Post Production

Lara Logan’s 60 Minutes news style vs Tyler Stableford’s documentary style: A mountain climbing case-study in editing

There’s no denying the success of CBS’s 60 Minutes. It’s the quintessential news magazine show that many of us aspire to attain in our own video journalism work.

And when I first saw Lara Logan’s “The ascent of Alex Honnold” (13:19), a story about Alex’s insane free solo climbs, I was captivated. In Logan’s words: “He scales walls higher than the Empire State building, and he does it without any ropes or protection” (2 Oct. 2011. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/10/02/60minutes/main20114487.shtml?tag=currentVideoInfo;videoMetaInfo)

Watch it here:

60 Minutes “The ascent of Alex Honnold” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SR1jwwagtaQ)

However, when I saw Tyler Stableford’s “Shattered” (5:29), a story about Steve House who looks like he is climbing ice with no rope, I feel more connected to the work than with Logan’s 60 Minutes piece — despite the fact that Stableford’s piece is a “poetic” documentary. Video journalists can learn techniques from filmmakers in order to make their work more compelling. This post explains some of these techniques.

Yes, Stableford’s is poetic — the words are from Steve’s heart, but the filmmaking is staged and sponsored by Canon — but the nonfiction feel of it, the cinematic elements Stableford utilizes offers lessons of how video journalists can shoot more cinematically and engage a strong editing style.

The difference revolves around what makes film cinematic and what makes TV news style journalism what it is. Just watching the two we can see and feel the differences right away.

Watch Stableford’s work, here:

Stableford’s utilizes cinematic elements — visuals tell the story, we hear the subject’s voice as he wrestles with his inner purpose (Steve feels a sense of emptiness from his aspirations). Stableford maintains an intimate shooting style with Canon’s high end DSLR, the 1D-X, and other than his camera and his team’s cameras, we don’t see or the storyteller onscreen.

In contrast, Logan’s presence — her reporter-performer-personality — dominates the story. The visual shots show us Alex’s ascent. We can see him reach into the crevices, yet  his story is mediated by Logan’s reporting.

For example, at 2:25-2:53, we hear Logan say these words as we see five shots:

This is Alex in the film “Alone on the Wall.” He’s done more than a thousand free-solo climbs, but none were tougher than this one:

Here he is, just a speck on the northwest face of Half Dome.

You can barely make out the Yosemite Valley Floor below, as he pauses to rest.

He’s the only person known to have free-soloed the northwest face of Half Dome.

[Pan and tilt up for next two images.]

As Logan mentions, these clips were from the film, “Alone on the Wall”, a 24 minute short by Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen of Sender Films, a partner with 60 Minutes in shooting their story, “The ascent of Alex Honnold.”

The shots are compelling, the story riveting — but all through this piece I feel like I’m being mediated by Logan’s presence, her narrated filter. I’m not getting the feeling of Alex’s story. I don’t feel it at the same level as with Steve’s ascent.

In Stableford’s piece, the work is certainly being filtered, but in a different kind of way — it’s cinematically subtle. We’re getting strong cinematography by Stableford and Draper White, and they’re certainly manipulating us through images, rather than through his narration.

For example, the first minute comprises several shots of night landscape shots, a close-up of Steve breathing and walking, his boots crunching and squeaking against the crystalized snow. We don’t hear a voice until at 1:02, and it’s not a reporter’s or filmmaker’s voice, but the voice of the subject, Steve House.

And that’s simply more compelling, at least for me, when I compare the two similar stories. And yet one is a work of tv news magazine journalism while the other, in the words of Stableford, is a “visual poem,” and not to be taken as documentary truth (Steve does have hidden safety ropes). It becomes a different kind of truth.

Along with Stableford’s compelling shots, the key element that makes his work stand out revolves around the edit — how the rhythm shapes the emotional pace of the film. In contrast, the pacing and rhythm in Logan’s piece utilizes her narration and the intercutting of interview footage.

In Stableford’s work, we see how his editor, Dave Wruck, creates an emotional rhythm around energetic cuts. Karen Pearlman, in her great text on editing, Cutting Rhythms (Focal Press, 2009), discusses the importance of shaping moments of tension and release in the edit as the primary means of shaping rhythm in a film. Let’s break down the climax (4:21-5:59) and see how Wruck crafts this moment.

The monologue flows as I depict it here. (I’ve made the longer duration shots larger than the short ones, which I’ve grouped together.)

1 [4:21-4:28]
I’ve shared rope with 19 people who are now dead. Killed by

2 [4:29-4:32]
mountains. Most were simply in the wrong place

3 [4:33-4:35]
at the wrong moment.

4 [4:36-4:40]
The wrong place–

5-7 [4:41-4:42]

8 [4:43-4:45]
Is it here?

9-12 [4:46-4:47]

13 [4:48-4:49]
The wrong moment.

14 [4:50-4:51]
Is it now?

15-18 [4:52-4:53]

19 [4:54-4:59]
Will I know? [Eyes close. Sound of exhaling breath.]

In 38 seconds we get 19 cuts. In team Logan’s work (with Mortimer and Rosen),  there’s five cuts in 28 seconds (one zoom and one pan/tilt-up, in effect reframing the shots for two additional). The sequence, as well as overall work is evenly cut, Logan’s words and interviewer’s words offer nearly nonstop narration, setting the rhythm and tone of the work.

In Stableford’s film, Wruck’s edit of this sequence engages a rhythm of breathing in and exhaling, of gripping the ice quickly with toe-hooks and axe as we get the sense that one misstep, one wrong grip of the ice axe, and  Steve will fall to his death — so we are led to believe. We feel a sense of danger not through his words, but through the rhythmic tension created in the cut.

As he closes his eyes and exhales the tension is released, but the cut to black at the end makes us wonder, is it over?

Is Logan’s 60 Minutes news magazine piece better or worse than Stableford’s documentary work? Is Stableford’s short better? I’m not arguing against the content and perhaps comparing the two different styles isn’t necessarily fair (poetic versus journalism), but how an audience reacts to a story is valid — and determining the techniques used in order to create the reaction is even more valid.

Logan’s onscreen presence reassures us of our own feelings about what we’re seeing. We feel the story through her as she exclaims and performs surprise, wonder, and shock as she looks at Alex’s ascent on a monitor. It’s a longer story providing history and documentary evidence (such as photographs as a child) — it provides a bigger picture of Alex’s life as we try to search for meaning, a context for why someone would ascend Half Dome without rope.

Stableford’s impeccable eye and a keen understanding of cinematic techniques shapes the audience’s experience of his film in a different way. He engages shot variety, sound design (natural elements such as wind and breathing), and a keen understanding of pacing and rhythm in the edit in order to shape moments of tension and release in the audience.

Logan’s narration provides as a reporter’s context. Stableford places us visually there with not other context than his lens. The illusion of film excites the danger, because in some shots, Stableford is just inches from Steve’s face, so we’re getting the raw emotion of a big close-up.

Alex is obviously in danger during his ascent, and even though Steve isn’t in any real danger, we feel it more in Stableford’s film because the techniques of cinema — including the construction of tension and release in the editor’s seamless and colliding cuts — are simply far more visceral than narration.

Furthermore, Steve is not ascending a cliff the size of the Empire State Building. In the behind the scenes footage, below, we see the cliff isn’t nearly as high as Alex’s Half Dome ascent. The techniques of cinema make us believe that he is higher up than he appears on film, which activates our imagination, our emotions more powerfully — for what is within the frame encompasses the reality of the film. (http://vimeo.com/40029920)

Despite the fact that Stableford’s film is not a documentary, I feel the film is more powerful than what Logan’s team constructed. And what can’t be denied is how high up Alex is.

As a lesson in editing and engaging purely cinematic techniques, Stableford crafts a powerful story, one in which we feel the dangers of hanging on a wall of ice. We’re brought there visually, through a poetic truth. While Logan becomes the intermediary –the way we interpret and feel about Alex’s ascent. Her words tell us and contextualizes our experience as we’re led by the hand by a guide into Alex’s ascent. Stableford’s lens puts us there with Steve, so we feel his emotions, struggles, and determination. We’re allowed to feel and interpret Steve’s ascent on our own terms.

Can video journalists shoot and edit in the cinematic style of Stableford and still do journalism? Of course. Many already do (Travis Fox, Dan Chung, Jigar Mehta, Dai Sugano, among others).

Video journalists can learn from these kinds of cinematic elements. For those interested in engaging in this kind of visual journalism, I discuss this style more in depth in my new forthcoming book Video Journalism for the Web: A Practical Introduction to Documentary Storytelling. I explore the techniques of cinematic style with DSLRs in DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video.

———————-

Kurt Lancaster, PhD, is the author of DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Focal Press, 2011 and Video Journalism for the Web: A Practical Introduction to Documentary Storytelling, Routledge, 2012. He teaches digital filmmaking and multimedia journalism at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication.

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1 Comment
   Shannon Thorp said on July 8, 2012 at 6:37 am

Great post, Kurt! Thank you for this.

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