A new series by Ken Burns is always a major event and The Vietnam War (currently playing on Mondays on BBC4) is certainly the most significant thing he (together with his collaborator, Lynn Novick) has produced for quite some time. Any documentary series on that war was always going to attract criticism from various quarters, and, though the critical response has been overwhelmingly positive, the series does have its detractors. The tag-line “there is no single truth in war” indicates Burns and Novick’s approach, but will no doubt be regarded as a get-out clause by those with their own agendas on the subject. For me, it is one of the best things he has done and my sole regret is that the BBC is only giving us half of it – the so-called “international version”, with each episode reduced to 55 minutes – just as they did all those years back with The Civil War. The good news is that the full version will be available on DVD at the end of the month, though at a hefty price (I sense a stitch-up here).
The angle I want to consider in this blog is the use, or more specifically, the presentation, of archive footage in Burns’ work and other documentaries. Unsurprising, really – I spent my professional career involved in archival preservation, the supply of material for re-use and the critical consideration of new documentaries using archival material. And I say specifically “presentation”, because I’m not talking here about the correct identification of footage and its appropriateness to illustrate the points being made, but rather the technical and aesthetic aspects of how it is used, above all the aspect ratio in which it is shown. It’s something of a hobby-horse of mine and, even at this distance, I can still hear the groans of my fellow Peabody Board members every time I brought it up!
Now, I don’t want this blog to become like an academic-style paper. I’ve already done that a couple of years ago in a piece called Archive Footage in New Programmes: Presentational Issues and Perspectives, for the e-journal on European Television History called View, and you can still read it at http://viewjournal.eu/archive-based-productions/archive-footage-in-new-programmes/ if you care to, though I will re-cycle a few of the points I raised in that piece.
When the shape of the TV screen changed from 4:3 to 16:9 around the turn of the millennium and historical documentaries began to be made in widescreen formats, the inclusion of material from television archives, as well as actuality film and feature films shot in the academy ratio caused a problem because it did not fit the new screen shape. There were three possibilities: 1 – cropping the image to fit the screen; 2 – stretching the image to fit the screen; or 3 – showing the image in its original ratio, either with part of the screen left black or some sort of framing device. As an archivist, concerned with preserving and re-showing materials as they were originally intended to be seen, I have always preferred option 3 and have regarded option 2 as anathema.
Ken Burns has tended to employ option 1 and has done it so well that I am completely won over to his approach. Having established the so-called “Ken Burns effect” by scanning across beautiful monochrome photographs, he can hardly be taken to task for doing something similar with moving image materials. Too often, “cropping” is done with little regard for composition, resulting in ugly images where the tops of people’s heads are cut off, for example, but Burns has always ensured that the integrity of each image is retained. This takes time and is expensive. In a production where archive is not a major part of the budget, corners will be cut, but with Burns archive is the point and he treats it accordingly. And the results can be stunning – nowhere more so than in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (PBS, 2014), which contained a wealth of beautifully presented stills and 35mm footage.
But it was not just Burns which won me over to the use of cropped footage – it was time. The first major widescreen historical documentary series, Jeremy Issacs’ Cold War (Turner/BBC, 1998) came as something of a shock. It wasn’t just that parts of the 4:3 images were being lost – it was that their very nature seemed to be changed. According to the shorthand of the medium, widescreen images were associated with the cinema, so factual material was being made to look fictional, it seemed to me. This had already been done in the cinema itself, in films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988), but not in documentary. Indeed, it was the rapid growth of the “cinematic” documentary (designed for cinema release or festival showcasing in the first instance, but ultimately intended for TV or home video), which normalised the practice and made it ubiquitous.
However, I have also noticed a more recent trend towards the use of original ratios, as film makers realise that the audience is sophisticated enough not to be worried about changes to the screen shape and that they can use it to indicate shifts in time without having to include that in commentary or on captions. One of my favourite documentaries in terms of its use of TV archive material is James Lapine’s Six by Sondheim (HBO, 2013), in which a large number of interviews with the Broadway composer are intercut, all retaining their original ratios and framed in the shape of contemporary television sets, which conveys the impression of the subject’s consistent brilliance at different points in his career, without the need to signpost dates or provenance. Similarly, Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx (HBO, 2015), uses TV archive material from the 1980s to the 2000s carefully framed within the high-definition 16:9 frame and often with “blurred” top and bottom edges to convey a constantly shifting time frame (including material from the brief hybrid 14:9 era, when that ratio was used as a compromise during the transition from 4:3 to 16:9).
Indeed, it has been the increasing use of specifically television archive material, as the TV era morphs from “the recent past” into “history” and the rolling 50th anniversary-fest reached the sixties, which has driven this development. This is the first time Ken Burns has made a major series where his primary source of archive material has been television archives and he has come up with some interesting approaches to its use. Much of it is grainy and shaky 16mm and some of it is video, but Burns has applied his usual care to its transfer. In the fifth episode he introduced a new concept by showing some material on a period TV set before cutting to a cropped version of the same extract. The main aim of this device was to illustrate how the war was being perceived back home, but it also allowed for a “correct” perspective on the framing of the original material. The use of period TV screens to showcase old footage is nothing new, but Burns makes dramatic use of it by filling the 16:9 screen to the very edges with the image of the 60s TV set, thus transforming your TV into one from the period, so that you experience the broadcast as it first happened.
So, I am encouraged by the way so many great documentaries now treat archival footage, but, unfortunately, one can still come across instances where footage is distorted to fit the screen size, particularly when haste, budget restrictions or simple indifference are factors. The worst recent example of this was a couple of weeks ago, when BBC4 transmitted Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942) in the context of the fascinating new films commissioned to celebrate its 75th anniversary. The extracts in Kevin Macdonald’s introduction were correctly presented but the complete film itself was stretched to fill the screen (yes, I could have changed my screen’s settings, but that’s not the point). For me, presenting this documentary masterpiece in the wrong ratio is akin to misquoting Shakespeare or playing Beethoven in the wrong key. I certainly expect better of BBC4.
A couple of final observations on The Vietnam War: the closing credits contain a disclaimer I have not seen before, which reads “Some archival materials contain scenes that may have been staged by their original creators” – of course, this is always true, but it is interesting to note that Burns and Novick felt it necessary to state it, and it would be even more interesting to know which materials they are referring to (maybe the DVD set will clarify this); and I enjoyed the ending to episode 5, which involved a fade to black, followed by the unmistakable jangling opening to The Stones’ Paint It Black, with the credit “Directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick” appearing precisely on the first drum beat. Homage to Full Metal Jacket? Has to be. Outstanding!