Garth Spruiell has spent the last thirty years working as a professional video editor, most recently creating promotional content for The Weather Channel and before that tweaking everything from ads to religion to porn for an independent editing shop in Los Angeles. He knows the tricks of the trade: how to grab your attention, heighten emotion, create seamless transitions, or even weave a compelling story from a whole lot of nothing. From Spruiell’s point of view, all video depends to some extent on “lies,” meaning that the videographer manipulates what the viewer sees and feels by cutting out some content, layering in other content, or creating outright illusions. In the following interview with psychologist Valerie Tarico, Spruiell talks about how editors ply their trade and, more specifically, about how he as a professional editor sees the video campaign attacking Planned Parenthood including candidate Carly Fiorina’s bizarre claims about what she saw.
Tarico: You say that all video editing depends to some extent on what you call “lies.” What do you mean by that?
Spruiell: Even in the best of situations—say you simply are trying to make a documentary that is emotionally powerful—even if you have no motive except to describe the truth with sound and pictures, you have to sort of dramatize to make it impactful; but to keep it centered in reality, you are careful with the music you play, you are careful with how it is lit, careful about the balance of content.
As a student, I studied ethnographic filmmaking. How do you make a scientific document? There were even official regulations from the anthropologists—to make a movie that is actually a scientific document, you should frame from head to toe and never make an edit at the time someone is speaking—there were all of these regulations to make it scientific rather than to make it a story. But it was almost impossible to do because, even if you are framing from head to toe, you’re still framing. There’s almost nothing you can do that isn’t an edit in some way, and whatever you do you are telling a story, making a narrative. It was a long time before I came to the conclusion that a good story is a well-crafted assembly of lies. You can carefully arrange your lies to approximate the truth, and the best documentaries do that. I’m thinking, for example, of Ken Burns, whose PBS civil war series is a masterpiece. But aside from the very best, most producers are concerned primarily with whether they have an audience or not rather than exploring some complex reality. Almost all documentaries tell the narrative that the producers want to tell.
Tarico: So, a good video editor is a master of illusion.
Spruiell: My favorite example is Hitchcock–the shower scene in Psycho. You saw the woman being stabbed, or so everyone thinks. But you didn’t. It was a 78 edit sequence where you never see the knife going in or out. You see it going down; you see it coming back. You see the agony on her face. Everybody thinks they saw her getting stabbed because your imagination fills in the missing parts and make it into a seamless whole. That scene has always been an inspiration to me because it is such a magnificent lie.
Tarico: You also talk about drawing people in by manipulating intensity or emotions, particularly in your advertising and promotional work.
Spruiell: As a senior editor for the Weather Channel, I worked in the promotions department. If I’m trying to get you to watch a documentary I have much more latitude in terms of how much I can fake than if I’m creating the documentary itself. Say I’m creating a promo for an extreme weather documentary about a tornado. There would be the natural sounds in the documentary footage, what we call “nat sounds.” But I also had special recipes of different sounds to put with tornados to make them more emotionally impactful. There were other things you could do with the audio using what we call SOTs (sound on tape). We were encouraged by the powers-that-be to get more interesting SOTs, so I would pick an assistant and we would go in the sound booth and I would get her to yell “tornado” until her voice was raw; and then I would go back into the video; and then you would hear the assistant. In the actual documentary you can’t get away with that without saying dramatized scene or dramatized sound. But in a promo you can put whatever sound you like. You also can take the time to do color correction, altering the color temperature and saturation. The first thing I would do was bring down the mid-levels, for example to make the sky darker so that the tornado would pop out and be more threatening, or even use a different image altogether. There are all kinds of ways you can create intensity.
Tarico: You seem a little cynical about your chosen profession.
Spruiell: I want to see something that is going to inform me, not preach to me. I wish I could have done more of that in my career. But one does what one has to do to feed a family.
Tarico: When you watched the videos released by the so called Center for Medical Progress, you saw them through this lens—your perspective as an editing professional and someone who wants to be informed rather than preached to.
Spruiell: I spotted right away that I was looking at something that was a careful arrangement that wasn’t interested in getting at some balance or objective truth. It had to do with the sounds that they were playing underneath the woman as she was speaking, the kind of lighting they had her in, the kind of cut-aways . . . The most obvious was the fetus, of course, but there were edits that made what she was saying much more dramatic and sinister than if they just played the straight video.
At The Weather Channel we called it weather porn when we had a video where the main content was really violent weather. People get excited by it in the same way that they get excited by pornography, and you play that up. When I was looking at the Planned Parenthood video, they were doing the same sort of tricks. Scary music, quick drawing cuts. They wanted you to come away thinking that Planned Parenthood cuts up sentient fetuses to harvest organs. They created abortion porn in the same way that we created weather porn. The editor’s goal is for people to say, “Isn’t that terrible, let’s watch it again.”
Tarico: That’s what you saw in the Planned Parenthood videos.
Spruiell: I didn’t watch them all, but I think I watched the one that Carly Fiorina referenced in the debate. But what you saw was a camera still of a fetus from a miscarriage that was animated so that it looked like it had movement. It was just a dead fetus in someone’s hand. It would be really easy to walk away from seeing something like that and think, “I saw what I saw. I saw what she was talking about.” But the cut-aways weren’t actually what she was talking about.
Tarico: Carly Fiorina stuck to her guns. In fact, she doubled down, and her team spliced together five bits of video from the already edited video to approximate the scene she said she saw. Some people say it doesn’t matter—that even if they faked in the images, the mere idea is horrifying. Donation of fetal tissue may have saved millions of lives, but unless you work in surgery or at a morgue or in medical research, it’s disgusting. My cousin was a bag boy at the University of Chicago morgue during college—his job was to bag body parts during autopsies. It was utterly gruesome and yet utterly compelling.
Spruiell: Did the woman on the video see what she claimed? Who knows. My brother who is a physician has been there when a patient is within minutes of dying and yes they do start harvesting organs – sometimes when a person has a beating heart but no brain. Even as a doctor, my brother was squeamish enough that he isn’t listed as an organ donor. Organ donation saves lives, but to people who aren’t desensitized it’s horrible, whether we are talking about a fetus or a person who was in a car crash. When I saw the video it grossed me out even though I knew what the videographer was trying to do.
Tarico: It’s the same “yuck factor” and horror of death that motivates middle school dead baby jokes or murder mysteries or zombie movies. People are hard-wired to sit up and pay attention to anything that violates bodily integrity.
Spruiell: Any healthy person has a good yuck reaction. That’s part of being human. But there have to be some people who are desensitized, who can slice into you and pull out a diseased organ and sew you up. We need those people. When I looked at the video, I was just a few seconds into it and I saw the tricks and knew that I was being hoodwinked, manipulated. It’s not hard to do.
Tarico: If you were trying to create an honest, accurate documentary about fetal tissue donations for medical research, how would you have to do it differently?
Spruiell: Well, I might focus on a representative patient and try to get into how she felt. I might try to get into her ambivalence about it, into any conflicted feelings. But I would also want to talk with the physicians. I would try to get really rational. I wouldn’t try to conceal anything but would try to put it in context. If I was doing an anti-Planned Parenthood documentary I would want to talk to the receptionist and technician so that I could piece together conversations, while staying removed from emotional complexity or the rational. Then I would want the yuck factor, because after the filming it’s pornography time. It’s scary music time. You’ve walked into a torture chamber and you’re never getting out. On the other hand, if I were making pro- Planned Parenthood propaganda there would be reassuring quiet music under everything and all of the providers would be smiling, and it all would be gauzy and reassuring.
Do you want to tell a narrative that is pro- or anti- or the truth? The best way of conveying a reality may include dramatizing a bit but that’s just to provide some emotional context. A good documentarian looks at all of the footage; you decide what it means in post, not beforehand. The folks from the Center for Medical Progress had already decided on their reality. They have no business talking about reality.
Tarico: What about the “uncut” or at least less-cut videos they released?
Spruiell: In the uncut footage, you might see the heads and tails of every shot—what came right before and after. But what they won’t show is the many hours that never made it in the final product. You won’t see the takes about which they said, nothing here is going to help us, or this might even hurt us.
My father was a physician. He used to say, “The truth, if too carefully arranged, appears to be a lie.” If you invert that, a lie, skillfully arranged, can appear to be the truth.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her interviews and articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.