In our information-crammed lives, how many of us have been made to sit through coma-inducing fact-films or interminably tedious educational documentaries?
Whether in school, at work or in community halls, chances are that while you were fighting off the sandman in the middle of a boring explainer film, your inner filmmaker was screaming that there had to be a better way to present this mind-numbing content.
British essayist and 1930s radio explainer G.K. Chesterton’s maxim that there are no boring subjects flies off the page like a challenge from another time for content creators today to take an authentic interest in the subject matter they’re imparting.
The creators of the popular BBC podcast, “The Boring Talks,” appear to have met Chesterton’s challenge head-on. From the influence of the wooden pallet on the global economy to the history of road markings. “The Boring Talks” proves Chesterton’s point: capture the interest of your audience and boring won’t be an issue no matter how humdrum the subject matter.
A Financial Times review of the “Talks” podcast, which celebrates all things mundane, offers some clues as to how this might be achieved: “What, on paper, sounds like an interminable snooze-fest is made interesting through diligent research and the charisma of the speakers who, in locating the narrative in potentially tedious topics, end up revealing a lot about themselves too.”
Engaging presenters with an infectious enthusiasm for the subject matter, armed with irresistible and esoteric nuggets of background information, will certainly hold an audience’s attention. British filmmaker Steven Lake does just that when he deploys affable grassroots activist Alex Lee to persuade audiences to ‘hang it up’ in his 2012 enviro-doc “Drying for Freedom,” a film about clotheslines. “From the laundry-less gardens of sunny California to India’s communal open air Laundromats, “Drying for Freedom is a voyage into the new environmental battlefield,” reads the film’s logline.
Lake doesn’t rely entirely on Lee’s earnest persuasion skills to make his energy-saving arguments. He also makes extensive use of archival footage. Seldom seen and long forgotten 1950s commercials from the dawning of the age of electrical appliances make for a fun ride into the nostalgic support of a potentially unremarkable topic.
Boring Talks #8, entitled ‘Danish Public Information Films,’ celebrates their golden age from 1935 to 1965. The presenter reminds us that it was films sponsored by governments, foundations and organizations that first inflicted ‘useful cinema’ on unsuspecting citizens, and not only in Denmark, to give us ‘education with the lights off.’
As Talk #8 suggests, these films were typically designed to “give insights into the priorities of governments and into social change: What was understood? What were people worried about? What did people need to have explained to them?”
But whether it was deep inside the warrens of government bureaucracies like the Empire Marketing Board in Great Britain, The National Film Board of Canada, or in the private film commissions of US government departments, the ‘golden age’ was also an era that produced artful makers of non-fiction films whose innovative work can still teach us a few things about taking the boring out of fact films.
General Post Office filmmakers led by doc pioneer John Grierson resorted to poetry and innovative soundscapes to tell the British public how efficient their national postal service was in the classic mini doc “Night Mail” (1936).
For the 1960 short film, “A City Called Copenhagen,” commissioned by Copenhagen city council and harbor authority to promote the city abroad, the filmmaker was instructed to include a long list of statistics on the city’s municipal services. Director Jørgen Roos, anticipating his audience’s potential boredom, tapped into some self-deprecating Danish humour to keep viewers watching. As the narrator rattles off the mandated list and goes on about the efficiencies of the cranes in the harbor, Roos frequently cuts to people and animals doing the yawning on the audience’s behalf. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
“the adventure of the wonderful potato” is a classroom favorite in europe.
Another Danish offering, “The Adventure of the Wonderful Potato” (1987) is a classroom favorite in European schools. “In the beginning, the big mother potato was laid…” So begins the authoritative but kind voice of the narrator who stretches some historical truths in the unfolding of the animated tale of tuber history from the Incan potato creation myth to its triumphant universal appeal at dinner tables around the world.
A contemporary example spawned from the TED Talks series, “Small Thing Big Idea,” which ‘celebrates every day objects’ from buttons to hoodies and features some snappy filmmaking. The episode “How the Jump Rope Got Its Rhythm” is a brisk but visually rich walk through the history of the jump rope. With strident editing of exquisitely shot close-ups, extreme live action slo-mo and motion across archival photographs that you can’t take your eyes off, it’s all held together by the maternal and understanding voice of the presenter.
Techniques to Try
How to make dull subject matter interesting is an age-old preoccupation of creators regardless of the medium they work in. As you might expect, the internet has an abundance of advice on the matter. Most of it is about business communications — how to make your product or service exciting — but some of the pointers are transposable to the making of docs and fact films with challenging subject matter.
The oft-used technique of starting a presentation with a question can work in filmmaking as well. Asking viewers directly to imagine themselves in the world or situation of your film will ensure their buy-in from the outset.
By extension, making a topic relatable by telling and showing an audience why this content is important or useful to them can also help to capture and sustain attention.
Tying a topic to current events or trends is a classic speaker’s technique that can add some interest to a potentially boring subject such as urban planning, for example. Why not inject some dynamic visuals from cities around the world supported by an inspiring music score to add some illustrative bite?
Documentaries are essentially visual story delivery systems that depend on finding a narrative to unpack with engaging and relevant images and sounds. The form of the genre is shifting its shape constantly from hybrid to experimental, from poetic to mock-doc, and there is still something to be said for passionate and articulate talking heads who can explain to us how the world works.
The doc making toolkit is diverse. If your next video project is about a challenging or bland subject matter, don’t be afraid to dip in and mix and match, you’ll know when you have the right combination of story elements that will keep the sandman at bay and your audience wanting more.
Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.