Same timeline, different results. Why?

Analysis of White House’s “Doctored” Acosta Video

Can the extra frames in the White House video be explained by benign software behavior?

Daniel Voshart
Nov 27, 2018 · 9 min read

I’m an occasional forensic video consultant, who works in Virtual Reality (VR) and architecture. I have worked ten years in film as a cinematographer and post-production supervisor. After an early analysis of the edited video I fielded questions from Snopes and PolitiFact but was cautious to call the clip “doctored” — settling instead for “inaccurate” and “manipulated”.

Dissatisfied with lingering questions, I began what turned into a multi-week Twitter thread.

Now, I am concluding with 95% confidence that the clip was doctored with malice and intent to deceive.

Infowars in the White House

Two weeks ago, the Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders shared a video created by Paul Joseph Watson (PJW), a reporter and editor for Infowars. The video was used to justify revoking Jim Acosta’s press credentials.

PJW is a UK-based, pro-Trump, conspiracy theorist and serial bullsh*tter (he used to think Trump was stooge for Hillary Clinton). Trump has retweeted PJW twice; first when he praised Trump for refusing to apologize to the media and again when PJW called a Trump’s sexual assault a “hoax”.

A Touch of Controversy

The video in question shows CNN’s Jim Acosta refusing to relinquish a microphone to a White House intern and Trump smearing him an “enemy of the people”. Washington Post wrote that the clip “has been analyzed in excruciating detail and likened to a 21st-century ‘Zapruder film’”.

Why Not Share The Edit File?

PJW insists the video wasn’t doctored but has ignored several requests to share his edit file. I have reached out to him through Twitter’s Direct Messenger on four different occasions, and I have sent emails to two close peers. Others have sent open tweets. He has ignored requests despite an offer of over 200£ to charity for the edit file and an additional 200£ to him personally if the file vindicates him. Why?

Paul Joseph Watson’s innocence hinges on one technical question: can Vegas Pro (version 15 or 16) export this “GIF” as a .m2t from a 14.985 fps timeline and benignly insert triplicate frames?

The layperson reading that might not know what it means. By the end they should.

All my source files have been shared on Google Drive.

Reverse Engineering an Edit File

PJW said, in a video published November 8th, said he “downloaded a gif, exported it to an m2t file, converted it to an mp4 then reloaded it to twitter” using “Sony Vegas”. On the same day, he told Luke Bailey at iNews UK that he “downloaded a gif, exported it to an mt2 file, then ran it through handbrake to create an mp4 then uploaded it to twitter”. Similarly he told BuzzfeedFact is, Daily Wire put up a gif, I download a gif, zoomed in saved it again as an mt2 file – then converted it to an mp4". I interpreted this as meaning he downloaded a Twitter .mp4¹ , edited it using Vegas Pro², exported to an .mt2 (or .m2ts) and converted it to a smaller .mp4 through Handbrake.

  • ¹ On most modern sites: the “.gif” has been replaced with the more sophisticated “.mp4” (sometime called a “gifv”). A Techcrunch article titled Gasp: Twitter GIFs Aren’t Actually GIFs explained things well: “Most people don’t care about the technical implementations of one thing versus another — they just want an easy-to-remember word for whatever they’re referring to”.
  • ² The editing software PJW uses is often called “Sony Vegas” but isn’t owned by Sony anymore. Vegas Pro, was bought by Magix in 2016. The customer support technician from Magix previously worked for Sony. The export format “.m2t” which PJW claims he used is similar to the “.m2ts”. Both file formats were used and developed by Sony. They are used in Sony cameras and Blu-ray.

You can’t right-click a “GIF” on Twitter to save it, you need to visit a site like twittervideodownloader.com or twdownload.com. Both provide the same download link with a filename that matches what PJW showed in his Vegas Pro.

https://video.twimg.com/tweet_video/DrasJZTWwAAU5hs.mp4

A high resolution image of PJW’s timeline.
Closeup of PJW’s timeline.

As WIRED pointed out, ForAmerica³ shared the “GIF” twelve minutes before DailyWire. Twitter caches the same file when the same “.gif” is uploaded. Therefore the files are effectively the same.

  • ³ It’s unknown how The Daily Wire and ForAmerica acquired the same “.gif” at the same time. I would guess ForAmerica were the originators since they were first to upload and also posted “Jim Acosta is a joke” along with a video. At some point the “.gif” was shared directly with someone at The Daily Wire. ForAmerica is a 501(c)4 charity that is frequently critical of Jim Acosta 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15, and overwhelmingly pro-Trump. Canadian readers may find tax-exempt status strange but the behavior has become commonplace since “Citizens United”.

The first timeline PJW shared on Twitter cropped out any details about frame rate and resolution but a later video [Update: and tweet] revealed his project settings to be 14.985 fps (Half NTSC)⁴ ⁵ .

  • ⁴ Frame rates are confusing and decimal places matter. Most people have probably heard of 30 or 60 frames per second or 25 fps or 50 fps if they live in Europe. PJW lives in the UK but, as far as I can tell, always uploads videos using the North American standard (NTSC 29.97fps). Because YouTube is a North American company, most youtubers have adopted the 29.97.
  • ⁵ 15fps? 14.56fps? 14.57fps? 14.985fps? 14.286fps? When people turn videos into a “GIF” they usually cut the frame rate in half and call it “15 fps”. Anything below 24 fps to professionals is uncommon. The only export format provided in default settings is HALF NTSC or 14.985 fps. If you want to get very specific the frame rate of the Daily Wire mp4 was Variable Frame rate mode Media Info says the frame rate is Variable “14.566 FPS” with a minimum frame rate of “14.286 FPS” (14.286 fps is the same as each frame being 7/100ths of a second. “.gif” frames durations are typically measured in 100ths of a second.)
Matching project settings.

I matched the edit points using the high resolution screenshot from an earlier tweet.

(Close-up for people viewing on mobile)
Matching timelines produce different results.

A careful observer might notice two extra edits on the 3rd and 4th clips. I think these can be explained because the 5th and 6th clips both three frames shorter [0:06]. If you copy-paste the shorter clip it needs to be extended 3 frames to match the published edit.

PJW said he was using Sony Vegas Pro so I downloaded versions 16, 15 and 14 but ruled out the latter because of major user interface differences (icons and light-grey windows).

I have tried all the “.m2t” and “.m2ts” export settings in v15 and v16 and my export does not result in triplicate frames. Either PJW has given incorrect descriptions of his workflow or has shown a decoy timeline in hopes of hiding behind plausible deniability – that “compression and frame-rate conversions” could account for the differences.

Anyone who wishes to try on other combinations can find my Vegas Pro edit file on Google Drive. 100£ bounty for anyone who can find a combo that works.

Triplicate Frames & Resampling

During export, the source “GIF” was up-converted to 29.97 FPS so extra frames need to come from somewhere. This “GIF” up-conversion (aka: resampling) was misunderstood as being the result of slowing down or time-remapping CSPAN’s footage.

There is consensus that there are extra frames in the edited clip, (anyone can observe this going frame by frame) but there was conflicting opinions on **how** the triplicate frames got there.

I first did an analysis of which frames were unique and which were blend-frames.

Data shared on Google Sheets.

Triplicate frames at two decisive moments is uncanny to say the least.

By contrast, when I export the “GIF” as a “.m2t” from a 29.97 OR 14.985 timeline in Vegas Pro 15 & 16 they both result in 107 frames at the same duration as the source “GIF”. No triplicate frames using both resampling methods (‘Force Resample’ & ‘Smart Resample’).

  • My Vegas Pro exports: Frames: 107 | Duration: 3.570 sec.
  • Daily Wire “GIF”: Frames: 52 |Duration: 3.570 sec.
  • Infowars clip: Frames: 106 | Duration: 3.537 sec.

Defining “Doctored”

Were any frames removed? Yes. Removed with malice? No*.

*There is bias in choosing a GIF that looks different than the original footage but I would not call this malice. When video is converted to a “GIF” it is common to cut the frame rate in half. To make sure no additional frames were removed I compared all the unique frames from the CSPAN source with the “GIF”.

Were any frames added? Yes. Added with malice? Yes*.

*Yes with 95% confidence. I have made every effort to follow PJW’s instructions. The 5% remains because maybe Paul’s instructions were wrong or his software build number acts differently.

The duplicate last frame is a byproduct of downloading a “.mp4” from Twitter. To check if this is normal, I uploaded a “.gif”, downloaded it, and it did result in Twitter adding an additional frame.

Did PJW Share a Fake Timeline?

The 14.985 FPS timeline shows that PJW wasn’t editing in the native frame rate. This is odd. Typically, when you drag-and-drop a video into an empty timeline you are prompted with a dialogue box that asks you if you make your project video settings match the video you just dropped in. It does make sense if you were trying to display a decoy timeline.

No?

The easiest way for me to match PJW’s edits was to create a 29.97 (NTSC) timeline align the cuts and then reduce the timeline frame rate. The only options available when reducing frame rates is 14.985 (Half-NTSC).

Vegas Pro’s frame rate choices in Project Properties

A decoy timeline would only take five minutes to create.

Creating Doctored Footage

There was seven hours between when the “GIF” was first shared on Twitter and when PJW posted his edit so theoretically lots of options are available.

I’ve been experimenting with various methods of creating a doctored timeline but won’t share it here. Unfortunately, I can’t assume everyone reading this blog is doing so in good faith.

Notes on Bias

Despite PJWs long history of manipulative editing, I’ve made every effort to replicate his claims. I even think it would be more interesting if it turned out that he wasn’t lying.

If by some fluke, I happen to be wrong, I’d rather know I’m wrong than think I’m right.

I guess what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

DANIEL VOSHART is an occasional writer and forensic consultant. He works full time as a ‘Virtual Reality Specialist’ on Star Trek: Discovery. His views do not reflect the views of CBS. Forensic VR is a platform for his work in forensic consulting.

Forensic VR

BLOG of http://forensic-vr.com

Daniel Voshart

Written by

Design | Cinematography | Criticism

Forensic VR

BLOG of http://forensic-vr.com

More From Medium

More from Daniel Voshart

Also tagged Forensics

Also tagged Forensics

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade