Filming the ‘Witness’ Disaster Series

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By: Carolyn Wells, Assistant Producer ‘Witness Disaster’

‘Witness Disaster’ was a very different challenge to most documentaries I have worked on. Instead of trying to find the best things that we could go out and film we had to find out what had already been filmed by other people! The project therefore started with myself and the director trawling through amateur film clips to try and find which events had been best captured by the people who had experienced them. For a couple of our stories we found incredible footage that we felt told the story of an event on its own. We discovered amazing amateur footage from a skier caught in an avalanche, and also from a man who filmed a tornado approaching his house. These tapes contained enough footage for us to tell these stories from one perspective. However, unearthing such unusual film was a rarity, and with our other stories we took a slightly different approach – using many different film sources and news reports in order to piece together the narrative of an event. A particular challenge was telling the story of the Haiti earthquake and the week that followed it. This was a complicated event and in the end we needed to use three different witnesses, along with their footage, as well as footage from news reports and a variety of other amateur sources, to construct what happened.

Once we had identified our five events we were then faced with the difficulty of trying to use minimal voiceover in the documentary. The style of ‘Witness’ is to let the real life footage tell the story wherever possible, rather than a narrator. We were able to achieve this partly by using news reports to explain what was going on, but we quickly realised that we also needed to hear the voices of the people who actually filmed the footage that we were using. We therefore needed to track down, and then interview, the people who had filmed our natural disasters. This involved a trip to Edinburgh in the United Kingdom and also to Washington, Cincinnati and Denver in the United States. We took our background drape with us and picked up a local cameraman from each city we went to. It was a great experience to hear people’s stories first hand, and the interviews that we carried out with victims of the Haiti earthquake were particularly moving. The resilience of both Dan Woolley and Rick Santos, who were both trapped under rubble for over 50 hours, was very inspiring.

The edit involved constructing our five natural disasters from a first hand perspective using our interviews and as much footage as we could obtain. The challenge was finding all the elements from existing footage to create the necessary narrative for each story. However, the resulting film immerses the viewer in the story of each natural disaster – as it actually happens.

Catch the encore of Witness: Tornado Swarm 2011 and Witness: Disaster this Saturday at 9P and 10P et/pt.