Although many believe people are more media-conscious than ever, Wiseman says there has been little change in how his subjects react to a camera over the past 40 years. “It’s no different than it was when I got started in 1966,” he says. “For reasons I still don’t understand, even after this many years, people will willingly let me photograph and record their daily activities. Very rarely do they look into the camera or decline to participate. You can never underestimate narcissism and vanity as possible explanations, or it could be people’s wish to cooperate. I don’t think the camera changes people’s behavior. Most of us don’t have the capacity to act. If we did, then the level of talent in most Hollywood movies would be substantially better. If people don’t want their pictures taken, they say no; if they agree, they act in ways they think are appropriate, and that’s just what I as a documentary filmmaker want for the film.”

All of Wiseman’s early films were shot in black-and-white, and the choice to move into color was made primarily for practical reasons rather than aesthetic ones. “My first color film was The Store [1983], and I felt that had to be in color because the objects for sale were so colorful and that was part of the story. Other films were shot in color because the black-and-white film stock simply wasn’t fast enough. For instance, I wanted to shoot Ballet [1995] in black-and-white, and we tried using [Eastman Double-X] 7222 on our first day, but it was not usable. We went back the next day with [Kodak] Vision 500T [7279] and it looked terrific — same room, same light. I would love to have had the abstraction of black-and-white to capture the compositions and choreography, but it wasn’t possible. We shot color for Blind [1987] in part because of the fact that color was absent from the subjects’ lives. I wanted the audience to experience what the blind could not.

“Fortunately, Kodak has been very active in creating and improving film stocks, in part to keep up with advances in video. You can shoot in very low light with Kodak’s color negative. However, I’d prefer to shoot in black-and-white. I’ve heard that Kodak’s 7222 is much faster now, and I might start using it again.”

Although most of the filmmaking world has embraced digital editing, Wiseman instead cherishes the relationship he has long maintained with his six-plate Steenbeck flatbed, along with the requisite trim bins, plastic cores and reels that accompany it. Although he recognizes the speed with which one can work digitally, that kind of creative velocity seems to hold little appeal for him. “I’m not certain, based on conversations with people who work on an Avid, for example, that there’s much saving of time or money,” he explained to one interviewer. “People say, ‘You edit quickly on an Avid,’ and I’m sure it’s true. But with the amount of material I have, I’m not sure that editing quickly is necessarily a premium. I need time to think about my material. It may be old-fashioned of me, but the time I take rewinding or standing up to get another roll is not wasted time — it gives me time to think.”

Wiseman adds with a wry laugh, “I’ve found that the only way to edit a film is to sit in the chair and do it — just set up an intravenous drip and never leave the chair until I’m done! I find the story of my films in the editing. I begin by reviewing and logging all the rushes in the order they were shot. I then start editing sequences that interest me. That helps me get into the material emotionally and intellectually. The early phase of editing can be very boring because there’s so much footage. I first edit all those sequences that I think might make it into the final film; this takes six to eight months. When all those sequences are edited, I assemble the first structure in three or four days. This first assembly is usually 30 or 40 minutes longer than the final cut.

“Then I work on the rhythm within a sequence and the rhythm between sequences. I find the form by studying the rushes and trying out all the possibilities that occur to me. I don’t start with the idea of a structure or point of view and then edit the material to conform to that. The structure emerges from studying the material. I can only do this when I’ve been immersed in the film for a long period.

“Editing is a funny process because on one hand, it’s very deductive and logical, but on the other, it’s very associative. And I have learned to pay as much attention to the associative aspects as the deductive. That’s very important when you’re trying to reduce real-time sequences to what can be usable in a film. The rushes have to be condensed and edited so they work as film sequences.”

Mass audiences have flocked to select documentaries over the past few years, but Wiseman is careful to not draw too many conclusions from the trend. “There has been a certain ballooning interest in documentaries,” he observes, “but whether that will endure remains to be seen. Every five or 10 years there are a few that receive a wide release and make substantial amounts of money. Whether more documentaries become commercial successes remains to be seen.”

Wiseman’s company, Zip-porah Films, not only handles the distribution of his titles, all of which he owns, but also safeguards them for the future, maintaining the picture and sound elements for each title in the archive of the Library of Congress. “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we had a film about hospitals during the Civil War, or New York City in 1812?” he posits. “We now have the opportunity to create a historical record of what life is like today. I hope my films and those of other documentarians will be of interest in the future, and that historians and future generations will be able to use them to understand what our lives were like.”

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© 2006 American Cinematographer.