5 tips for making video re-enactments realistic

Re-enactments are a great device for conveying the mood and atmosphere of an event. Whether it’s a real-life crime, a case of political intrigue, or a slice of history, there are few techniques as good as re-enactments for bringing the viewer into the story.

A re-enactment scene requires special handling and extra attention during the scripting process and concept development, especially if it involves taking the viewer back more than a few years. Here are some tips for creating the best re-enactment possible.

1) Research

Attention to details like wardrobe, hairstyles, and settings are crucial for a believable re-enactment

Attention to details like wardrobe, hairstyles, and settings are crucial for a believable re-enactment

You really can’t do enough research. And equally important, have someone double check your research to make sure you’ve got crucial details right. Not just facts, names, and dates. Even small details count. For example, if you’re re-enacting something that happened in 1982, and the scene involves Madonna’s Into the Groove playing in a bar, it’s going to be problematic (the song wasn’t released until 1984).

Costuming research is also important. Before you subject 50 actors to the process of getting fitted for codpieces, you need to make sure they were actually part of male attire at the point in history that the scene takes place. Because… you know. Codpieces. Not a run-of-the-mill appointment with the wardrobe department, and one that should be avoided when possible. Hairstyles should also be appropriate for the period being portrayed.

2) Differentiation

This doesn’t mean having Richard Nixon played by Helen Mirren, although that would be different. Differentiating re-enacted scenes gives them more impact. You can do them in black and white or sepia, or have the camera slightly unfocused to give it a hazy, dreamy quality to underscore that what’s being shown takes place at a different time than the rest of the video.

Using differentiation techniques, like showing re-enactment sequences in black and white or sepia, can enhance the presentation

Using differentiation techniques, like showing re-enactment sequences in black and white or sepia, can enhance the presentation

Another way to differentiate the scene is to have the audio adjusted during editing to give dialogue a slight echo. It’s an old trope to be sure, but it’s one that people automatically recognize as an indicator that the scene is taking place in the past. In some cases, especially for non-fiction works, it’s a common practice to have the word “re-enactment” discretely placed in a corner of the video, but it isn’t strictly necessary if you think it looks awkward.

3) Casting

While the Helen Mirren reference above was a bit overboard, you should do as much research as possible into the people involved in the action being re-created. We have actually seen some shows (mercifully only a couple) where real-life people are on camera recounting something that happened to them in the past, and as the scene shifts to a re-enactment, we see the actors portraying them are clearly a different race. Yes, someone actually did this, and no one bothered to point out the embarrassing discrepancy during post-production. A less obvious example would be casting a 6’7” actor to portray Napolean, or having someone with a strong Australian accent playing a person who spent her entire life in Brooklyn.

4) Setting

Just as you have to use care with casting, you can’t just throw the re-enactment in any old setting. If you’re showing a murder that happened at a beach, don’t shoot the scene at a park. If the perpetrator got away by car, don’t have her jumping on a motorcycle to escape. If the spies met in Chinatown to hand off stolen secrets to a foreign operative, don’t shoot the scene in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria.

5) Continuity

This applies to works of fiction as well, but it bears mentioning for re-enactments. Some of the more famous examples from dramatic movies are cars seen in the background in a scene from Braveheart, and a child who covered his ears before a gun was fired in a scene from North by Northwest. Even small details that don’t draw attention during the shoot can seem glaring in the final video. Examples include a lamp that is lit in one shot, but off in another shot that supposedly takes place just a moment later. As we’ve mentioned in our page on lighting, there can also be obvious shifts in natural lighting if portions of an outdoor scene are shot or re-shot at significantly different times.

Attention to detail is one of the guarantees you get when you work with Hencar. Some of our staff have worked for national news organizations like CNN and are skilled in doing extensive research and double-checking even the finer points of a project to ensure everything is spot on, so that your viewers will be saying “Wow!” instead of “What!?!”