Recording History’s Lessons
Documentarian Peter Hankoff combines solid reporting with creative technology.
By Jon Silberg
As a writer and producer of documentaries for leading outlets including History and National Geographic, Peter Hankoff found a very fulfilling professional niche relatively late in his career. He has had access to archives and experts in many fascinating areas for Hitler's Hidden Holocaust for National Geographic or the Animal Planet series Blood Dolphins, which picks up where the wrenching documentary The Cove left off, and he's currently at work on another Holocaust-related project. His work over the past decade with the North Hollywood-based production company Creative Differences has allowed him first-hand access to major figures in a wide variety of specialties, including history and technology, as well as plenty of outspoken leaders in less traditional fields, including some fairly wild conspiracy theories and the rather controversial subject of "UFOlogy."
Hankoff poised atop Mt. Suribachi on the volcanic island of Iwo Jima.
Unlike many people who do what he does, Hankoff's career did not begin in the world of documentary filmmaking or news production. Instead, he toiled as a Hollywood screenwriter for years, crafting scripts and rewrites, as many others have done, on projects for the most part never quite got made. There was a living in the work, until, at one point, he realized even those often-frustrating opportunities were dwindling. "I have a saying," he recounts wryly, "'In Hollywood, 50 is the new dead.' I was around 50 and I needed a job."
It was at this point that a college friend, Erik Nelson, principal at the very busy Creative Differences, was looking for someone who could write voiceover narration for a documentary about the ironworkers who built the Empire State Building. Hankoff's experience writing actual dialogue, as opposed to traditional VO copy, served the show well. His work was produced and seen and even garnered the attention of some prestigious awards committees, including that of the Writers Guild of America, which nominated the project for a WGA Award in 2003. The work offered a greater deal of creative satisfaction than the majority of his experiences as a screenwriter. As a bonus, he adds, "I learned more about hot riveting than most people will ever know."
This last part — the mastery of often-obscure topics that is part of the documentarian's brief — appealed to Hankoff and helped set him on the career course he's been on ever since. "My favorite part of the job is to go to places, get behind the scenes and meet people I actually believe are smarter than I am," he explains. "I get to see things I would never see otherwise."
In his role as field producer for many of the shows he's worked on, Hankoff has also had to develop ways of staging these interviews so that the subjects not only share their knowledge and often their feelings about a subject but that they do so in a way that makes compelling television.
Staging the interview is an essential part of making it work within the context of the show as a whole. "You can have the professor talking with a lot of books behind him," he says. "It's been done a million times and it’ snot my favorite approach. But it can still be helpful if you want to make someone seem legitimate and maybe they're not all that legitimate. I tend not to have to interview the kind of people I'm talking about, but if I'm doing a show about UFOs and we want the viewer to take the interview subject seriously, I'd rather have a guy with a bunch of books behind him than a bunch of flying saucers. It will make him seem less like a nut."
Other times, Hankoff feels that less is more. "I like black limbo if somebody is talking about something very somber," he explains. "I interviewed a death camp survivor recently. What are you going to put behind that? In some cases, black says it all."
Hankoff has staged quite a few interviews in front of greenscreen. "Greenscreen is the easy answer if you want to figure out what to put behind them later," he says. "It's easy to shoot if you have a lot of people you want to cover in a short period. You can set it up and then just adjust the key light for each person. You can make it look good these days, but it's still greenscreen. It's definitely not right for every kind of interview."
A technique he learned about from colleagues while working as segment producer for the Discovery Channel's Nostradamus: The Final Word (2002) has also come in handy. "The idea is you shoot somebody against a greenscreen and then put a piece of Plexiglas in front of the lens. Then you can have whoever is speaking actually touch the Plexiglas and move their finger around as if describing a map or a picture and then we could make it look like a heads-up display in post." Hankoff shares the secret to avoiding the attendant fingerprints: "Put Liquid Bandage on the person's fingertip and it keeps the oil from getting on the glass.
"It's a totally cool effect but if you do it too often, like anything, people get tired of it."
Hankoff, who generally works with a videographer, has made a great deal of use of Panasonic's VariCam system recording to tape — he's still getting comfortable with tapeless production on a current project, for which he's taking a Sony XDCAM system and optical drive into the field across multiple locations in Europe. For certain applications, he has also become a big fan of DSLR technology. "If I want to be surreptitious, a Canon 5D or 7D is great," he says. "They're great for inserts. I've also done some work with the RED camera. It looked great, but we had to record sound to a separate system. I just prefer it when sound and picture can be recorded together."
Despite the many differences between screenwriting and the work he does now, there are, Hankoff maintains, certain essential similarities between the careful plotting and structuring that goes into a successful screenplay and the process of planning a documentary. "The writer in me always says, 'If you don't know the end of your show, you have no business shooting," he insists. "Even if it changes later, you've got to go in with some POV, some idea of what you're going to say, or you're just meandering.
"I've seen it many times," he sums up. "People say, 'I'll start shooting and see what happens.' That's like turning off your headlights and driving at night. You might reach your destination but it's not worth the risk."