Documentaries: Then and Now

Whether you’re recording your daughter’s wedding or shooting tape of your mule ride to the bottom of the Grand Canyon — if the aim of your video is to say “This is what happened,” it’s part of a tradition as old as the invention of the motion picture itself: the documentary.
But in the century since the first films flickered across the screen, the idea of what documentaries are has changed and evolved, often becoming the result of intense artistic and political debate.

With the invention of the camcorder, documentaries have not only become even easier to make, but — as shown by both the Rodney King tape and such films as Roger & Me — even more controversial. The question for videomakers today is not so much whether or not to make a documentary but what kind of documentary to make.

In The Beginning
Although the term “documentary” wasn’t coined until 1926 by British film-maker John Grierson in an anonymous review of Robert Flaherty’s second film, Moana, the idea of capturing reality with the movie camera was synonymous with its birth. The first films, most barely more than a minute in length, were documentaries in the strictest sense of the term. Record of a Sneeze and Workers Leaving A Factory, both made in 1894, were as simple and straightforward as their titles suggest. Their goal — to show reality as the eye perceives it: in one continuous, albeit short, stream.

During their first six years, motion pictures did little more than lengthen. Although their running times increased to two or three minutes, their purpose remained the same: to show audiences events they might not be seeing otherwise.

Then, in 1903, with the invention of editing, the first major change in film-making occurred. Editing allowed the film-maker to alter what audiences saw, to change events on the screen for any reason — to shorten or lengthen the running time, to offer different views, to rearrange the chronological order. This gave birth to the fictional story film and, after eight years of presenting mostly real events, motion pictures now sought to entertain. The so-called “nickelodeon era” sprang to life; factual films were left behind in the rush to fill nickelodeons with new, more clever stories. Those influenced by Thomas Edison and George Melies, the inventors of editing to create special effects (such as people disappearing) used their imaginations to help them. The novelty of the original “living pictures” had been overshadowed by the presentation of the fantastic.

Then, in 1910, Charles Pathe, a Frenchman, revived interest in the factual film when he created Pathe News. Employing photographers around the globe, major events were filmed and distributed regularly. The newsreel was born. Competition with fictional films once again became intense. So popular were these first newsreels that four other companies leaped into the fray: newspaper giant William Hearst, as well as several of the first motion picture studios in Hollywood — Universal, Paramount and Fox. Newsreels suddenly rivaled newspapers.

A Landmark and a Milestone
For the next eleven years, films again lengthened. The term “feature” was born to distinguish the film of four or more reels from the “short” films of only one or two reels. Then, in 1921, the development of the non-fiction film took another giant leap forward with the release of Mannahatta.

Called “a kind of camera poem,” Mannahatta, named after a Walt Whitman poem, was a portrait of New York City on film. Using editing and camera angles, the goal of Mannahatta was not to provide a record of reality, but to create an artistic impression of a city. Although largely unseen in the United States, Mannahatta had a major impact in Europe and influenced a number of film-makers to attempt similar productions.

Just one year later, in 1922, what many consider the first true documentary appeared: Nanook of the North. Made by Robert Flaherty, an American explorer, Nanook took one year to shoot and six months to edit. Appearing at a time when Hollywood films were obsessed with low-brow subjects, Nanook offered a window into a distant and opposite reality. Around the globe, Nanook affected almost everyone who saw it.

After Nanook
So impressed were so many people with his film that Paramount Pictures hired Flaherty to make a second, this time in the South Seas. The result was Moana, released in 1926. But at the same time that Flaherty was working on Moana, a second group of film-makers were developing projects influenced by Mannahatta. Their goal was to be more artistic. Russian film-makers such as Dziga Vertov combined elements from the early Edison and Melies films with those of the newsreels to create still more artistic representations of reality. Films such as Vertov’s own The Man With the Movie Camera and Walter Ruttman’s Berlin, The Symphony of a Great City, used laboratory techniques such as dissolves and multiple-layer printing to create such images as giant men with cameras towering over teeming, doll-sized crowds. Thus the twin impulses of the documentary were established.

To Stage or Not To Stage
The first type of documentary is called “Direct Cinema.” This is when you and your camera are simply present, recording the events as they happen as unobtrusively as possible. The idea behind direct cinema involves shooting miles of footage in the hope of capturing significant events. Direct cinema involves being in the right place at the right time and later going through your footage to find those golden moments to piece together into a complete film.

If, on the other hand, you make your presence known, if you interview your subjects or ask them to show you (and your camcorder) some event of importance, you are making what’s known as “Cinema Verite.” The idea behind cinema verite is that you can create significant events and therefore be sure to capture them on tape.

Most documentaries today employ not only a combination of these elements and techniques, but still others that have been developed over the past seventy years. Documentary techniques can be seen almost everywhere you look. Switch on your cable box and channel-surf — you’ll see what I mean. Infomercials, the evening news, docudramas. Feature films employ “hand-held” cameras in order to heighten the sense of reality and “reality-based” shows such as Cops attract millions of viewers. Films such as Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line which set an innocent man free and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisquatsi which offers a view of our lives unseen before. Clearly, in spite of what was once perhaps a “high-brow” connotation, documentaries are more exciting and more interesting to people now than ever before.

Pick a Subject — Well, Almost Any Subject
The first step in making a documentary is to choose your subject. This can be as simple as recording a family trip or as complex as investigating wrong-doing by a giant corporation. Of course, such projects as the latter are often too difficult to pursue as a first project, so it’s best to look for something simple. Usually, this means keeping it short. When looking for subjects, look for something that can be treated effectively in no more than ten minutes.

Perhaps the easiest subject is your own family. The reasons are obvious: they are easily accessible and you probably know quite a bit about them, saving the need for research. Perhaps you have a relative who fought at the Battle of the Bulge or maybe your great-grandmother is the oldest woman in the state. If you hope to have an audience outside your family for the finished product, make sure you look for unique stories that will interest people.

If you want a subject outside your immediate family, think of friends, people at work. You can go further still by looking through the newspaper for subjects. These could be portraits of people or places. Whatever your subject is, however, pick something for which you have passion. Not only will you be spending a lot of time with your subject, chances are, if it interests you, it will probably interest a wide audience. (See sidebar)

Treatment and Technique
Next, decide what kind of documentary you are going to make. Very often, the subject itself suggests a treatment. For instance, the renovation of an historic building suggests employing a direct cinema technique. After securing appropriate permission, visit the construction site with your camcorder and simply tape — as unobtrusively as possible — the actions of the workers as they occur. If, on the other hand, your subject is a man who saved a girl from drowning, you may want to employ a more obtrusive, verite approach — restaging the main event for the camera or interviewing those who participated at the site where it happened.

Once you’ve decided on your subject and what kind of documentary you are going to make, you should next decide what it will look like. Will you use interviews? Will you use a narrator? Will you use archival footage or stills? Again, the subject matter often suggests the need for which elements. In the case of the building renovation, you may want to have a narrator explaining what the workers are doing, or you may want to interview the workers and have them tell you. In the case of the World War II veteran, you may want to have still photographs of what he looked like back then or you may want to show actual footage of the battle. Each of these scenarios offers unique challenges and requires special preparation and planning. By spending plenty of time in pre-production, carefully planning for each element you will need, you can go a long way toward ensuring the success of your video. If you plan to use archival footage and then find out after you’ve shot everything that it’s unavailable or you need to pay a lot of money for permission to use it, you could be left with a gaping hole and no way to fill it.

Shoot Now, Not Later
Only if you know all the elements you’ll need should you begin shooting. Some things are relatively easy to complete. The shooting of stills, for instance, can be done in your home on your own time under your complete control. Using a lightstand and your camcorder, lay the stills flat and light them carefully to avoid glare spots. Shoot them in a variety of ways: try shooting small sections of the photos which you can edit together later; try zooming in slowly on one part of a photo (such as the family member’s face in a large group shot) — combined with a dissolve, these effects add interest to sequences built from stills. Try to avoid shooting every still as someone might see them in a photo album.

Archival footage (such as old Super-8 reels of the family at Disneyland) is even easier to use. Many outfits offer inexpensive transfer of such footage to videotape, making it even easier for you to select the best moments for inclusion in your final video.

When shooting on location, such as the building renovation, be sure to get a variety of shots as well. Long shots combined with close-ups can be cut together in the editing room to speed up processes and reveal interesting details. The same holds true even when staging events for your camcorder. If you have only one shot of events, you will be committed to it whether you like it or not.

Although they may seem difficult, interviews are actually easy if you follow the same rules as above. If your subject is only shot in medium close-up, any edit will appear as a jump cut. However, if you change the angle frequently — after each question, say — you can edit two parts of answers together later into one. If you do this and still find yourself in a situation with a jump cut, don’t forget your other footage. Keep the audio from your interview but simply cover the jump cut with a cutaway to a still or to footage shot on location.

When planning for the interview, remember to come up with questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Encourage the person you’re interviewing to tell stories or explain things. Remember — anything you don’t like can be edited out later.

Put It All Together
Once you’ve shot all your footage, the real challenge begins: choosing only those best elements from everything you’ve gathered. In most cases, the “best” is anything crucial to telling your story. Remember to keep the pace moving. Cut frequently between people talking and your other elements. This helps prevent the boredom of “talking head” syndrome. When choosing non-interview footage to show, search for only those shots with the most visual interest. This increases the chance your audience will be glued to the screen.

Finally, hold a screening of your rough-cut and get opinions. Can your test audience hear everything okay? Is there anything they didn’t understand? Were there any shots they didn’t like? What was their favorite moment? Chances are, you’ve been so wrapped up in your project that you’ll need the clarity of someone else’s eyes and ears to help make your video that much better.

You, Documentary Maker
Whether making something as simple as a video of your daughter’s birthday or a feature-length project about a year in the life of a high-school, the other sure way to prepare is to watch a lot of documentaries. Almost every video store nowadays has a documentary section where you can find such classics as Nanook of the North and such modern films as Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Apocalypse Now. By examining these films, you can become more adept at learning the techniques they employ and why you find them successful or not. Then, you can try what you’ve seen. Next time someone asks what you’re making, you can not only tell them you’re making a documentary, you can tell them what kind of documentary you are making.


A Man and a Video Camera
According to Mark Steensland, a producer/director with Double Vision Studios in Sacramento, California, the three most important ingredients in making documentaries are “Flexibility, flexibility and flexibility.”

“You can start with an idea of what you want to make,” says Steensland, “but you must be prepared to allow the project to become something else.” As a prime example of this, Steensland cites the Errol Morris film The Thin Blue Line. Morris started making a film about a psychiatrist nick-named “Doctor Death,” whose testimony had resulted in the prosecution of a number of criminals. While interviewing some of those who had been convicted — in part, at least — by Doctor Death’s testimony, Morris encountered a man who claimed innocence for the crime he had committed. On closer examination, Morris believed the man’s story and made a film about him instead. The result was the man’s release from prison. “True, that’s an extreme example,” says Steensland, “but it makes the point well. One of the great things about making a documentary is the chance to have something like that happen — to learn something new.”

As an example of this from his own experience, Steensland cites a recent project, a ten minute video about the 50th anniversary of a local concrete company.

“I had no knowledge of concrete whatsoever when I went into making this project.” Because of that, says Steensland, the program offered a unique challenge and a unique outcome.

“It was a real investigation for me. Going out to the plant and following the trucks on jobs, taping each phase as I learned about it. I think it helped in the final edit of the program because I’m showing all this stuff about concrete that a lot of the audience probably doesn’t know as well.” The end result? A much more interesting video.

Asked to name the fourth most important ingredient in documentary videomaking, Steensland is quick to respond: “Simple. Your interest in the subject. How you feel about a subject will come through, whether it’s good or bad. If you don’t like it, that’s probably the way your audience will feel, too.”

— E.L.

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