How many pieces to camera does a good documentary need?

Tuesday 13 November 2012, 16:39

Charles Miller Charles Miller edits the College of Journalism blog and produces documentaries for BBC History and Business. Twitter: @chblm

How many pieces to camera do you need in a presenter-led documentary?

I can’t remember anybody ever telling me, or even suggesting any kind of rule of thumb about it.

Sometimes, in a depressing viewing of an early cut, an exec producer will suggest that complicated sequences in the second half of the film could be helped along with a few simple, explanatory in-vision pieces. And that often turns out to be a good idea.

But otherwise, as a director, it seems to be up to you.  

So my question is: does a good film gravitate to a certain rhythm, with the presenter doing what Americans call standups of a particular kind of duration at a particular sort of interval?

Kenneth Clark Kenneth Clark To answer that question I have looked at three films: the first episode of Andrew Marr’s recent History of the World on BBC1, Stephanie Flanders’ recent Masters of Money film about Hayak on BBC2 and the first episode of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation - perhaps the original BBC ‘landmark’ series, first shown in 1969. (It was 50 minutes long, while the other two are 60.)

If the first two represent the BBC’s current output, Civilisation is their revered ancestor. Clark’s delivery is magisterial (pronouncing ‘man’ with several syllables, more like ‘Mayan’) and the whole pace is different: the film begins with more than a minute and a half of organ music and not a word spoken before Clark strolls into shot.   

Here’s how the pieces to camera (in red) popped up in the timeline of the rest of the film (in pink):

Pieces to camera timeline Pieces to camera timeline  

As you can see:

  • Civilisation has far fewer, and much longer, pieces to camera than the two contemporary films
  • The contemporary films are very similar in their patterns despite the fact that the Marr programme was a mainstream film for BBC1 while the Flanders was a comparatively esoteric subject for BBC2
  • Perhaps there is one visible difference between Marr and Flanders in that the viewer sees more of Marr at the start and end of his film than of Flanders at the start and end of hers. In that sense, BBC1 seems to require a more obvious authorship from its presenters, setting up their subjects in a personal way and drawing the threads together at the end. There are also more pieces to camera by Marr than by Flanders.  

Andrew Marr Andrew Marr So where is all this going? If we analyse a film in this way in 20 years’ time, will there be even more, even shorter pieces to camera? A picture colourist once told me that the number of shots in a typical documentary has more than doubled in a couple of decades (greatly increasing his workload). The same trend can be seen here: today’s cutting is much faster.

But strangely, on the BBC at least, films themselves have got longer: subjects that would once have been commissioned at 40 or 50 minutes are now 60. That’s the result of a need to create ‘common junctions’ between channels. But it’s surely asking a lot of our twitchy, distractable audience to expect them to pay attention to a single subject for a whole hour. No wonder they increasingly have other screens on the go while they’re watching TV.   

The numbers:

Average duration of pieces to camera:

Clark: 97 seconds            

Flanders: 19 seconds

Marr: 19 seconds (yes, exactly, the same as Flanders).

Number of pieces to camera per film:

Clark: 12 (if this had been a 60-minute film, that figure, in proportion, would be 14.4)

Flanders: 26

Marr: 39.

Stephanie Flanders Stephanie Flanders You can’t really prove anything with only three programmes but the difference between the past and the present is so marked, and corresponds so strongly to what you’d expect, that I’m confident it’s right. More detailed claims about the differences between the Flanders and Marr films need more data.

It would also be interesting to know how many pieces to camera were actually recorded, and therefore how many never made it to the final film. I have always thought that filming pieces to camera is among the most efficient uses of time on location. You don’t want to end up with too many, but the strike rate in terms of finished duration in the final film is much higher than, say, the equivalent time spent doing interviews.

Footnote: how I measured the figures:

There was a certain amount of judgment needed, in that pieces to camera often start or end out of vision, and cut away to other shots in the middle too. In all cases, I tried to judge the start and end of the piece by guessing the ins and outs of the location sound - in other words, I am not ‘stopping’ my measurement when the editor has cut away from  the presenter as long as it’s obvious that what we’re hearing is part of the in-vision piece.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Interesting piece. As you say - no surprises. I know 'ordinary viewers' who dislike the fact that presenters often walk and talk - which looks they say unnatural. Of course, we all know why these get filmed (fear of the static) - but the walking shot can look pretty dumb.

    Can you explain why the number of documentaries with presenters has risen so dramatically in the last five years?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Thanks for the comments Chris: has there been a dramatic rise in the use of presenters in documentaries? Maybe - less 'fly on the wall' series perhaps, and more authored pieces about big subjects?

    Re walking and talking: my own pet hate is presenters finishing what they're saying and then striding off purposefully as if they've got more important things to do than talking to us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Interesting article, Charles, but you do demolish your argument in a single paragraph:

    "You can’t really prove anything with only three programmes but the difference between the past and the present is so marked, and corresponds so strongly to what you’d expect, that I’m confident it’s right."

    In other words: "I wondered something, set out to find it in three things I myself chose, and found that I was right."

    Is this how BBC Journalism is done?

    Whoops, we already know the answer to that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Re view_from_afar: I pointed to the small sample to avoid claiming too much. But it is surely valid to draw a distinction between the very marked - and visually obvious - difference between the old and new films and the much smaller differences between the two contemporary films, from which you wouldn't want to claim anything much? But I’d be delighted if anyone else would like to do a bit of number crunching to help draw more robust conclusions.

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