This is not an exit

Lecture Notes | Jon Palfreman

In Uncategorized on October 20, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Technology changes at an ever-increasing pace, whether you look at the development of the personal computer or devices that help us tell the stories we spend hours researching and interviewing.

Today’s speaker in my J100 class started his career with the BBC across the pond and later brought his talents to the States, producing one-hour documentaries for the likes of such PBS programs as Nova and Frontline. He’s won a Peabody Award for his documentary series on the development of the personal computer, The Machine That Changed the World, and an Emmy for his work on the Nova series Siamese Twins. Jon Palfreman’s focus, like that of Ed Madison, was primarily broadcast journalism, but a few points stood out that are universal to journalism storytelling as a whole.

Mr. Palfreman gave us a look at the process through which documentaries were once produced. It’s funny to think that there will soon be a generation to which the concept of film is completely alien, but in the old days, that’s the way it was done, dagnabbit.  In the early days of documentary film-making, video and audio had to be recorded separately, then spliced together on editing hardware — note that: hardware, not software — the most popular method being the Steenbeck.

So much film ...

Because film spools usually ran for about 10 minutes before running out and audio went on for 15, documentary interviewers would have to detach themselves from their subjects at various intervals in order to keep recording.

“It was a very cumbersome process,” Mr. Palfreman said. “If you touched a cable, the whole production would be shut down.”

Because of high production costs, crews would make sure sources were as brief and concise as possible in order to maximize the use of their resources. These days, with digital media nearly eradicating such concerns, filmmakers are free to keep the cameras rolling as long as they please. But the constriction of film may have been somewhat of an advantage.

Crews would conserve as much of their film as possible, thus limiting the amount of time they would spend reviewing material during editing and projects usually had a 5-6 week turnaround, Mr. Palfreman said. To contrast, these days most projects take between 10-12 weeks to complete.

In fact, there were several advantages and disadvantages to either era of documentary filmmaking:

Film-based methods required training
There were many more opportunities for folks interested in the trade to receive some sort of education in the medium. Because it was such an involved process, there was a definite need to learn how to properly set up scenes, compose the shots and so on. Only very rarely, if ever, would you see clunky amateur work.

There was also a hierarchy
Because there were such high costs associated with film-making those days, there was a need for establishments specifically designed to produce the work. That’s where you would run into producers and other higher-ups who would dictate direction, sourcing and impose several limits that would stifle creativity.

Limited distribution guaranteed viewership
When the BBC only had two channels, or when ABC, NBC and CBS dominated the airwaves in the States, if you got something produced and broadcast, everyone saw it. Mr. Palfreman mentioned that one of the best things about producing great work was that when he rode the train in the morning, he’d hear people talking about it. On the flip-side, if something he produced was a total bomb, he’d hear people talking about it.

But the trade was highly inaccessible
Of course, when it took so much to make it into the business, it was pretty easy to get discouraged.

So this is where advances in technology came in. As devices got smaller, it was easier to make it into more intimate settings. Whereas you’d be hard-pressed to get access for an entire film crew into an elementary school, it’s pretty easy to get a Flipcam in.

We watched a clip of a group of teachers rounding up their class to begin a reading lesson. After a few minutes, chaos took over and it was nearly impossible to get on with the reading. I can only imagine how uncomfortable that must have been for the cameraman. But that’s what journalism’s all about: “Dealing with the world the way it is, not the way you want it to be,” Mr. Palfreman said.

The conversation then turned to clips from Mr. Palfreman’s Peabody-winning series, The Machine That Changed the World, a work that focused on the development of the personal computer. And, of course, many props were given to Steve Jobs for his emphasis on accessibility and ease-of-use.

Believe it or not, there was a day when politicians and businessman thought there would never be a need for the average citizen to own a personal computer. Oh, how times have changed. As technology progresses, it increases our access to information we could hardly dream of before.

Just as the printing press revolutionized literacy centuries ago, the current rate with which media technology is progressing means nearly anyone can break into the business. Because of that, we’re constantly exposed to Tweets, status updates, news reports and myriad other informational bits every hour of every day. Whereas the major question was once “How do I get into the industry?”, now it’s “How do I make sure my voice is heard?”

And here you are: Takeaways!

-No matter how much the mediums with which we tell our stories change, the principles remain the same: It’s all about people.
-You need thick skin to make it in this industry. Embrace your failures and learn from them. Don’t let yourself get discouraged.
-At some point when you’re interviewing a subject or seeing somebody in action, you’re going to get uncomfortable. When you do, that’s when you know you’re doing your job.

I’ll leave you with some links.

Jon Palfreman bio at PBS.
His documentary on health care around the world and in the U.S..

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