EP: 03 – DOCUMENTARY vs. REALITY BY MICHAEL SELDITCH
“It’s not a reality show–it’s a documentary series,” I’ve heard myself say on countless occasions. Press, students, faculty, crew, have all at some point uttered the baggage-laden phrase “reality show,” and I am always compelled to clarify. “What’s the difference?” asked a journalist, who rolled her eyes when I made the distinction. “Style and purpose…” I went on to explain. With a reality show — whether it’s competition-based like The Apprentice, or shared-quarters like Real World, or make-over like Queer Eye — they are all manufactured for camera. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. The rules and circumstances of manipulation are acknowledged and embraced by the producers. No one claims that the events in these shows would actually happen in real life without the show’s existence. In the case of Architecture School, the students at Tulane University are designing and building a house whether I’ve got a film crew there or not. We are documenting events that are already taking place, in spite of the presence of cameras and the subsequent television series.
I’m not knocking reality shows. I have worked on my fair share. As a producer or director, the process between reality and documentary is very different. Rob Tate [our senior producer] and I have collaborated on docs prior to this experience. We are both drawn to a verite style where the story is told mostly through character interaction and scenes, rather than relying on the “lit” interview or the crutch of narration. We enjoy telling stories by weaving in and out of scenes (non-linear) and sprinkled with informal OTFs (on-the-fly thoughts of the character). We like to shoot in a narrative or cinematic style with extreme close ups, over-the-shoulders and lots of foreground. But even once you feel like you’ve honed in on a “style” you are faced with the bigger challenge: How to tell this story?
Production is a sequence of decision-making. As with architecture, time, money and logistics all factor into every choice; and the documentary genre must be considered as well. Documentary (shooting actual events) versus Reality (manufactured and controlled) greatly affects production with regards to time. With Architecture School, we are covering a story that spans 9 months (an entire academic school year). Since it would be virtually impossible to cover that on-camera 24/7, we are forced to make choices about what, when and where to shoot.
Even with this kind of prioritizing, we anticipated as much as 500 hours of raw footage. Rob and I decided early on, to shoot single camera to avoid making it 1,000. Shooting a scene that has 10 characters in it with one camera requires careful listening and a commitment on the cameraman’s part to stay with the action at hand as it plays out. Even with careful logging and organization, we certainly had our jobs cut out for us in the edit room, and like building a building; we were faced with one big challenge after another.