Wiseman at work. Peg Skorpinski photo.

Condensation of time in High School:

Michael stands at the beginning of the conversation.

Dr. Allen is seated throughout.

Dr. Allenís ring serves as a cutaway and cut point, condensing time in their conversation.

This close-up of Michael sitting suggests the re-organization of time in the edit.

This edit confirms the space of the scene.

More time has been removed. Michael has returned to standing, either through a reorganization of time to an earlier moment or in removing the moment when he stood up.

Editing a conversation in Domestic Violence:

In a session from Domestic Violence, a woman shares her story while others listen.

Woman listens, perhaps to her own memories.

Woman listens.

A woman tells her story.

The editing reveals the people around her.

Visual track in Domestic Violence accompanying audio, "Mommy be quiet" :

The microphone moves to a whispered story. This wide shot allows for continuity through barely perceptible asynchronicity.

This shot covers for the audio without image.

Sync is established as the camera, and the edit, find the person speaking.


Truth in the mix: Frederick Wiseman’s construction of the observational microphone

by Giovanna Chesler

A version of this essay was first published in German in Frederick Wiseman, Kino des Sozialen (Ed. Eva Hohenberger, Vorwerk 8, 2009, pp. 139-155)

As he explores the connections between technological developments and documentary practice and form in Claiming the Real and Claiming the Real II, Brian Winston acknowledges the new threat to documentary posed by digital photographic manipulations and CGI:

“The diffusion of this technology…is taking-decades. Nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine that, by the end of this process, every documentarist will have to hand, in their video-editing laptop, the wherewithal for complete fakery. Technology, by finally and irrevocably dissolving the connection between the image and the imaged, must therefore have a significant potential impact on the documentary film. The camera’s capacity to capture the real will not be erased by this, but a far greater sophistication on the part of the audience will be needed to determine documentary’s authenticity. (2008, 9)

For me, this attention to digital image manipulation as the ultimate manipulative practice evidences a foregrounding of the documentary image in truth debates. Yet the soundtracks of documentary films, carefully constructed, invisibly edited, and easily manipulated, provide a bed of truth upon which documentarians stake their claims and construct their narratives. Soundtracks and their relationship to the image must be considered as a primary method for ‘fakery’ in documentary film. Yet, to attend to the manipulations afforded by sound editing, we need not condemn documentary practice as a whole. Indeed I shall rely upon Winston’s arguments from Claiming the Real to save our cherished practice.

Here I turn my attention to the mix of observational cinema, and to a filmmaker brilliantly emblematic of this mode of documentary, Frederick Wiseman. I shall explore the use of sound in two of his films: High School (1969), Wiseman’s portrait of the institutionalized power dynamics between students, teachers and parents of Northeast High School, a school situated in a middle class neighborhood in Philadelphia, and Domestic Violence (2001) a study of the women and children’s domestic violence shelter The Spring in Tampa Bay, Florida. These films stand as prime examples of observational cinema, but are connected here for the striking significance of sound thematically in these works. I highlight the sound editing practices Wiseman employs, while attending to Wiseman’s use of music and volume in his explorations of gender and power within the institutions observed by these films.

Frederick Weisman. Photo: Lisa Gross.

“Mommy if you just be quiet”:
dialogue editing for continuity

G R Levin: “During the shooting, you do the sound, and somebody else shoots. You’re the one, I take it, who chooses the scenes to shoot?”

Frederick Wiseman: “Right. And I work out signals with whomever I’m working with so that he knows the way I want to get the shot, and we talk very carefully both before, during and after the shooting about those stylistic things I like.” (Levin 1971, 318)

In Wiseman, we find a filmmaker who is both editor and sound recordist. At the moment of recording, Wiseman, tethered to the audio recording equipment, focuses on the word and determines what images the cinematographer captures based on the audio. The microphone becomes a laser pointer, illuminating places of interest within a living scene, calling upon the cinematographer to follow its line toward the object worth filming. In this moment of listening and recording, we must imagine Wiseman as editor as well, already considering the moments where the voice will be selected for in the finished piece.

Wiseman’s filmmaking style falls within the tradition of observational documentary, often called Direct Cinema. This style of documentary production became popular with the advent of wireless synchronized sound recording technology and the movement away from 35mm toward 16mm cameras at the beginning of the 1960’s. Makers employing this mode abandoned voice-over narration and evidentiary editing, privileging the observation of lived experience spontaneously (Nichols 2001, 110). The primacy of speech, recorded in the moment, altered the construction of documentaries:

“Synchronized sound affected editing style. The silent-film editing tradition, under which footage was fragmented and then reassembled, creating ‘film time,’ began to lose its feasibility and value. With speech, ‘real time’ reasserted itself.” (Barnouw 1993, 251)

In addition to structuring time, voice-over narration, often provides the glue holding together documentary films. Though heavy handed and authorial, voice-over narration allows the documentary editor to connect disparate images and moments. In their commitment to representing ‘real time,’ observational makers are challenged to present scenes that convey a reality of time as lived without the straightforwardness of an authorial voice. To achieve the construction of cohesive scenes, observational makers turned to the tradition of continuity established during the Silent Era (Ruoff 1993, 28.) In Cross Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos, authors Barbash and Taylor translate the rules of continuity editing for a documentary audience:

“watch out for potential jump cuts…try to overlap action from shot to shot…try to match spatial relationships, screen position, and eyeline from shot to shot…try to match lighting conditions…try to maintain a consistent screen direction…resort to cutaways to avoid a jump cut if need be…last, but not least, don’t follow these prescriptions to the letter!” (1997, 389-397)

The style of observation in documentary challenges the film editor to create a story with a strong arc and to build scenes that have continuity and resolution which move the story arc forward.

In his earlier work, Wiseman began with approximately 90,000 feet of film, or 42 hours of raw material and condensed this into 3,000 feet, or 1.5 of hours for the finished film (Wiseman in Atkins, 1976, 35 & 47). Presently, his films run between two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half hours. According to his own calculations, he uses about 3% of what he shoots in his final film (Grant 2006, xi). In the introduction of published transcripts in 5 Films by Frederick Wiseman, Wiseman notes his challenges as an editor and the relationships between condensing time in documentary film and methods of fiction filmmaking:

“For me the making of a documentary film is in some ways the reverse of making a fiction film. With fiction, the idea for the film is transformed into a script by the imagination and work of the writer and/or director, which obviously precedes the shooting of the film. In my documentaries the reverse is true: The film is finished when, after editing, I have found its “script.” If a film of mine works, it does so because the verbal and pictorial elements have been fused into dramatic structure. This is the result of the compression, condensation, reduction, and analysis that constitute the editing process for me.”(Grant 2006, xi)

Though not explicit in his method, I believe that Wiseman’s emphasis on the “script” of the documentary suggests an approach to editing that begins with sound. I term this method of documentary editing sound-up construction and believe it to be popular amongst documentary editors, though not so named as a method. Authors of popular handbooks on documentary filmmaking advise makers to produce transcripts of recorded dialogue and create paper edits from those transcripts as a principle step in documentary film editing (Chapman 2007, Barbash and Taylor 1997, Rabiger 2004.) In paper edits, sentences are strung together, time is condensed and sense is made of lived moments through the words connected on the page.[1] [open endnotes in new window] I do not wish to argue that editors of observational documentaries, including Wiseman, rely only upon the written word to construct their films. Rather, I wish to point to the role of sound as an architectural foundation of observational documentaries. For instance, later in the 5 Films introduction, Wiseman connects the use of dialogue with the other elements he considers as an editor, but again, dialogue is primary:

“My work as editor, like that of the writer of a fiction film, is to try to figure out what is going on in the sequence I am watching on the editing machine. What is the significance of the words people use, the relevance of tone or changes of tone, pauses interruptions, verbal associations, the movement of eyes, hands, and legs?” (xi)

As the base of the documentary edit, words on paper can be moved with ease, but in the mix, rearranging of words happens in degrees. Technically, it is quite difficult to bring sound from one location to another location, as all sound recording carries with it a spatial signature, or mark of the location in which it was recorded (Altman 1988). But within one location during one episode of filming, sound proves malleable. Words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs may be moved around allowing for a compression of time and an arrangement, or rearrangement, of a conversation. Wiseman’s sequences, which may range in lengths of two minutes to ten minutes, typically build from medium close ups which privilege the person speaking at the time. This framing renders the speaker in a space that may not be understood until a wide shot establishes the other listeners and speakers in the room. Typically, the camera follows the conversation, panning between speakers, maintaining medium close ups on each. Dialogue editing and, thereby, the condensing of time, occurs when the medium close up is disrupted by a cutaway.

In High School Wiseman uses the cutaway to maintain logical dialogue progression in the conversation between Dr. Allen and student Michael who fights for his principals by refuting the detention he has been given. A cutaway to Dr. Allen’s ring offers an opportunity to condense part of a conversation. In another moment, the technique of condensing time occurs between two edits as Michael inexplicably sits, and then returns to standing. The seated moment is identifiable through an analysis of the camera height and Dr. Allen’s eyeline match. However, the continuity in this conversation between Dr. Allen and Michael, and the pace of the dialogue editing does not explicitly reveal that time has passed between these shots or that they have been rearranged and brought together sequentially. However, the words have been rearranged though they convey the meaning Wiseman initially observed in the sequence. In the interests of time and dramatic action, Wiseman has made an editorial decision to link two separate moments.

As in High School, the cut away in Domestic Violence serves to condense time and conversation. Cutaways function so that stories can be trimmed and shaped, while the meaning of the stories themselves and the impact of the teller’s experience remain intact. Additionally, cutaways serve to surprise the viewer in ways fitting with the themes of the film. In the second half of Domestic Violence, Wiseman gives more time for stories to unfold and the camera lingers on the seemingly irrelevant twists and turns in the telling of a story (indeed, these twists are never irrelevant, but they demonstrate the way victims mask the worst parts of their experience.) Eventually, the long take is disrupted as the image cuts to another woman sitting silently next to the speaker who has been commanding the floor of the session. He then cuts to another woman, also sitting silently nearby.

Through this style of editing and sound construction, Wiseman doubles, then triples, then quadruples the silent bodies within the ‘safe’ space of the group, noting that most have yet to speak. These silent women vary in their listening styles: some look away, others look toward. Some react while others are distantly listening to their own memories. In these segments, carefully over the course of the film, Wiseman expresses the repetitive silencing endured by victims of domestic violence. The cutaway, placed within an extended story, and placed on top of the voice of a woman telling her story, both hides sound edits, but importantly attends to the fact that most within this space are not able to speak…yet.

Click here to play audio clip: "Mommy be quiet."

Wiseman’s techniques in sound editing preserve continuity when the image may suggest a break. During a group meeting on brain washing techniques in Domestic Violence, an older woman with a whispery voice speaks to the ways in which she was silenced:

“He had my son and my daughter telling me, if you just shut your mouth. Mommy if you just be quiet. Mommy, don’t say anything. Mommy if you just stop. If you just be quiet you won’t get hit. But they don’t understand. Even if you’re quiet you’re going to get hit.”

The speech starts with a wide shot demonstrating the woman’s position in the room and the logics of space in this meeting. However her mouth movement and voice are not in synch in this wide shot. The next cut is someone else listening with a baby, and then a medium close up on the speaker. Now her lips and words move together. The technique of replacing dialogue upon the moving mouth of a social actor typically appears in documentary during a wide shot where the mouth movement cannot be read with specificity. Dialogue replacement may also occur when the camera’s lens privileges a character’s cheek, hiding the social actor’s mouth. Though the mouth is turned and lips may not be read, the cheek’s movement suggests that words are articulated.

This is a common practice in editing narrative films; a turned cheek and mouth blurred in a wide shot, provide opportunities for automated dialogue replacement (ADR.) Here we see Wiseman use the technique to cover the speaker when the camera was likely to be focused somewhere else or it was being reloaded. In some cases, he uses this technique to change a character’s line of action, ellipsing a tangential story. This serves in condensing time and space, particularly for Wiseman who has a 30:1 shooting ratio.

Even with logical dialogue progression, how are these jumps in time (replaced dialogue and images) masked in the mind of the viewer? Arguably, the illusion of ‘real-time’ as discussed by Barnouw begins this process. As explored, constructing real-time depends upon dialogue editing that follows logical, conversation progressions. Yet, these edits must be concealed and as makers borrowing from classical Hollywood traditions, observational documentarians work to hide the apparatus whenever possible. Voice-over narration, which aligns with the apparatus as it “becomes a ‘voice on high,’ …a voice which speaks from a position of superior knowledge, and which superimposes itself ‘on top’ of the diegesis” (Silverman 1988, 48) is discarded. Proximity between the viewer and the text becomes possible through the absence of narration. Wiseman has described this relationship, stating that he avoids narration so that “there’s no separation between the audience watching the film and the events in the film.” (Wiseman in Atkins 1971, 43) In Representing Reality, Bill Nichols suggests proximity between the film text and the audience within this style of documentary film:

“Even in observational films like Primary, Jane or A Married Couple, and especially in works by Fred Wiseman like Hospital, High School, or Model, the strong sense of an indexical bond between what occurred in front of the camera and its historical referent draws us not into the details of the everyday but also into the formulation of a perspective on these institutional domains of the real. We process the documentary not only as a series of highly authentic sounds and images that bear the palpable trace of how people act in the historical world, but as serial steps in the formation of a distinct, textually specific way of seeing or thinking.” (1991, 29)

By veiling the apparatus and relying on continuity, observational documentaries allow for the indexicality Nichols describes.[2] The seamlessness of the soundtrack builds a foundation for this indexicality: time represented as a flow of words, which progress logically, without (audible) breaks.

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