Friday, 23 May 2014

Facing Fencing: reflecting on an unfinished character study

Like all intensely focused individuals, Tim has a very pronounced abnormality and because of this I was immediately sold on him being the focus of the character study.

Fencing is a short documentary and reflective wiki that I co-created with my colleague, Thomas Wiltshire, for our final year BA (Hons) documentary project. The project was orchestrated between October 2012 to April 2013. For more detailed overview see Fencing: an examination of the sport and an exploration of the documentary medium.

The fencing character study was a practical exercise designed to get us in the swing of documentary making - essentially, the character study was our practice documentary.

The character study was filmed and edited in January, 2013. 

The character study was something that neither Tom nor myself could devote a great deal of our time and attention towards. Both of our final year schedules were pretty busy and most of our time and attention was directed towards the planning of the main Fencing documentary.

The focus of the character study is Tim Miles, a coach and member of the Bath Sword Club. 

What follows is the original reflection and deconstruction I posted on the project wiki.

The post includes:

  • the two rough cuts I did manage to complete
  • details on the planning 
  • details on the process of filming and what we learnt from that first practice shoot
  • an overview of my thinking behind my editing approach
  • a brief description of what the completed character study would have been like 
  • what we learnt from the overall experience

If you want to understand the challenges and logistics behind formulating (pre-production), orchestrating (production) and re-formulating (post-production) a documentary subject, then reading the following reflection about our practice project is a pretty good place to start...

The Fencing Character Study

The editing of the character study was undertaken by Pete, as Tom did not have any time to devote to it. 

The video below is what Pete was able to edit and is really testament to the brief amount of time he was able to devote to it. 

This edit is still incomplete and is missing a final segment that would have focused on Tim fencing and what he ultimately gets out of fencing. With this final segment, the next cut of the character study would have been around 3 minutes in length. 

The next step would have been to trim it down to about 2 minutes 30 seconds. Then the colour correction would have done with the final sound fixes and titles implemented. 

However, both Pete and Tom have now abandoned the character study in favour of concentrating on the main documentary.

Subject and Planning

I think Tom had more enthusiasm for the character study exercise than I did. To me the character study exercise was just a hindrance I didn't want to deal with. For this reason, I said to Tom that we should absolutely try to connect the character study with our main documentary idea, because then it would at least be a productive venture. 

To this end Tom suggested that Tim, one of the coaches and the chap which the above video is about, would be a good subject for a character study.

My thinking was to film the character study before Christmas and, to this end, I nearly suggested another idea for the study. As Tom was taking a while to get back to me about Tim, the idea I had was to do a character study on the chap who runs the new East Wing cafe that has opened on Newton Park campus. 

I know the guy who runs it, it's on campus and it would also have helped my colleague Matt Coot out because he has been trying to do a video on the cafe all year and hasn't yet managed to get footage of it. I figured this would have been a safe bet for a character study, but I decided to wait for Tom's reply on Tim because, ultimately, it would serve us better to go down that route. 

Ultimately, Tom did get back to me and said we could do it in the beginning of January.

Tom singled out Tim because Tim is someone who has been fencing his whole life and who takes fencing extremely seriously. As with the rest of the documentary, with the character study I was very much the outsider but as soon as I met Tim I could see that he was everything Tom had told me he was. 

Like all intensely focused individuals, Tim has a very pronounced abnormality and because of this I was immediately sold on him being the focus of the character study.

Following on from this, Tom and myself worked out a rough structure for the character study (essentially, this is still retained in the rough cuts) and then drew up a number of questions that would allow us to draw from Tim the information we needed to fulfill the agreed structure.


The filming of the character study was fairly straight forward and was achieved without any problems. For myself and Tom it was simply a case of following our plan and shot list

Character Study shot list 
  • Tim Interview 
  • One on one coaching with Tim Footage of coaching 
  • The children warming up with Tim
  • Tim fencing
  • General footage of the Bath Sword Club 

Tim had agreed to come in twenty minutes earlier to film his interview which we managed to do in about ten minutes. Then, when Tim's student arrived, we filmed the one-on-one coaching and then did the final filming of Tim fencing, as Tom had to see to his usual fencing duties.

We did encounter a brief problem with the sound where we thought we were picking up interference on the radio mic. It was in fact nothing more than the rain on the roof of the sports hall. 

However, it did necessitate me to ask Tim to re-answer the third question again and I'm glad we were able to ask him again because he gave us a much more detailed second answer. We didn't need a more detailed answer but it did give us a little bit more material to play with in the edit and material to use if we found ourselves at a loose end.


I took on the task of editing because, due to other upcoming assignments, Tom had no time to devote to the task. However, as I had minimal time to devote to it I made it clear to Tom that my edit was never going to be perfect.

With my edit I’ve followed our agreed structure as much as I could and when we were discussing the structure Tom even went so far as to talk about the actual arrangements of shots and the cuts between them. 

However, I knew it would have been impossible to follow it to this level of detail and the footage we had shot would not allow me to anyway. By this, I mean it’s all very well wanting to start the video with a long tracking shot but if the only tracking shot you have suddenly and quite obviously dips at multiple points throughout the shot then I’m going to want to edit around those dips and probably disregard the whole shot all together.

When we were filming the character study we very quickly abandoned the tripod just because it was easier to follow the action with the camera hand held. However, we both needed to have a bit more practice with handheld because we let ourselves down at points in the footage. That said, it was just as well that the character study shoot was also a practice shoot for the documentary.

The thinking behind this comes from my and Tom’s POV on fencing. 

When we were talking about how we were going to edit the study I suggested that we each produce our own cuts. Tom wasn't so keen on this idea because he really wanted to get the character study done as quickly as possible. However, I felt it we had produced our own cuts they would have been very good indicators of each of our POVs on fencing. 

To this end I think the first 30 seconds are very indicative of my POV of the outsider. If Tom had edited it he would have instantly established the presence of fencing; whereas I’ve gone the other way and gradually introduced the concept, I’m editing it for people who are ignorant towards fencing.

The first shot is of the warm-up but unless you’ve seen a fencing warm-up before you don’t know it’s a fencing warm- up so as soon as you see the feet moving in unison and the members standing in a bizarre position you ask: what is this?

Already, in the first shot, I’ve got the spectator asking a question, so they’re going to keep watching because they want to know the answer. I also selected this as the opening shot because I wanted something I could stay with for a while without cutting away (and because the first thing you see is feet and I’ve always loved the opening to Strangers on a Train). 

As I could stay with the shot for a while I could introduce the testimony of Tim over it opposed to cutting to him sat down in front of the camera which would have been the wrong way to start it. It’s better to pick a much more interesting shot bring Tim in over it and THEN cut to him sat down and establish his presence as an interviewee.

Also, what I loved about Tim’s testimony about why he does fencing is initially he doesn’t actually mention the word ‘fencing’. Therefore his testimony acted as a perfect backbone for the visual opening/introduction I was creating, so I went along with it. 

For me, the ignorant person, I had to start with this information: what do you do fencing or why should I, the spectator, who has no interest in fencing, spend some of my time watching a video about fencing? 

However, Tim starts talking about dancing so I cut to Tim doing a sort of star jump like exercise, here I visual elaborate on what is being said and make the connection that fencing share many attributes with dancing.

This shot was the only piece of footage that I captured from the character study shoot that I was happy with because I felt like I had actually captured something worth capturing. Tom later commented that it was good that I caught this because he Tim never smiles!

However, in addition to elaborating on what is being said I’m also visual saying what Tim is essentially saying that fencing shares many attributes with dancing so to make this visual connection I cut to Tim as full fencing iconography...

... and pulling his hood down which allows me to set up his presence in the later shot, as soon as that hood comes down he could be anyone!

Then I cut back to man himself saying the punch line: the reason why an ignorant viewer should watch a video about fencing and why someone would want do fencing: “Give a small boy a sword and invite him to hit his friend - what you going to do? You’re not going to turn it down.

Naturally, then you have to follow this up so you cut into Tim going full pelt and as he does so we zoom out to reveal the full ferocity of his action and of the other fencers in the background. 

I’ve gradually introduced the different elements of it: the footwork, the posture, the elegance, the iconography, the ferocity and the reason why anyone could be tempted to do it. 

In the first 30 seconds I’ve introduced the concept, I’ve made it clear this is about Tim and I’ve got the spectator even more intrigued. That was the ‘way in’ I assembled and I figure it's a pretty good ‘way in’ for any ignorant audience member.

Once I had established this ‘way in’ for the audience and ‘way in’ for myself I found the rest of the study pretty much edited itself. 

The only part I haven’t done is the final segment and there are two reasons for this: 

  1. Lack of time.
  2. Lack of a final definitive point by Tim.

From 0:46 – 2:10 we’ve already established that one of the things Tim gets out of fencing is the pleasure to pass his knowledge on but, ultimately, what is the single absolute thing he gets out of fencing? 

Essentially, Tim did answer this question. The problem was he gave us a very general answer and didn’t really define in simple terms what it is he gets from fencing. 

When we were interviewing him we should have pushed him further. Unfortunately, this didn’t occur to me until after I had watched the footage back. 

If I did have a final definitive statement from Tim it would have given me a backbone around witch to create a fitting ending.

I have no doubt that I could have assembled a similar and, perhaps, less satisfying ending from the material I had. I even toyed with using some of the other footage we had shot from the later shoots. 

Ultimately, I refrained myself because I wanted to stick with the footage that had been specifically filmed with a character study in mind. I wanted to remain pure to the task and maintain the challenge of the task. 

My ending would have brought together all of the best bits of Tim’s fencing to demonstrate his ferocity and skill. Then joining this footage together with some of Tim’s general replies I would have attempted to demonstrate ultimately what he has attained from fencing.

However, I ran out of time, so the character study remains unfinished. If I had finished editing the final segment of the study I would have then gone back and trimmed it down. Then I would have colour corrected it, finalised the sound and added titles.

Music is an option, but I would rather have had the music from the start and used it to influence my edit. 

Really, I just was more interested in presenting an ‘unfiltered’ realist presentation of the fencing and music would have detracted from this. 

On the other hand, if you were going for a more formalistic approach, as I’m sure Tom would have done, music would work with it. 

Again, it would have been great if Tom had produced an edit because it would clearly demonstrate his formalist approach in comparison to my realist approach.

Perhaps, if I can clear some time up later on in the year I will have another crack at finishing the character study.

Below is the initial rough cut that was screened in the character study documentary session.

Key Things Learnt 

  • Be more careful with our handheld camera operating.
  • Encourage interviewees to generate a final definitive point on the subject they have been questioned. 
  • Keep the/an ending in mind so that your subject is leading towards something and, therefore, being narrowed down. 
  • Be more selective towards the general footage we shoot.

Why see how we took this practice exercise and initial research and factored it into the planning of the main documentary...

Focusing Fencing: the preproduction of Fencing

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