celebrating 20 years of FRONTLINE
From Film to Video to the Web: Making Documentaries in the Digital Age
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20 years / 420 programs
david fanning

From a speech by FRONTLINE's executive producer, David Fanning, at the Pew International Journalism Program conference "A New Look at the World: Digital Video and International News," Columbia University, New York City, May 4-5, 2001.


Louise Lief, Deputy Director, Pew International Journalism Program

David Fanning, the executive producer of FRONTLINE, began his filmmaking career in 1970 in his native South Africa. His first films, produced for BBC TV, dealt with race and religion in his troubled homeland. In 1977, Fanning came to WGBH in Boston to start the international documentary series WORLD. As executive producer, he produced and presented over fifty films for PBS in five years. He created the PBS series ADVENTURE in 1987, which ran for five seasons, and began the development of FRONTLINE in 1982.

We are particularly pleased to have David with us today because he's had a long interest in small-format video, stretching back fifteen years, and he also has an interest in the Internet and in trying new things, which is what this conference is about. FRONTLINE did one of the earliest websites for broadcast television and was one of the earliest to experiment with the possibilities of the Internet to complement and enrich the narrative of documentaries. As many of you who've worked on documentaries know, there's a tremendous amount of work that goes into them that often never makes the screen, and FRONTLINE has been looking for ways to take advantage of all of the research and the material that goes into documentary filmmaking.

He's a romantic and a visionary and, with great pleasure, I introduce David Fanning.

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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 experience.

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 digital Beta.

» 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 this.

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.

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