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The Noddy-Shot

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Don't panic! Our childhood friend from Toyland has suffered no firearm wounds in the writing of this Entry. Neither have his friends Big Ears and PC Plod.

The noddy or noddy-shot is something completely unrelated. It's UK broadcasting jargon for a well-established television production technique which sprung to wider prominence during the TV fakery scandals of 2007. This Entry tells its story.

One to One

Much television coverage consists of interviews. These form the bulk of news and current affairs programmes as well as many documentary features. As the viewer, we like to see the interviewer asking the question, the look on the interviewee's face as they realise what they've been asked, and then all the facial gymnastics before they deliver their answer. We then like to see the reaction in turn of the questioner, and so on. If the crew can capture all this on film it makes for an engaging piece of television. The trouble is, this requires more than one camera and hence more than one camera operator to achieve.

It's a sad fact of life that making television programmes costs money. The film crew needs to be paid, and the equipment – cameras, lights, sound, etc – needs to be purchased and maintained. The pockets of programme-makers are only finitely deep, so they will want to spend as little as possible without compromising on production quality.

If the interviewee is coming into the TV studio, then there's no problem – it's a dedicated facility with all the resources set up to achieve those camera shots from all angles. The trouble is when the interview is on location. Can we save money by shooting all this footage with one camera? The answer is 'yes – with a little trickery'. This is how it generally works:

For My Next Trick

To avoid confusion between the words 'interviewer' and 'interviewee' in the following description, we'll call them the reporter and the subject.

The production crew first sets up the camera to film the subject over the reporter's shoulder. The lights and sound are set up accordingly. The interview then takes place normally – the reporter's face is not shot at this point, but we may see the back of their head.

At the end of the interview, one of the production crew says 'Right, it's time for the noddies'. They then reverse1 the set so that the camera is pointing over the subject's shoulder at the reporter. The reporter then has to adopt a range of facial expressions in keeping with what their unfilmed reactions were during the interview. These will include simple nodding (hence the name), but also other expressions: concern, surprise, disbelief, pursing lips, and various forms of smiling and silent laughter. They might scratch their head, wring their hands or even twiddle a pencil – all is recorded for posterity. Some reporters are regarded as masters of this genre of acting.

The crew will then re-record the reporter asking the same set of questions to camera, but throughout this sequence the subject is instructed to remain silent, so as not to distract the star performer.

Finally, the crew will film other ancillary shots, known as 'cutaways'. It's important to get a shot of the reporter and subject together, known as a 'two-shot'. Other ambience footage is taken, too: items of interest around the room, people's feet under the table, that sort of thing. If the subject is an academic, then they have to be seen taking a book down from the shelf then looking something up. Scientists on the other hand are invariably seen typing on a computer keyboard. There's presumably an industry manual of cutaway stereotypes.

Having recorded all this, the crew can return to the office, often via the pub, then the production editors cut and paste all the pieces together2 to produce an interview which looks as if it was filmed with two cameras.

Continuity and Integrity

This editing technique was important before the digital era, when cutaway and noddy-shots would disguise ugly joins made on tape-to-tape editing machines. It doesn't always look perfect, though; in fact, when this technique is done badly it's painfully obvious. We may see the reporter nodding, for example, but it's plain that the subject's speech doesn't match the motion of the back of the subject's head.

Sometimes the film crew may not get the opportunity to record all the 'reverse' shots and noddies at the interview location, so they shoot these back at the office at a later date, with the subject not present3. Continuity in this situation is, not surprisingly, more difficult to achieve.

More worryingly, the whole process relies on the integrity of the production crew and editors. It would be simple to knock up a tape which completely misrepresents the interviewee, whether accidentally or otherwise, and this has indeed happened from time to time:

Many years ago in Brighton, I described a Labour Prime Minister as being received 'not ecstatically but sympathetically' and went on to support some parts of his speech and criticise others. Being in thrall to television and anxious to be invited back, I then agreed to take part in 'reverses', or something of that sort. On the news bulletin that night, when asked how the party conference had reacted to the leader's address, I answered 'not ecstatically'. I then set out my criticisms of what he said. Watching the programme, even I found it difficult to believe that I had said anything complimentary about the performance. Then I remembered that, in between each of my answers, there had been a brief glimpse of the interviewer nodding like a stuffed dog in the back window of a motor car.
— Roy Hattersley, writing in The Guardian, 29 June, 1992.

'Noddygate' – the Yentob Affair

On 30 August, 2007, David Kermode, the news editor of UK broadcaster Channel Five, announced that it would no longer use such editing techniques in news reports. It was a reaction to a series of broadcasting scandals that year, most notably the BBC-commissioned documentary Monarchy, in which footage was doctored to make the Queen appear to storm out of a celebrity photo shoot with Annie Liebovitz. Kermode described noddy-shots, contrived walking-shots and cutaway sequences as 'rather hackneyed tricks' which rarely looked genuine. He believed that banning them would help restore viewers' trust.

In the week that followed, it was reported that the BBC's Creative Director, Alan Yentob had edited himself into a number of interviews which he did not himself conduct. These were filmed for his arts series Imagine. The BBC initially defended Yentob, saying 'Everybody does it', yet Director General Mark Thompson later conceded that although the editing for Imagine was done in good faith and was not intended to deceive, such techniques should not happen in the future4. Noddies should only be used if shot at the original interview.

Bizarrely, Yentob revealed in the following month that, following an investigation, no noddies had been used in Imagine after all. His previous admission was made on the assumption that they might have been. Either way, it looks as if the noddy-shot will remain on our screens for the forseeable future, but only in its restricted form.

All television is artifice to some degree. Let’s not pretend it isn’t. ... Every time you stick a noddy into an interview, that’s artifice. Even the live television interview itself is artifice.

The key thing is that the audience have to be able to have confidence in us to show them something which, while being manufactured, is a fair representation of the true state of affairs. That does not demand that things aren’t edited – or even that interviewees are not challenged or helped to express their views clearly. It demands that we can be trusted to handle the resulting material honestly. Lose that, allow the impression to get out that we can’t be trusted, and we’re throwing away the one commodity which makes our work worthwhile.

— The BBC's Jeremy Paxman, speaking in 2007.
1These shots are also known as 'reverses'.2This is all done digitally, of course – there's no concept these days of film on the cutting room floor.3If the production team know they will be shooting noddies later, then they will often record a minute or two of ambient sound, known as 'room tone', at the interview location and overlay this audio on the later footage. This is especially important if recording at a noisy location.4Thompson was also responding to an item aired on current affairs show Newsnight in which footage of Gordon Brown was shown out of chronological order.

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