Sforzian Backdrops: Africa

Bush in Africa, with Sforzian foreground, image:reuters/yahoo.com

While looking through Yahoo News for a linkable photo of those elephants protesting George Bush’s abstinence-driven AIDS program funding, I was happy to find that African Bush has the same production design team as White House Bush and Crawford Bush.
Sforzian Backdrops is the term NYTimes reporter Elizabeth Bumiller coined (and I latched onto) for the made-for-TV-and-only-TV sets and wallpapers that White House image czar Scott Sforza deploys whenever Bush (and the White House press corps) goes anywhere.
Bush on a dais from Survivor2:Africa, image:state.gov

And that anywhere includes Africa. It’s at once comforting and disturbing to see how consistent the White House’s approach to image manipulation construction manipulation is. To feed the media’s appetite for novelty and at-a-glance recognition of purpose and place, Bush’s advance team repeats the same components and adapts them, with unintentionally revealing effect. [Go back for a quick refresher on the formal Sforzian image vocabulary if you need it.]
Take, for example, Bush’s speech at an AIDS Support Centre in Uganda. Sforza & co. went for a theme of low-tech authenticity, simple materials and visuals. AFP’s Luke Frazza captured the window & kinte cloth curtain background; the elaborately “found wood” Survivor-meets-Frontierland dais; and a “local” wallpaper caption as bare-bones as PowerPoint allows, Arial-on-white, no 3-d shading. Meanwhile, the one that “came from” the White House, the one with Bush’s “own” message on it, is rendered in proper First World 3-D
Bush, with a background of freshly scrubbed African orphans, image:Reuters/Yahoo.com

That other Sforzian favorite, the Human Wallpaper, shows up, too. (For other shots, see the Yahoo slideshow.) Since the 2000 Republican convention, Bush has been photographed regularly in front of rows of non-white people. So to let viewers know that these black folk are in Africa, an advance team stylist dressed the orphan choir in leopard skin. The Africa-as-imagined-by-Texan-administration look feels like a Sixties-era Tarzan movie, translated for a drill team competition on ESPN2.
[related link: Elizabeth Bumiller profiles White House photographer Eric Draper, emphasizing how official photographs reflect the administration’s bias. Totally different from professional journos’ biased-by-the-administration’s- stage-management images. Totally.

White House Stagecraft: Will this be on the DVD?

on the set at the Waco Economic Forum, image:whitehouse.gov
Shoot the conference title from this preset camera position;
state seal and flowing flag when allowed to shoot head-on. images:whitehouse.gov

Sforzian Backgrounds. So that’s what they’re called. At least that’s what Elizabeth Bumiller’s NYT article calls those glib slogan-filled, PowerPointy, made-for-TV backdrops that show up behind Bush whenever there’s a camera around. They’re named for Scott Sforza, a former TV producer, who is finally getting credit/scrutiny for his tireless work behind the scenes in this White House’s quantum leap in visual image control.
Sforza spent days “embedded” on that aircraft carrier, prepping for Bush’s staged arrival. “Sforza and his aides choreographed every aspect of the event,” Bumiller writes. White House cinematographer (yes, there is one) Bob deServi gets credit for angling the ship just right and timing the spectacle so they can take advantage of “magic hour” lighting [a recurring subject here].
It’s about damn time we get a Making Of piece. The best DVD’s now are full of this stuff. Hell, I just saw Making the Animatrix on MTV2, a meta-meta-program on a meta-meta network. (making of animated spinoffs of a movie; spinoff channel for videos for songs. Please keep up, people.)
For the screamingly obvious manipulation/staging of these images, it’s pretty inexcusable that we’ve had to wait this long for someone to report on it. (OK, ABC buried one mention.) I mean, Scott Sforza only has 25 Google hits, and just one ancient credit on IMDb. If some premium cable channel offered a Sforza commentary track for all Bush’s appearances, I’d definitely subscribe.
Seeing the errant boom mike in one shot of What's Up, Doc? was my first realization of the filmmaking process
White House DP Bob deServi: “You want it, I’ll heat it up and make a picture.”

Surprisingly, though, the White House website has tons of media-critique-ready photos which unintentionally (?) reveal the machinery behind these made-for-TV-and-only-for-TV images. The bird’s eye view of Bush’s Waco Forum shows the press getting their White House-designed shot, complete with Sforzian Backgrounds. And check out this photo from a beautifully lit deServi production of Bush and Putin in St Petersburg, which has a boom mike hovering in the foreground.
DiServi's speed dial is mostly floodlight rental agencies
To light this shot, deServi shipped floodlights from the UK

And this pic captures the elaborate staging elements imported to Romania for White House Productions’ biggest (pre-tailhook incident) show, a 2002 Bush speech in Bucharest’s Revolution Square. (Sforza even put up a little “Romania” banner, just in case you didn’t recognize that other flag.)
The sheer volume of photos on the White House site reveals another Sforza favorite, what Bumiller’d call the “men without ties” background, for those ops when a giant slogan just won’t do. He used it at Tailhook, when he put soldiers Skittles-colored turtlenecks in the background. Last month, in an uncrowded but well-draped Boeing factory, Sforza had Boeing workers perch on top of an F-18 to be seen listening to Bush’s Iraqi progress report. Looks a lot like last August at the fair, where he arrayed some farmers on tractors and bales of hay. But not so fast. Sometimes, he uses the “men without ties” wallpaper-style, and sometimes he actually puts them into the Sforzian Background. (Note: the last one has stock photos so nice, Sforza used them twice. Check out the SB in this elaborate 3D setup for conservative conservatism, which looks to mean “black people in front.”)
So, with this media manipulation thing, just like with that whole neo-con American Empire thing, the “run by and for corporations” thing, the “we need and may use new nuclear weapons” thing, with this supposedly secretive administration, there’s actually plenty to see. It’s not that no one cares. It’s just that the White House makes it so easy to not report it.