When we watch documentaries we are watching stories assembled in an editing room. Fiction writing and filmmaking of course goes through its own editing process. But documentaries are fed by footage of nothing really happening, especially if the cameras are rolling as something plays out in real time. So editors have to pour through immense amounts of film to extract the pieces that make for a compelling story.
Think of the difference this way: in films that depict an event over several hours, days, weeks, years, often have a subtitle come up to situate the viewer in time. We’re only being shown the scenes in which something interesting happens. Presumably between these shown times and places, the characters are eating, sleeping, talking in the hallway, getting bored, having side stories. But the screenwriter doesn’t script that stuff nor is it ever shot (maybe some method actors and directors go through the motions, but it’s not intended for the final cut). Editors of fiction film choose the best takes of what is intended to be shown.
But nonfiction editors drawing from film of long-lasting events have to sift through all of this footage when nothing interesting happens. If there are multiple cameras, that’s even longer times of sifting through dull footage.
That documentaries can so memorably “capture what happened” is a testament to the patience and artistry of editors to extract the through-line of the story. Andrew Rossi and his team present a master class in this regard with 7 Days Out and other works like Page One or The First Monday in May.
As a former research scientist, I applaud what this team has done for “NASA’s Cassini Mission”:
When it comes to what it looks like to see science getting done, there are untold hours of really, really, really boring footage.
Trust me. My core data of thousands of measurements took weeks to collect, after 2 years of figuring out how to take it in a few weeks. I knew a geologist who took a month to collect a single data point in the laboratory. Often the experiment goes sideways and those hours, days, weeks, months produce data that only indicates nothing was learned. That’s just laboratory science: field scientists can spend years or decades to capture the full data story. While of course boredom can lead to deep insight as you’re waiting for something to happen, it would be sheer torture to expect someone else to only watch that in unedited time.
But spaceflight and exploration is exciting, right?! People finding new things, landing in distant places, taking pictures of scenes that no human has ever seen before!
To give you an idea of what Rossi and his team would have had to sift through, compare the lengths of two recent NASA videos. On November 26, 2018, the InSight lander entered the Martian atmosphere to touch down on the planet’s surface. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) posted a video to YouTube capturing mission control as the probe’s landing was confirmed. It’s some exciting three and half minutes.
But that’s a cut version. If you watch the recording of the livestream, it takes 55 minutes to get to the explosive celebration of touchdown that you might have seen in a few seconds of loop on social media. You probably did not even see 3 minutes.
In a way, the livestream is itself a cut version of the build to that celebration. Insight launched in May 2018, so not much seeming to happen (while of course much was happening) played out at mission control for six months. Before that, the lander had originally been scheduled for go in March 2016. Think of over two years of gnashing teeth waiting to even just start. The mission itself was proposed in 2010, with ideas stemming from the 2008 Phoenix mission, which itself came from a mission cancelled in 2000, that was a follow-up to the Pathfinder mission that landed in 1997, which was the first successful landing on Mars since Viking in 1976.
Would you like to watch unedited footage of the backstories of everyone in that room, and without, that led to that moment on November 26, 2018?
Our own brains don’t like to watch all of it. Memories are snapshots of everything that happened over the course of living (although a rare number of people seem to recall everything that happened to them). So we don’t remember all that happened – we remember a story of what happened.
Great documentarians allow outsiders to see the stories that insiders remember.
This is how a subject as seemingly arcane as science can be made compelling. Editing together footage of things happening with just enough backstory of the main “characters,” we the audience get to know these characters a little. Then when we see their anticipation and nervousness and joy and sadness in an event playing out, we appreciate what they are going through. We go through “it” with them, if only as an observer. I put “it” in quotes, because we are seeing a snapshot version … a remembered storyline.
But we are not passive observers. We get emotionally involved. Empathy means that when we see someone reacting emotionally, we feel some emotion as well. Or at least we recognize that the other person is reacting emotionally. That realization, perhaps self-feeling, changes how we regard the context. It connects us as humans.
So the science in 7 Days Out is depicted so that we appreciate the hard work done by scientists. We peer into the rooms where it happens and “meet” the players as revealed by the tour guide editors. Then we understand that science takes dedication because we feel part of that dedication by these other humans, who happen to be scientists.
Rossi et al help us understand and appreciate science by showing us the subjective experiences of objective work.
Documentaries allow us to see a little of others’ stories and consider how they reflect our own lives. Perhaps the content of the documentary will inspire us to join those people on the screen. Whether it’s to increase our support of what they do or even to change career paths to join forces with them.
The key is to capture and edit to the essential parts of the story. By throwing out the completeness of all that happened, the version of record ironically feels more real. Documentaries look like memories as we know them to look. We recall the poignancy and the captivating parts because we felt that and our attention retained that from our own experiences.
The best documentaries look most human regardless of content.
This is why I have been writing these posts, with a couple more in mind, on how 7 Days Out is a master class in science communication. Led by a team of filmmakers that I’m sure do not describe themselves en masse as science communicators. Rather by showing the stories of humans doing science, in many human moments, but very few processes of science, more audiences will appreciate and regard what it is “like” to be these scientists. Even if they are other scientists themselves.
These are communications efforts, artistic pieces, worth supporting and emulating.
Here are the other installments in this series, as they appear:
Editing Renders Memories (this post)