» DAVID FANNING
I'll try to live up to the romantic part.
I actually like to start stories with "Once upon a time." I've always believed
that we're in the business of telling stories, that it is the heart of our
human endeavor. And the second part -- because I'm a romantic -- is the idea of
a journey. I grew up in a house where there were people who came to visit who
had gone on great journeys. My father ran an Outward Bound school, and among
other things I remember Colonel Francis Spencer-Chapman -- who wrote the book
The Jungle Is Neutral about his time behind Japanese lines in Malaysia
-- telling me how he went in disguise into Lhasa in the 1930s. And so the idea
that not only is there a "once upon a time" but there is also a great journey
to take, and that there are stories to tell about that journey, has always
animated everything I've done.
I started as a cameraman and editor, making my own films, first in South
Africa, then at the BBC in London, and finally in California, where I walked
into a small public television station in Huntington Beach. I sat in an office
with an editing table, a camera, and some rolls of film, and we got to go out
and shoot stories. And on weekends, I'd take the leftover Ektachrome and put on
the white gloves, and recut it for my own private film.
And so there is, to me, a great joy in the tactile nature of this business, the
making of something. I still think of it as a kind of carpentry. It's a bit
like cabinet making: it is this endeavor where you take fine pieces, or scraps
sometimes, and find ways to fit them together and make something that was never
there before. And I love that part of it.
» First Experiments
Some years ago I came to Boston and I started a series called WORLD. The whole
idea was to try to see the world as others see it. And that began an
exploration that ran through WORLD and on into FRONTLINE. Along the way the
tools became more unwieldy and more cumbersome, and I got into complicated
films with very talented filmmakers. And I enjoyed more and more the act of
editing, in the literary sense, of working with somebody who really understands
their craft but who is open to being challenged in their craft.
And then something happened which, for me, was really interesting. I had seen
some of the earlier smallvideo cameras, but somebody walked into my
office and gave me an S-VHS camera, which was better than the standard VHS,
just that little bit technically better. And I was sort of admiring it when I
had a visitor, a producer, who came in and said, "I've got this great film to
do in the West Bank and I'm going to go and research this film, and I'll be
gone for about three weeks. I'll come back and I'll have a budget, and it'll
be a great film." And I said, "Oh, I've already got two films in the Middle
East. You can do all that, but I'm not going to commission it. But I'll make a
deal with you. I'll buy your air ticket if you take this camera, and if you'll
shoot your research. And let's figure out how you can do it, how you would
shoot that research, and what we would do with it afterwards."
So he set out. It was actually quite interesting, because in order to use the
camera -- it was quite heavy at the time -- he constructed this piece of wood
with a weight on the end, which he screwed in the bottom so it could sit on his
shoulder and he could hold it steady. And off he went to make the film. And
when he came back with the material, I set him up in the office with two S-VHS
decks, and we did a kind of rudimentary editing. This was in 1983-84, and it
was tremendously exciting. It was back to that first act of making things, of
really coming in close.
And what was interesting, too, was that the grammar changed. The grammar of how
we told that story was really quite different from how we would do traditional
documentaries. We knew instinctively that we probably didn't want it to look
like a standard documentary. It was a diary film. We called it "Letter from
Palestine." And it was really in quite a different voice. It's a voice one
looks for in really good narrative literary journalism -- an interior voice,
but a written voice. And it was in the words that it really came alive. But
the journey pulled you forward. The character of the voice, and the kind of
inquiry, was what made it so interesting.
That was the beginning of a series of encounters with small cameras in between
making, as I said, these more complicated documentaries. And a few years after
that I developed a series called ADVENTURE, and one of the early films in the
first season was made by a wonderful character named Rob Perkins, who made a
film called "Into the Great Solitude." He took a High-8 camera and stuck it in
his canoe and went six weeks down the river alone. He was a poet, and it was
in the pictures of his shadow lengthening across the tundra, or the small
details that he noticed, or the moment he sat up in his tent and remembered the
dream about his father, that his film came alive in a most special way. And in
that sense of the immediate there is something tremendously exciting and
something that I think hadn't, without a lot of luck and expensive footage,
been done a great deal.
Just after that, I was thinking about how to sharpen a fairly straightforward
historical film about Tibet and the Chinese, and I realized what we needed to
do was to thread it through a journey. And I couldn't help but think of
Spencer-Chapman and his trip to Lhasa. David Breashears, the great Himalayan
cameraman and climber, is a close friend, and I said, "David, how do we do
this?" He said, "You can drive to Lhasa from Kathmandu. You go over the
mountain pass at 17,000 feet." And I said, "Well, you need a traveler to go,"
and so I called Orville Schell, who's now the deanat the UC
Berkeley journalism school, and Orville said he'd love to do it. And I was
setting this all up, when I said, "Why are you alldoing it and I'm not
going?" So the three of us went as tourists with a High-8 camera, traveled
over the mountains, and made the film, which was a great and extraordinary
One of the interesting things was that we had really researched it -- we had
gone through the archive quite painstakingly -- and with this technology the
archive was not only in our minds but actually in our hands. We could stick the
tape of the archive in the cameraand find the sameplace in the
Shigatse monastery where it had been shot in the 1930s-- it's a cheap
trick in editing terms, but that dissolve-through was quite wonderful and
breathtaking. There was also the moment when I had the camera mounted up, and
an old monk came up and looked at me, and I pulled the tape out and stuck in
the archive, and encouraged him to look, and he knew enough about cameras to
want tosee the picture in the viewfinder, except that I put in a
picture of the youngDalai Lama in full color. And this monk grabbed
the camera and me, and off we went into the depths of the monastery to meet the
old abbot, far from the eyes and ears of our Chinese minders.
We got deep into the story, which actually took us into some quite scary
situations, and to some places where we had to protect the identity of the
people we met. And I realized, too, the tremendous responsibility -- that these
small cameras take you to places where the people really do trust you with
their lives, in many cases.
» Going Digital
For me, each of these stories contains the seeds of what I think is important
about this newtechnology -- its immediacy, its encouragement to
experiment, and its invitation to adventure.
In the late 80s I produced a series called "Ring of Fire," which was part of
ADVENTURE. Two extraordinary brothers, Lorne and Lawrence Blair, set out across
the Indonesian achipelago in the wake of Alfred Russell Wallace, the great
Victorian naturalist. They sailed from Macassarthrough the Banda Sea to
the Isles of Aru, in search of the Greater Bird of Paradise. They shot it all
on 16mm film, and Lorne for many years kept that film mouldering under his bed
in Bali. I finally got him and his brother and all the footage to Boston, and
we cut this wonderful series of four hour-long films.
Well, ten years later we decided to go back to Indonesia, and we chartered a
boat, and we were setting out to sail from Irian Jaya through the Moluccas down
through Tanimbarto Timor -- it's this exotic corner of the archipelago.
I had a cameraman, a film camera, and we were going to go make a film of this
newjourney. But when we arrived in Bali, we discoverd that Lawrence
hadn't asked for permission for anybody to film, and that certainly the
Indonesian authorities in Irian Jaya, with the Free Irian movement going on,
were not going to let us in with any equipment at all.
Three days before we leftthe States, I had bought the first three-chip
digital Sony camera that came into Newtonville Camera in Boston. It was one of
the first in the country, and we hadbrought it as a kind of experiment.
So we sat in the hotel room, looked at each other, looked at all the film
equipment, and said, "Okay," and left it all behind. And we took off on our
three-week voyage with that single camera, and made what I think was probably
the first network-broadcast journey to be shot in DV. And that was a film that
was not only made with beautiful panoramas but with a wonderful sense of going
into places, from villages in Irian Jaya to small islands in the
Moluccas, with a mobility that we could never have had in any other way.
More recently, as this technology has become so pervasive and so available to
us, now on FRONTLINE we find ourselves using it regularly. We're in the
courthouses of East Boston shooting a
series with DAs and defense attorneys, shooting in digital video. And we've
found ourselves using it in all sorts of ways where I wouldn't normally have
expected it, in the interstices within much more complicated films, shot on
» Journey Into the Web
At the same time, there's a parallel journey, a more recent journey that we've
been on, which is into the Web. This is a story that starts in a lawyer's
office in Austin, Texas, where one of our researchers, trying to uncover
material on Waco and the Branch Davidians, came across a treasure trove of
recordings of the negotiations between the FBI and the Branch Davidians. And
that became the heart of a documentary. So we looked at that material, and we
looked at all of the additional interviews that we had done on a very
complicated film, and we built what is probably one of the first
deep-content websites in history, with Real Audio
on it, using all those materials. This was 1995, and interestingly, if you go
back and look at it, hardly anyone was doing any deep content on the Web; it
was all public relations and some news.
And so we took the interviews that we had done, and we decided that we were
going to publish them on the Web. Now, those of you in the business know that
those outtakes, the rest of those interviews, have been hallowed for such a
long time -- nobody else gets their hands on them. And so, for the first time,
we created a new boundary for ourselves: we're going to take this interview,
edit it slightly for repetition, and then publish it. And so anybody who wants
to go and see what we're doing can see the journalism that has gone into
And that act is significant on two levels. First, of being able to take what
was six to nine months' worth of very detailed work and to say, "Let's take
this iceberg that lies beneath the visible documentary and let's organize this
material in some very clear ways." And secondly, it represents a kind of
transparency about the journalism, which really holds us to a level of proof
that I think is quite extraordinary.
After the Waco site, we built a big Gulf War site, which is
massively impressive and interesting. And we found ourselves building on that
site again later, doing increasing journalism on it -- on Gulf War Syndrome --
so much so, and getting such a response on the website, that we fed that back
in, in a kind of loop, and ended up doing a documentary about the material that
had been gathered on the Web.
And we began to realize that when you construct a website like that, you begin
to be the guardian of a piece of intellectual history. In the best of our work
we are taking a narrative or a story and we are describing a journey through
it, and there is a landscape of other ideas and other material. These websites
can represent something quite profound like that, and in a way, the more we do
this, the more we build these sorts of websites, the more we become the
guardians and the literal curators of significant amounts of material.
We did a film called "Smoke in the Eye," about CBS and "60 Minutes" and the
tobacco company Brown & Williamson -- the Jeffrey Wigand story. And in the
course of that there's a story about 5,000 pages of Brown & Williamson
documents that landed on the doorstep of a professor. It's told very briefly
in the documentary, but when we got the 5,000 pages, we deconstructed them and
we decided to pierce through those documents in a way that would take you on a
journey through them on the Web. And this was very rudimentary -- this was
1996, and we didn't have the kind of technology you have now, the interfaces
you have now -- but we went through them and we picked the elements of those
documents from the first early meetings in 1953 through the significant
documents. There was a progression on the part of the tobacco companies from
first saying, "This stuff isn't so bad, we'll be able to fix it," and then,
"Gee, we've got some problems," to "Let's call in the lawyers" -- and that
progression was a narrative of sorts, and so we called it a Webumentary,
"The Cigarette Papers."
More recently, in what may be the most significant development so far, we have
been able to take several FRONTLINE documentaries, broken into manageable
chapters for the sake of the Web, and digitize them, and put them up there in
their entirety, in perpetuity, forever. And what that represents is
tremendously important and powerful to me. This work we do has always been so
extraordinarily ephemeral. For all we say about it being tactile, and how we
enjoy the making and the carpentry of it all, it nevertheless slips through the
fingers one night, and it's gone. But now, in this case, it begins to survive
in a much more profound way, and that makes a huge difference to what you're
doing and why you do it, and why what you put into it matters. Because
it's going to exist for the future. It's going to be there, and it's going to
be available in ways -- we could sit here and conjecture about them -- but it's
going to be available, and that changes everything.
» Going Forward
And so the challenge right now is, what do you do with this? How far do you
take this journey, and what do you do with it?
I'm not a theorist about any of this stuff, about the future of television. I
look at what's going on with set-top boxes and Tivo and such, and I know
they're going to give me a range of possibilities. I also know that I'm
probably not going to end up with a "converged" set. I think I'm going to have
what they call "device independence." There's probably going to be two sets of
experiences here. One is that I'm still going to watch television in a really
fundamentally old-fashioned way. I'm going to want a story that says, "Once
upon a time," and that's going to take me to a place. And then there is this
other experience, which requires that I am prepared to step forward and go in
deeper. And, of course, I will be able to link those two experiences. The
interfaces will connect. But ultimately, I think we need to preserve that act
of storytelling, and at the same time have great respect for these new tools
that are giving us the chance to expose ourselves and other people to the
materials we find.
In the cable universe, we are now constantly categorized, by way of "animals"
over here, "science" over there, "food and cooking" over there, and "news"
somewhere else. Everything is compartmentalized. And I suppose the thing that
I miss most in television is the idea that as a journalist and a filmmaker you
can go out into the world, and you can ask the hard questions about the place
you're in, and at the same time you can also understand and touch its culture
-- this is the great art of travel, of storytelling, of journalism of a very
special kind. And I think the opportunity we have with these tools is to be
able to reinvent that kind of journalism.