Editing and Representation

I just came across this interesting nature documentary clip on YouTube. It’s from a BBC series called Inside the Animal Mind and it illustrates the remarkable intelligence of the crow. Well, perhaps it does, and perhaps not. If you read the comments below the clip, there are a number of people who (inevitably) cry “fake!” There’s also a lengthy description by Graham Russell, producer of the series, of how the sequence was obtained[1]. And herein lies the problem for those viewers who doubt what they’re seeing.

In the clip, a crow performs a complex series of tasks in order to obtain a bit of food. Although it has been exposed to each task individually before, this is the first time it’s been faced with them all linked together – and it performs the series of actions almost flawlessly. It’s a remarkable achievement.

And, according to Russell, entirely genuine. But what we see is a highly constructed sequence using multiple camera angles, giving the impression that the crow’s performance has been pieced together in the editing room. Hence some viewers’ doubts. Russell explains that the entire series of actions were performed for the first time before a camera observing in wide shot (the shot with which the sequence starts, around the :18 mark). But then, the team had the crow repeat all the actions multiple times, so that a variety of other angles could be shot to provide close-ups of the various individual actions.

In other words, what we see is a constructed representation of what is purportedly a genuine event which we only glimpse occasionally when the editing returns us to that wide shot. So while the crow probably did do what we’re told it did, what we see is not the actual continuous performance of that action, but a cut together representation of it. Which means that the viewers who express doubt about what’s being depicted are to a degree entirely justified. What we see in the clip is not in fact exactly what happened.

Rather than simply showing us the actual event, the program’s makers had to make it flashier for television, where everything has to be cut for excitement. Of course, there would have been a very simple way for Russell and his team to avoid turning a remarkable real event into a fictitious-seeming construction: all they needed to do was to run that first wide take as an uninterrupted inset image at the corner of the edited sequence to show that all those close-ups were actually representing what did in fact happen. But as is all too often the case now, these filmmakers have lost all sense of the spatial and temporal integrity of the event itself; manipulating the image is so ingrained that it apparently never occurred to them that they were, by the strategy they had chosen, undermining the very thing they were trying to convince their audience was remarkable.

In fact, viewers and Web surfers are well enough versed in the techniques of editing, digital effects, Photoshop and the like, that you’ll find a constant level of distrust towards anything which appears to be truly remarkable. This can become pretty tedious, but is entirely understandable because the people who make the videos or create the photos have become far too “clever” in their ability to manipulate reality. So even if one believes the event being depicted in this particular clip actually happened, one can nonetheless still feel a certain distrust of the people who made it because they themselves (unconsciously perhaps) didn’t fully respect the remarkable behaviour of the crow and its ability to impress a viewer, and imposed themselves on the event in order to “improve” it.


(1.) Hi,
I made the documentary from which the clip is taken. Let me tell you how I did it.
Before we left the UK, I sent a bird hide and 3 gopros out to New Caledonia.
These objects were placed within the bird’s aviary – meaning he was used to them before we arrived. No filming took place.
Also prior to our arrival, the bird was allowed to investigate each individual part of the puzzle – and work out for himself the mechanics of each component.
He’d never seen them all strung together.
The problem I faced was one of coverage. I could have littered the puzzle with 8 gopros plus my cameraman in the hide. But this would have looked like a mini-cam festival.
So instead, I decided to faithfully tell the story of the FIRST take, no matter what happened.
What you see in the clip really IS what the bird did when presented with the problem for the first time.
However – I needed more angles to paint a better picture. So I reviewed the footage, and then over a further 5 or 6 takes, moved the GoPros to get the extra angles, whilst the cameraman changed lenses to get tighter shots of the bird’s head etc.
In the edit, we constructed the initial sequence from that very first take – this established our time-frame and the true story. We then cut in to that master sequence using the shots picked up on subsequent takes.
(FYI – the bird only made that mistake once in the very first take) (return)


2 thoughts on “Editing and Representation

    1. Glad you liked it, Grant. I’ll see what I can do!

      This is something I’ve been concerned about for years (often attributed to the “MTV effect”); it’s actually fairly inherent in mainstream movie and television production, with the pace of cutting steadily increasing over the past five decades or so.

      Although this can be used effectively (like any other technique), as a global practice it has resulted in the tendency of movies (and even documentaries, as here) to substitute a kind of ADD blur for visual coherence. Personally, I prefer longer, slower shots to this sliced up style because I happen to like to be able to see what’s going on with some kind of clarity. That’s why I love the work of people like Welles, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bela Tarr, Angelopoulos, et al, who are almost obsessively concerned with the spatial and temporal integrity of the image.

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