTALLY different.

Are you arguing that one of those would be MORE real than another?

Sound after being recorded and then played back is ALWAYS both flawed and subjective. That's just the way it is.
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Old February 29th, 2008, 03:07 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jim Boda View Post
The reality is that a bike crash does make a sound....

If the original recording was not able to capture that sound then it would seem realistic to try to re-capture the authenticity of the event as much as possible.

The misrepresentation part is when you try to hollywood it up and add something that could not have existed.
I agree wholeheartedly. To argue that it's misrepresentation, you might as well argue against audio sweetening, or color correction. My CCD didn't capture that vibrant hue of red, so I fixed it. My microphone didn't catch the sound as well as my ear, so I tweaked the level. My mic was turned off? Oops. I'll foley it.

The point of documentary work is to get a point across. To tell a story through the use of film/video. Do what you have to to tell the story to the best of your abilities. While I would shy away from adding a completely different sound and passing it off as a bike wreck in a doc, I wouldn't see anything wrong with foleying the sound of aluminum on concrete. If you worry too much about the audio sounding exactly as raw, you will end up distracting audiences with poor audio quality - and missing the mark with your message.

This is, of course, without knowing any details of your project that might sway my opinion one way or another. Is the wreck the focal point, or a side note? If it is a focal point, and the video is 'evidence' of something or another, that is a completely different ballgame. If it is talking about someone's personal trials they've faced, and you show a bike wreck they were involved in to add DRAMA... I think it would be fine.

Sorry Marco, nothing personal but I really had to play devil's advocate here. I agree that reality TV has hurt the legitimacy of what we do, but we still should be concerned with telling the story.

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Old February 29th, 2008, 03:20 PM   #9
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To bump it a step further - how ethical is it to do voice edits? If we want to stay "true" then we let the interviewee ramble on. When we cut out the 4 sentence side story, or 10 sec. of dead air while the person searches for a word, or repeats himself or anything else to make the edit "tight" we are changing things.

The professional and ethical documentary producer/editor will try VERY HARD to make sure that those edits do not change the meaning of the person's statement or color it in any way. Done properly, they can improve, but not alter, a production. Done poorly, or with an underlying bias - they are a lie!

Just stirring the pot on a cold Friday afternoon!
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Old February 29th, 2008, 03:52 PM   #10
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I just don't see the correlation between, say color correction, and adding false audio to a documentary. Arguments like that, and quibbling over the impact of editing and so on strike me as specious excuses to justify doing whatever the heck you want, because after all, the whole thing's false, right? So the bike crash didnt' sound good, why not a better recorded crash, or better yet, a more dramatic crash sound. Throw in some sounds of shrieks for good measure. It'll help tell the story right?

My point with all this is that shouldn't there be guidelines and standards like photo journalists operate under? Every time the subject comes up people in the industry hem and haw about how surely their own judgement and integrity ought be enough, and in the end audiences find legitimate audio a distraction because they've been listening to so much fakery it's all they'll accept any more. That's a tragedy.

Oh, and Mike, my mention of editing wasn't a reference to your post. I hope it didn't come off like that.
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Old February 29th, 2008, 04:32 PM   #11
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First, to clear up the color correction thing -

When we color correct a piece to have a bluer feel to show the sadness of the person recalling memories, or red to show the warmth of the solution, we are using artificial color to influence a viewer's opinion.

Secondly...

I do believe this is a very complicated subject and worthy of some serious industry attention. I think we do need to be careful about where we draw the line, but it's rarely a tragedy when the editor attempts to keep morals involved. If the video is showing evidence of something, than it would be abhorrent, and I agree wholeheartedly with you. An example would be if the bike wreck was the fault of another motorist, and you are showing why they are responsible. Adding to the impact of the crash would unfairly bias the viewer against the motorist.

But if it's to add drama to the piece, or to emphasize a point, I think it's okay, of course dependent on the situation. If you're talking about bike safety, and you use the wreck as a cutaway shot, the sound can have a dramatic increase in the impact of the clip. As well, you can get away with a shorter, less detailed clip, and let the audio tell the story. Is that so bad?

I think there really is a lot of grey area here, depending on the USE of the clip, and the GOALS of the production. You are trying to inspire thought in your viewers, to captivate attention, and the edit process is a very important stage in which to use all the tools available to you, but to do so with moral fiber.

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Old February 29th, 2008, 04:41 PM   #12
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I definitely get your point on the goals of the production. As you say, if the piece is about bike safety, and you have a clip of crash, that's quite a different thing. I don't see a problem with foleyed audio there either. But if the footage is meant to show a candid moment, I just don't think you should be adding stuff that isn't actually there, at least if the audience will take away the impression that it really was. As I said, nature docs are another matter. If they were held to that standard, there probably wouldn't be any.
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Old February 29th, 2008, 06:40 PM   #13
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No. It is not ethical to replace the sound with a sound that did not happen in a documentary, any more than it's ethical to switch questions and answers around in a sit-down interview.

Exception: When the "crash" sound is so obviously unreal that viewers will know it is so - this is often done for effect. I.e, if a bike crashes and the sound is of a truck hitting a wall.

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Old February 29th, 2008, 06:58 PM   #14
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"Replacing a sound that did not happen in a documentary" - That's an interesting statement. What about replacing a sound that was not recorded clearly, but heard distinctly?IE: It DID happen, but the recording is faulty. (We had wind noise over the mic, but I could clearly hear it on my own.) What about using a zoom lens, to capture an image 'closer' than the camera person is actually standing. (I cannot clearly see the object in his hands without the 'aid' of technology.) Cetainly, I have chosen to 'influence' the viewer with how closely I am able to get.

Yes, it's all very "Grey". As I said, there are no 'objective' documentaries. Every single choice is informed by our personal objectives and agendas.
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Old March 1st, 2008, 03:09 AM   #15
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It's the CONTEXT

Hmm, I can see all the pundits are going to weigh-in on this one so count me in to join the fun!

For those who purists who think "tweaking the audio (whatever that means), is unethical, would they also have problems with the interviewee:

1. Applying make-up that they'd never otherwise wear?

2. Wearing clothes from a wardrobe they don't own?

3. Having enhanced lighting to make them appear different than normal?

4. Having special camera angles to subliminally affect the viewers?

5. Having music to dramatize and subliminally affect the viewers?

6. Having their footage edited to focus on issues likely to interest viewers?

7. Having the setting, props, and set design configured to influence the viewers?

8. Doing a retake?


If I'm doing an audio-only interview, I'll profess to be heavy handed in the editing process. I'll cut out the "ah's", stammers, excessive pauses, suppress extraneous noise, enhance the audio with special mics, adjust the level with compression and equalization, and more. If the interviewee makes an obvious error (as using the wrong name, bumped mic, etc), I'll even cut-and-paste the correct word. And I get even worse! When the subject jumps all over the place, sometimes I'll have to cut-and-paste a series of sentences to another part of the interview in order to keep continuity.

Bingo, to me it's all about continuity. So as long as I'm maintaining integrity of the subject's message, I'll freely make cuts where I'm sure our more conservative folks would avoid. But then again, long before I start the interview I fully disclose my methods and obtain the interviewee's concurrence - IN WRITING. I also remind them of this at the start of the interview, recording this fact along with their acceptance. Actually, my subjects are much more relaxed with this arrangement, knowing I'll be editing the audio to make him/her come across in the best light. In fact, I advise them they can always give me editing commands during the inteview, such as:

- "Strike that"

- "Let's redo that, I want to answer it differently"

- "That's ambiguous, please reword the question"

And if that's not disturbing enough to some of you, I advise my interviewees they can belatedly have their interview edited. So if I'm still in the editing process, with cause I permit them to belatedly strike portions of their interview.

So for better or worse, I'm far from doing "raw" interviews. For instance, on my last director's commentary the audio track needed lots of tweaking - even for my standards. Off-color remarks about the actors were whacked out. Retorts that would psychologically diminish the quality and value of the video (after his second glass of wine) were similarly excised. And tons of dead space were whittled out to improve the pacing of his dialog. Again, my bottom line is continuity, as long as the integrity (IMHO) of the interview remains intact.

Okay, flame on...

Warm Regards, Michael
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