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Tim Mangini on Documentary Production at Frontline

Part Two of our interview with Tim Mangini, the Director of Broadcast for WGBH’s Frontline: (Read part 1 here)

Filmmaker: Do you feel like you’re now moving away from DSLRs at Frontline?
Mangini: When Canon made the 5D they added the video capability almost as an afterthought. It was not, “Hey, let’s revolutionize filmmaking.” Well little did they know, they revolutionized filmmaking.

Along the way, people started asking for things like, “It would be really great to be able to record audio that was worthwhile, or it would be really good if the files could be transferred easily, or it would be really good if I could watch what I am shooting in hi-def while I am shooting it.” Word got back to Canon, and Canon started making their DSLRs better at doing those things.

That being said, part of my start in the business was in sound. As far as I am concerned, sound is such a vital part of storytelling. In our world, in documentary filmmaking, it’s in some ways more important to the story telling. If you have bad sound you’ve got big problems.

It’s really important to have high-quality audio input into your camera. With DSLRs, it’s a little bit harder to do than with cameras that are designed to do that. They have bars and tone built in, they have XLR connectors, and they have meters you can read, and head-phone jacks. They are designed for this. I generally prefer for somebody to use what I call a “real camera,” designed for that use, as opposed to a camera that is being used for something other than what it was designed for.

Filmmaker: Why not use double-system audio?
Mangini: Given our tight time frames, double-system can be a problem for us, both having to sync everything up and keep it in synch through multiple layers of our process. It can also be a problem when you archive the material. Let’s say I want to bring that show back in five years, am I going to have PluralEyes to resynch all that audio? Or do I have to archive it in a way where I mate that audio permanently with the video?

There’s reasons why I prefer what I call “real” cameras as opposed to DSLRs, but if we have an entire documentary shot on a DSLR, we make it work.
Filmmaker: With your producers, do you think the attraction of the DSLRs was the small size and low-light sensitivity, or the shallow depth of field?
Mangini: I think the shallow-depth of field was the greatest attraction for them. To achieve that look with a 2/3 inch sensor, you need a terrifically long lens, and it needs to be a pretty damn good lens to maintain its sharpness at that length, and you need deeper rooms too. We often interview somebody in their office or a hotel room, and you just don’t have enough depth to get that look.

There’s no question that when you’re running around Afghanistan, or in Iraq, having that small, inconspicuous form factor can be a real benefit. In fact, one of our top shooters, Ben McCoy, who has historically shot with a big rig, went down to Washington DC to shoot for one of Mike Kirk’s documentaries about the political system. They decided to shoot a hearing in the Hart Senate building, and he went in with a DSLR and he shot the event on the DSLR, and then he wandered the halls of the Hart building, getting amazing B-roll. They had press passes, but nobody paid any attention to them.

They went outside and decided, “Okay, we need to get some stuff on the big rig” because they were about to do an interview. They get out the big Sony 800, and the moment he walks into the building security stops him.

Of course, now with the C300, and the Sony NEX-FS100, and the PMW-F3 to some degree, they are making these large-sensor cameras in a smaller form factor. To some degree, people can have their cake and eat it too.

Filmmaker: What NLE do you edit Frontline in?
Mangini: We are primarily an Avid shop. We’re agnostic in terms of what comes in, but because we have upwards of seven to 14 Avid edit rooms all sharing media, it’s helpful for us to have the project finished in Avid. If somebody is finishing in Final Cut we can online in Final Cut, it’s just we find Final Cut doesn’t share as well on these really big documentary projects.

Filmmaker: You’re mastering it at 1080i. Is that your preferred shooting format?
Mangini: For many years we preferred that people acquired in 1080i 59.94. That’s our broadcast format, and there are the least potential for anomalies from frame-rate conversion if you shoot in the same format that you are distributing in. I’m always trying to maximize the viewer experience; I don’t want people thinking, why is that so herky-jerky? In recent years I have found that, though we use hardware conversion whenever possible, the software that’s available is doing a much, much better job of smoothing that out.

That will not however, solve the problem of poorly-shot material. One of the reasons why motion pictures that are shot at 24fps transfer well is because the directors of photography have read the American Cinematography Manual and know how to acquire material that does not exacerbate the lack of frames. They shoot it in ways that, for example when they are doing a pan, the motion blur in the shutter helps mask it. Nowadays, anybody with a camera can shoot 24p. I can assure you that less than 1% of them have read the American Cinematographer Manual and know how to avoid having motion problems when you shoot.

We see a lot of motion problems captured in the field. It doesn’t happen if you’re shooting a sit-down interview, but if you’re out in the field capturing a lot of motion, that’s a problem. Then somebody will go into a non-linear edit system and decide to slow it down to 30%, and now you’ve got this start-stop-start-stop effect. That’s one of the reasons why we tried for many years to have people acquire in strictly 59.94 or 29.97.

But in recent years the cameras have given DPs new capabilities, and our software is better at handling the conversion, so now we accept anything and everything. We advise producers to “pick a frame rate and stick to it.” If you’re going to shoot 24, shoot everything in 24, offline at 24 and then we’ll master at 24 and output 59.94. If you’re going to shoot 30, choose 30i or 30p and do as much as you can at that frame rate. It’s a real problem, we think, for the viewer if the film is half 24 and half 30.

We also tell people that when you’re acquiring stock footage, most stock houses will ask, “What do you want us to deliver it in?” But I don’t want a stock house delivering something that they have perhaps poorly converted. We tell producers, “Find out what the original was, and get a direct clone of the original,” whether it be a tape or a file. Put that in your timeline – nowadays non-linear systems can have every type of frame rate and resolution in the timeline – and then we will do the conversion in the online to make sure it’s as good as it can possibly be.

Filmmaker: You distribute Frontline in multiple formats?
Mangini: As soon as the program is completed and locked, and it has passed technical evaluation, we immediately need to create a number of other versions. Frankly, I don’t even know all the versions, but they include foreign distribution, DVD distribution, iTunes, and versions for archiving.

We have an internal version that we call the “doc only” that is something we can pull off the shelf and easily repackage. I think there’s something like 30 deliverables that we have to make from the single program, and that all starts happening as soon as we lock and call the show done on Friday.

Filmmaker: Are you doing anything with 4K?
Mangini: No. If someone chooses to shoot with a 4K camera that’s fine, but I am not a quality snob who feels that everything needs to be shot at the highest possible resolution. As much as anything I have to be practical financially. We’re trying to maximize the resolution that we can get out of the budget dollars we’ve got.

One of the stories I’ve told many times is that one of the most beautiful films that was ever shown on Frontline was shot with a Sony PD150 in standard def, but it was in the hands of a really talented director of photography. It’s far, far more important what’s behind the camera than what’s in the camera. A good DP will always capture the light better with a lower-quality camera than a lousy DP with a high-quality camera.

As far as I’m concerned, we don’t really need people to be shooting at 4K. It might be a while before we are broadcasting 4K, and frankly I don’t believe our audience would be able to tell the difference unless they were viewing it in the right environment. Right now, in 99.99% of the viewing environments that people see Frontline, they would not be able to tell the difference.

Filmmaker: What advice would you give to someone starting out who dreams of working at Frontline?
Mangini: I have those conversations a lot, because there are a lot of folks out there who would like to work on Frontline. What I tell them is, practice your craft. There’s really nothing, nothing that replaces the repetition of creating material over, and over, and over again. One of the best ways to learn is to do something and then fail at it, and then say, “Ah, okay, I won’t make that mistake again, I can make it better by doing it this way instead.”

If you’re going to go out and shoot something, figure out what you’re going to shoot it with, and practice that. Know it like it’s an extension of your anatomy. Know your camera and your sound gear because when you’re in the field you want your reaction to be to the story, not to, “Oh I’ve got to do this, before I can do that.” Because as far as I’m concerned the documentary medium is storytelling… it’s truth telling and storytelling. I want the technical side of it to go away and the best way to do that is just to find ways to make stories. That can be with your own stories, or joining up with somebody else who’s making stories and learning from them.

Maybe even better is the apprentice system, which sadly feels like it’s disappearing in our world, but I think that working at the knee of the masters a great way to really A) learn how to tell stories and B) figure out how the craft figures into that.

You can read more about the production of an episode of Frontline in: FRONTLINE’S PRODUCTION SCHEDULE

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