Uncluttered reality – is it real?
Conventions in Short Documentary by Jeffrey Ruoff, Cinema Journal 32, No. 3, Spring 1993
This is such a great article that it’s hard to find just two points in it that excite me and are new to me. In a big picture sense Ruoff provides a succinct summary of the history of observational synchronous-sound documentary filmmaking and then wraps his discussion of sound in documentary around the landmark television series An American Family, made in 1973 by director Craig Gilbert. What I really like about this is he lays out where this form of film-making had its roots and what the key drivers where and then shows how by as early as the 1970s these rules were being broken in An American Family.
A really key point that Ruoff makes is that location sound is a key element of observational documentaries and that paradoxically the very nature of shooting location sound can make discriminating sounds in a documentary difficult and sometimes almost impossible (Ruoff, p.24). He describes the clean ‘uncluttered clarity’ (Ruoff, p.24) of Hollywood style feature films that provide the viewer with an experience beyond realism, an experience of ‘heightened intelligibility’ (Ruoff, p.24) that feels like realism but is in fact highly constructed and controlled. He argues that where Hollywood sound tracks make it easier to understand sounds than in everyday life (because they are in many cases constructed by the foley artist in post production) documentary sound tracks can by their nature be more difficult to comprehend than sounds in real life (Ruoff, p. 28). This seems so simple but really captures the different worlds of feature and documentary filmmaking.
Having finished editing my first documentary last year, Ruoff’s discussion of the challenges and compromise of location sound is eye-opening and highly instructional. He notes that in some cases the filmmaker chooses to keep a scene with poor quality sound because that scene is pivotal (Ruoff, p. 28) which is a challenging decision. But he also describes how there are times when the clarity or sense of the soundtrack is so poor the filmmaker has to use other techniques to ensure the viewer can follow the situation. He describes how in An American Life the so-called rules of observational documentary-making are broken when a situation is re-recorded or where voice-over is used to explain something. He cites where what was said by the subject was so garbled and unclear that they felt they had to use voice-over to save the viewer from total confusion (p. 36). He also uses another situation in the documentary where the filmmaker records the sound of a subject’s footsteps in post-production because no synchronous sound was recorded at the time (Ruoff, p. 38).
Another key aspect of this article that I find really useful is the discussion of music in observational documentaries and the tradition that ‘music was fine as long as it was diegetic’ (Ruoff, p.32). Ruoff discusses how filmmakers argued that if the sound was sourced and recorded on location they were not obliged to pay copyright fees (p33). I am interested in following this up as I recently heard Michael Dahlstrom at MIFF discussing the making of the documentary The Animal Condition. He noted music as one of the biggest issues of the film and gave an example of having to lose a key scene because of the rights issues arising from music playing on the radio in the background. Ruoff also describes how diegetic music was used in An American Family to comment on focus on the mood or atmosphere of a scene (Ruoff, p. 33).
So I am left wanting to read more about the history of synchronous-sound observational documentary making and in particular to look at where that stands today – especially in a world where we are all owners of digital technology and are all capable of recording and sharing our life and our stories without the insertion of a filmmaker and their crew. I also want to explore the impact of the making and screening of the ABC/BBC production Sylvania Waters in Australia in 1992, our very own Aussie version of An American Life.