Documentaries and reality television shows both claim to present the truth. But their productions are similar to the famous Vegas motto, indeed, what happens behind the scenes stays behind the scenes. Let’s zoom in and take a sneak peak into what it is like to work for the real.
Ever wandered how your favorite shows are made? Known for his versatility as a cameraman, Vincent Brügel, a German freelancer has shot various productions. He brings to light the differences in shooting a reality television show and a documentary.
The Chameleon-like Cameraman
Vincent never missed an opportunity and climbed up the ladder within the television industry. He started as a Prop Assistant for a famous German television series and is now seeing his own work broadcasted on several channels around the world such as Germany’s public service broadcasting channel NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk), the Franco-German channel Arte, the famous American sports channel ESPN (Entertainment Sport Programming Network) and even TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System).
Vincent Brügel is a chameleon-like cameraman. As a freelancer Vincent had to build his professional network by himself. Thanks to many opportunities, numerous and various shootings, he was able to expand his field of competence and free to discover new fields. Vincent has thus shot entertainment shows, sports and humanitarian documentaries alike and believes such versatility party explains his professional success.
Capturing a different image through his lens is what makes Vincent so passionate about his job. “I love humanitarian subjects but actually, I also love working on entertainment shows. Sometimes, the subject you are shooting isn’t so important. Whenever I’m working on humanitarian documentaries, I’m committed to my job because it’s meaningful, it’s about meeting interesting people and I learn a lot about myself while working on them. But there are also shows where it is just about entertaining the audience and for me it’s just about having fun while shooting.”
Shooting the Real
The real is what exists or has truly existed, it is authentic and true as opposed to imaginary. Truth lies between reality and the one who thinks it. It’s an idea that matches the feeling someone has of reality.
Realism is seeing reality, nature as it is, objectively, without hiding anything. It is the exact representation of human and social reality, that is not idealized. Documentaries are realistic.
Fiction does not have to be justified, it is governed by the narrative. While documentary is accountable as it refers to life. One can not write a scenario for a documentary unlike fiction. One can only write a hypothesis because he does not know what he will find on the scene of the shoot that is singular and specific. In documentaries, the experience makes the scenario.
But like any other film, one chooses what one films and then one organizes the rushes during the editing. So even documentaries claim to film life as it is, in reality, it gives a certain point of view. Film critic and theoretician Bill Nichols describes documentary realism as “a professional code, an ethic and a ritual” and not just a style. But he also admits that documentaries do not show the truth but a certain view of reality.
While shooting a documentary Vincent Brügel gives place to his creativity. He is the one choosing the various camera angles, nothing is written. But of course, as stated above, “the director has a story in mind, but nobody knows during the shooting if everything is really going to happen as planed.”
Therefore, the director knows what he wants to show through his documentary, his cameraman is aware, but he still has to be attentive to everything as he doesn’t know what the protagonist is going to do next and has to think fast if something unscheduled happens.
A Scripted Reality
Since its appearance on our screens, reality television has beaten records in Europe. Its principle is very simple: to film individuals on a daily basis or in certain situations more or less unexpected. However it is essential to note that, contrary to what its name indicates, this type of program is based on the very opposite of reality. To understand this, it is enough to look into the environment in which evolve the candidates previously selected. For most of the shows it is ever a heavenly (Les Anges de la Télé-réalité) or nightmarish (Koh-Lanta) environment. Secondly, the implausible activities of the participants are far from reflecting the daily life of people living in our society. It is totally unthinkable to speak about a “reality television” when it is rather a false life of real people.
The characters that are often found in this type of programs are the following (slightly caricatured): the noisy, the sensitive, the rebel, the gifted, the big brother, the bimbo… They certainly have different personalities but they have very little modesty and that is their only common point. In fact, candidates are not chosen by chance because the casting managers are looking for pre-defined personalities in order to insure that the intended scenario attracts the audience.
According to Jonathan Bignell, Professor of Television and Film at the University of Reading (UK), reality television claims “to signal the death of documentary, killing off a great tradition of observational and socially concerned program-making”. Like documentaries, reality television is observational but unlike documentaries, reality television depends on a manipulative misuse of the camera. Vincent makes this manipulation clear. Filming reality television shows is all about constantly following the candidates around. But on the other hand “all the stories are planed by the production or the director”, so at the beginning of the day, Vincent is aware of more or less all the different scenes that are going to be shot during the day.
Consequently, reality television is supposed to show the every day life of ordinary people but in reality, entertaining the viewers is the only reality that counts.