Pi Ware is the director of the new documentary Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons, about a nurse researching a disease that many doctors don’t believe exists. In this essay, the Emmy-winning editor and reality TV veteran talks about the differences between documentaries and reality TV.
Most people agree that the difference between reality TV and documentaries is the level of authenticity. Reality shows are more fun but more fake, and documentaries are typically slower but feel real. However, both genres strive for authenticity. So, how can you as a moviemaker capture it? With my experience editing unscripted reality shows, this was a question I had to face on my feature directorial debut Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons.
For competition reality TV (America’s Got Talent, Fastest Car, World of Dance) if you can approach authenticity, that’s usually good enough for the network. Viewers want some fun, some laughs, maybe a tear or two, but they’re not seeking a seismic shift in their worldview. You’re swinging for a different fence with documentaries. So there you’ll have to seek intimacy with the subjects.
The problem with documentary is that when a camera shows up, people have an instinct to “be on their best behavior.” As a documentarian you don’t want their “best behavior,” you want their authentic behavior. So how do you get someone to behave like there’s no one around them when there really is someone there, and that someone has a giant camera rig on their shoulder, and there’s another someone with a microphone on a stick, and maybe even a third or fourth someone taking notes?
Well, unless you’re doing a hidden camera show, you’ve got to form a partnership with the subject.
Forming a Partnership
In reality TV, the partnership comes easily. It goes like this: “Hey, you want to be on TV and become a famous singer?” “Yes, I do!” “You cool if I tell you where to stand, where to look, and how to re-phrase every answer you give on camera?” “Yes, I am!” There you go. You’ve got a willing participant — every once in a while you get a contestant who drags their feet, but generally people are OK “performing” their real lives, and viewers flock to reality shows by the millions.
Documentaries are different. “The foundation of the film is the relationship which you form with your subject,” says moviemaker Jesse Moss, whose documentary Boys State won this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. What you capture in the lens and on the mic is an extension of that relationship.
Director/cinematographer Sam Price-Waldman often has conversations for hours and even days with the subjects of his documentaries without a camera present.
Since Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons was my first feature documentary as a director, I was very anxious — even skittish — about my initial shoots. I leaned on experienced cinematographers who advised me about what approach to take. Skin Deep DP Alex Naufel’s advice was the most straightforward: “Be sincere in your effort. People can feel that, and they’ll respond in kind. That’s your approach.”
Alex’s words helped when it came to tackling the hotly contested issues surrounding Morgellons disease. Because much of the medical industry believes Morgellons disease is “all in the patient’s head,” patients who are suffering from it feel abused by a system designed to heal them. So the patients are often suspicious and defensive when approached. I was sincere and up-front about representing both sides of the Morgellons debate, which — rather than putting patients on the defensive as I feared — empowered them to be a strong voice for their side. And DP Sam Price-Waldman emphasized how our outlook needed to be less “What can we get from these people?” (a go-to attitude in reality TV) and more “How can we partner with this person so they can share their life with us?”
Reality TV usually has loads of people on the shoot, which limits intimacy. Because the contestants are down for whatever — they don’t care that there’s a PA holding a light in front of them or five other folks staring while they tell the story of their father’s battle with cancer. The subjects are psyched just to get a chance to be on TV! If they’re performers, they welcome the attention.
Documentary participants are another story, and you’d do well to limit the amount of people in the field in order to capture personal intimacy. The best-case scenario is when a director can run both sound and camera. “Being a one-man band affords you a lot of flexibility,” says Jesse Moss. “You answer only to yourself and can surrender to the moment — like taking a left turn down a dirt road to photograph a burning oil derrick. Plus, it’s financially advantageous.”
While I’m a solid editor, I’m not so great with cameras. So hiring a highly skilled cinematographer was a must for my Morgellons disease documentary. I trained myself in audio recording techniques (thanks, YouTube!), bought some gear, and kept the crew to a manageable two people. I did, however, expand to a second or third camera if we wanted to cover more ground at a two-day conference. There was little surrendering to the moment in that case.
Lavs are your Friends
As far as audio goes, lavalier microphones (lavs) are a lot easier for a doc subject or reality show contestant to forget about than shotgun mics on a pole that dangle down like a rotten banana. But lavs are finicky and you’ll lose dialogue due to radio interference and clothing rustle. I double up with a lav and a boom every time. Jesse Moss says that when shooting solo you might be tempted to skip the painstaking process of wiring up your subject with a lavalier and just rely on the camera-mounted shotgun mic. Resist that instinct. “Lav your subject religiously,” he advises. “You can record exceptionally good audio by yourself — if you actually monitor the sound with your earbuds.”
In competition reality TV, the crews are huge. But time to shoot? Never enough. With dozens of contestants, capturing the stories becomes an assembly line of sit-down interviews, b-roll shoots, performances, and on-the-fly reactions to what just happened in front of the judges.
On our first big shoot for Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons I asked my cinematographer Alex Naufel how other documentaries he’d worked on had captured so much footage of people behaving naturally. “You just have to spend the time,” he replied. I realized then that we were screwed. I had scheduled our shoots like a narrative indie feature or a reality show: three locations in a day while anticipating stellar “performances” on take three. I ended up having to return to the Morgellons conference four years in a row. I even shared short edits of the footage I previously shot with Morgellons patients to get new patients to feel comfortable around our cameras.
Continue for more of Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons director Pi Ware’s rules for documentary vs. reality TV…