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Walter Scott Shooting Revisited: How This Oscar-Shortlisted Doc Shook Up a National Story

IndieWire interviews Daniel Voshart, the image stabilization specialist whose discovery of new evidence led to a moral quandary in "Frame 394.”

"Frame 394"

“Frame 394”

courtesy of filmmakers

Few recent images have shocked America as much as the shaky cell phone video of Charleston police officer Michael Slager shooting unarmed Walter Scott in the back eight times. Cable news analysis of the video painted a black-and-white picture of a corrupt cop, who after radioing in that Scott had grabbed his taser —  supposedly justifying the shooting — initially tried to plant his taser next to Scott’s dead body. It’s story that culminated this week when the trial led to a hung jury.

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Young Canadian cinematographer Daniel Voshart, who had developed his own technique for image stabilization, instantly started playing with the shaky footage when it hit the internet. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting he produced a small clip, that was steadier and sharper compared to what had been made publicly available.  He posted it to reddit and it quickly went viral.

The response was staggering — comments expressing hatred and violence toward Slager shocked Voshart, who was convinced the video was an example of police corruption at its worst.

Daniel Voshart in "Frame 394"

Daniel Voshart in “Frame 394”

courtesy of filmmakers

Voshart became obsessed with reworking the footage. He glued himself to his computer for days in a row. He even started to create 3-D renderings of the homicide in an effort to get fuller picture of what happened.  It’s during this process that he discovered something no one else had seen: There was something in frame 394 that challenged the accepted narrative of what transpired between Slager and Scott, and could potentially even help Slager’s defense.

Directed by Rich Williamson, “Frame 394” is about Voshart’s moral dilemma of what to do with this potential key evidence. The film follows him around as he meets with Slager’s attorney, video chats with Slager himself, and talks to a Black Live Matter leader. The film is a portrait of a thoughtful young man who finds a world where discussion of larger institutional problems are endangered by clickbait, trolls and fake news.

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You can watch “Frame 394,” which is one of 10 short documentaries that’s been shortlisted to qualify for an Oscar nomination.

After watching the film, you likely will have questions — namely, what has happened since the short was completed last spring and the verdict that came down this week. Voshart addressed those and other issues in an interview with IndieWire below.

How did you meet the “Frame 394” filmmakers and what led to this documentary being made?

I’ve known Rich Williamson since film school but, at the time, we were not really friends. I used to think he was a bit of a “bro” because of the way he looks but that was “reading a book by the cover.” In school, we were both interested in cinematography and there was some subtle competition between us.

When I began a career transition from cinematography to architecture, he transitioned from cinematography to directing and editing, and we became closer friends.

Our collaborations post-film school have built trust with each other. He helped me co-write a book and he also convinced me to play a parody host in a fake Vice News episode about the CN Tower falling over. He has always been a good person to go to when I have a seemingly weird idea. That said, I know enough about the documentary process that if I meddled in anything the whole thing would be terrible. I made it clear that he had permission to make me look as good or bad as he wanted. As weird or not-weird as he wanted.

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I was approached by ABC Nightline, but things never went forward because they didn’t have a journalistic code of ethics and refused to provide one. Trust was important and I didn’t want to be edited out of context. CBC and Shasha Nakhai, the producer, respect journalism and I could trust them to use journalistic guidelines like that of PBS Frontline.

The film leaves off with you waiting for Slager’s attorney, Andy Savage, to share with you his testimony.  Is the idea you would not share with him your video until he shared information with you? Did you ever end up sharing the video with him?

I never ended up testifying and only received minimal information from Andy. Not enough for me to feel confident in being able to present an unbiased testimony. I always got a sense that I would have to present a curated truth – not the “full truth and nothing but.” I see this faulty dynamic as more of a fault of the adversarial nature of hiring experts and less to do with Andy.

I don’t know what Andy thinks of the film. Maybe he likes it? He hasn’t sued us.

I’m assuming that even without your video, you opened an avenue of defense for Slager. How closely did you follow the trial? Was what you discovered about the taser used?  

The video feed of the trial was difficult to hear and reporting was spotty, lacked nuance and generally had to re-hash things from earlier, incomplete reporting. I hope to find a full video of the trial — specifically, Slager’s testimony and I’ll be able to have a better answer for you.

I did see some expert testimony regarding the shooting distance of 17 feet. My analysis showed the distance was closer to 15ft and it seemed like nobody accounted for the time delay between gunshot sounds and image. Santana was standing around 42 meters (138 ft) away. It takes sound 0.12 seconds (3.6 frames) to travel that distance [at 343 m/s]. These small mistakes aggravate the detailed part of my mind. Mentioning things like this on Twitter comes off bad as I’ve learned.

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I didn’t learn much from the taser during the trial because I got a copy of the taser metadata from Andy. I confirmed what I suspected which was that both taser capsules were spent.

I want to reserve most my opinions on these elements until I get a full picture of what was said.

My sense is that you believe this should never have happened and that your discoveries have given you deeper sense of tragedy surrounding the circumstances of Scott’s death, but that part of the blame lay in our laws and broken aspects of our institutions.  Is that correct?

Some of the simplest reform would be to be far more lenient in the way child support is paid. This should be something paid by the state and then become a bank-like debt owed to the state. Banks can’t jail you for debt. America is focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation. To move towards a reconciliation-based system would take a monumental cultural shift.

What are your thoughts on the verdict?  Do you have a sense of how you would have voted had you been on the jury?

Lots of people have asked me to play judge and jury. I can’t. I can’t be a jury member because I’m too preoccupied with the way the laws should be instead of the way laws are. I’m not surprised by the verdict. As a jury you are asked to empathize with Michael Slager to really attempt to consider what Slager thought.

Like I said in the doc (or at least think said because I’ve only seen it once), I originally thought Slager was evil – a perfect example of a corrupt cop. My views have since changed. I learned to see that the story wasn’t a simple good and evil. In a murder charge malice must be proven.

In this time in our history is having a nuanced viewpoint feel dangerous?

Nuance is dangerous on Twitter. Nuance is great for person-to-person interactions.

Have you had any backlash as a result of the film?

The response has been surprisingly positive. People from all races have said some really nice things to me. Of course there have been negative responses. You can’t post a YouTube video without someone wanting to kill you. One shiny example of misunderstanding is a radical political theorist (former or current associate professor) on Twitter who has convinced himself that I and the CBC are working to acquit a cop. I have since learned [he] believes America, cops, prosecutors, and juries are all “pigs.” Because I’ve even considered giving Slager the benefit of the doubt for a second I’m the enemy. I’ve tried to engage with him directly, to clear up the misunderstanding, but he has dug in his heels.

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What can you tell me about the VR project you have created from the work you did surrounding this case?

The 3D reconstruction was an extra step to help me make sense of the blurry video. When you go through frame-by-frame and match positions of 3D people you get valuable information of where arms are and how fast they might be moving. You can smoothe-out errors and ultimately get a better sense of the trajectory of the taser. Was it in his blind spot? Did Slager see it? That’s for a jury to decide.

This site was my work-product for the jury to help understand the video. The idea is it could be loaded on an iPad and referenced easily. Up until a few days ago it was only shared with the director and producer.

VR in general? This article does a pretty good job explaining what I do for a living. 

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