Notes toward an Interactive Documentary Production Class

My current position calls for developing more social, visual, and interactive contributions to the department’s curriculum. After creating an introductory social media class and an online marketing campaigns class, this semester I proposed a course titled Interactive Documentary Production, which has been approved for the 2019-2020 school year.

The course requires no previous experience with audio-visual production, so it introduces those basics alongside providing exposure to working in interactive online spaces.

The primary goal of the course is play as it relates to technology and reality representation. (More on the idea of play later.) Beyond that goal, this post offers a thinking through of the course’s possible assignments and a bit about their rationales.

Compilation Video

This 1-2 minute video would feature only archival footage, though voiceover, music, and titles could be added as needed. The goals behind this assignment include thinking critically about editing and about researching non-original materials.

Person-on-the-Street Video

This 1-minute video would feature 5-7 person-on-the-street interviews edited around 2-3 key themes drawn from an original question. The goals behind this assignment include developing interviewing skills, seeking themes among materials, creating an order among those themes, and editing diverse voices into a coherent narrative.

Web Series

The compilation video and the person-on-the-street video could become part of a web series. Or, the web series could be a separate project altogether. One distinction I would need to make here is separating the web series from programming a YouTube channel: How are they similar? How are they different? The goal for this assignment includes thinking about and developing online programming as part of a strand.

Text-Based Docugame

I suspect this assignment will draw the most kick-back, but it really drives home the importance of story, presentation, users, and engagement. Text-based documentaries frequently get overlooked, particularly in our ever-digitizing and visual world, and this assignment would serve as a reminder of the importance of text in the communication of experiences. Text-based games also get overlooked in favor of the more visually rich environments of massively multiplayer online role-playing games. (This clip from The Big Bang Theory shows more how those text-based games work.) But together these options could provide a way to engage audiences in ways that require thinking outside the frame.

Interactive Documentary

While the phrase “interactive documentary” covers a lot of possibilities, students could create one using a platform such as Korsakow. The goals here include working with nonlinear storytelling and user experience.

Animated Documentary

Animated documentary could be a short assigment wherein original materials would be transformed into animated ones. For example, one approach might take audio-only sequences and set them to animation such as in Broken: The Women’s Prison at Hoheneck. The goals here include thinking about what to show when no visual materials exist and about the possibilities and boundaries created by the art of animation.

Augmented Reality Documentary

Augmented reality adds a layer of text and context between the user’s device and the world before them. This assignment would require thinking about what that extra layer would offer the user and how it would offer it. Goals here include developing greater focus on the end-user’s experience and thinking outside beyond the screen frame.

Nonfiction Virtual Reality

Arguably, virtual reality remains the most complex among the options listed here. Some instructions for virtual reality production begin with coding. While learning even the basics of code is important, its incorporation into a class like this is too much. Instead, working with third-party apps could provide one option. Another, lower bar option could be creating a 360-degree video. Now just to find a 360-degree camera…

No one semester will include all of these assignments, particularly since the course assumes no previous moving image production experience and because each project involves multiple programs and some special equipment in order to make it all happen.

Have something you want to ask or add to this post? Leave a comment below, or reach out to me on Twitter @documentarysite.

11 Lessons from a Workshop in Audio Production

In early November 2018, I attended a workshop in audio production presented by Owen Brafford at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from that too-brief afternoon workshop.

1. Learn a little physics.

More specifically, learn a little bit about acoustics and the way sound behaves in spaces and around objects. Even that basic knowledge will help make audio production easier.

2. Sound obeys no one.

Some aspects of film production can be controlled in useful ways. For example, lighting can be moved, adjusted, pointed, and otherwise manipulated until the effect is just right. It can be directed to go in the direction you want it to go. Sound, however, defies this kind of control and goes where it wants to go.

3. Record room tone for a few seconds.

According to filmsound.org, room tone is “The ‘sound of a room’ without any movement or dialogue.” This room tone recording proves useful in post-production to ease some gaps in the audio.

4. Know your microphone types and their limitations.

There are three basic types of microphones. Shotgun microphones attach to the camera body and plug directly into the camera for recording. A boom mic attaches to a boom. A lavaliere mic clips to the participant’s clothing and includes a transmitter for recording the sound remotely. Shotgun mics are convenient but echo-y in open spaces. Lavaliere mics get decent spoken audio, but not a rich range of sound. Boom microphones offer the richest sound and the most flexibility, but they require a crew member dedicated to holding them just right for recording sessions.

5. The boom is an art form.

A boom refers to the pole on which a microphone is attached. The boom operator then must hold the boom with the microphone at just the right distance from the speaker’s mouth and at just the right angle to achieve optimal sound recording. At the same time, the boom must be kept out of the camera’s field of vision and not distract the speaker. Wikipedia offers a great story about the origins of this practice.

6. Hiding the microphone is another art form.

While some producers don’t mind the visible lavaliere mic, others prefer that it not appear on camera. Hiding and securing the microphone in a way that makes the participant comfortable and that still achieves optimal sound recording requires a delicate balancing act of choosing and securing location. Under the shirt collar? Not if it’s starched cotton, which is scratchy and noisy. Under a hat? Not if it’s an open-weave straw hat on a windy day.

Getting the microphone to stay in place is another challenge. The possibilities to this end are mind boggling — lavaliere clips, vampire clips, Top Stick , and gaffer’s tape, just to name a few. Microphone maker Rode offers an overview of other possible ways to clip and conceal lavaliere mics.

7. The lav bullet makes micing with a lavalier slightly less awkward.

Also called a mic drop, the lav bullet is a piece of weighted metal that allows the lavaliere wire to be dropped through the participant’s pants or shirt quickly. The bullet even allows participants to thread the wire themselves, preventing some of the awkwardness that this process creates.

8. Microphones record everything.

Microphones don’t discriminate and only record the sound you want to get; they record everything without bias. A noisy truck going by outside, a pet howling in the background, a participant’s fidgeting with worry beads — all of these sounds will show up on the recording. For an example, my favorite clip from Gates of Heaven features a charming, rambling participant interrupted by screeching car tyres.

9. Microphone position > microphone quality.

Like with cinematography, sound production has a wide variety of equipment available. While higher quality equipment might up your game a bit, you don’t need the most expensive of everything to have a successful shoot. Positioning the microphone carefully — generally using a boom about 6-12 inches from the speaker’s mouth — will get great spoken audio for most microphones.

10. The most expensive part of a sound kit is the wireless set.

B&H Photo offers this great post explaining more about the complexities of wireless audio recording systems.

11. There is no excuse for bad sound.

Hollywood production techniques such as automatic dialogue replacement have created audiences used to crisp, clean sound. While they might tolerate a shaky or blurred image, they will not tolerate bad sound. But, really, there is no excuse for bad sound during a planned production. It just requires careful placement and monitoring during the recording, just as camera and other production aspects do.

Similar to the cinematography boot camp, the audio production workshop offered an immense depth of details and things to consider. More takeaways easily could be added to this list. Either way, the session offered some good starts in thinking about equipment and practices for my own projects.

Have something you want to ask or add to this post? Leave a comment below, or reach out to me on Twitter @documentarysite.

11 Lessons from a Cinematography Boot Camp

In early November 2018, I attended a class in cinematography presented by Jeremy Wilker at Film North in St. Paul, Minnesota. The class represents another step toward proposing a multi-media documentary production class. The following post brings together 11 takeaways from that two-day workshop.

1. Every shot must serve a purpose.

This reminder is important as more and more novelty cameras with affordable prices appear. Drone cameras and 360-degree cameras open possibilities for some breathtaking and unique shots, but must those shots be in the final piece?

Oddly enough, this point runs counter to what I am thinking in developing that multi-media production course. In that course, I would want students to engage the technologies while creating their nonfiction works. That engagement would require experimentation and critical thinking about the relationship between representation and technology without overvaluing the latter.

2. Zoom with your feet.

This takeaway has been repeated throughout multiple training sessions and bears repeating again. Physically moving the camera makes for clearer, better images. Internal zoom functions should be a last resort, not a first one.

3. Know your equipment.

As in, really know your equipment. Know its limitations, possibilities, hacks, comparisons to other brands and models. Read the manuals; read the reviews. The more you can adjust the camera (and lighting) on the production side, the less you have to adjust on the post-production side. Making those adjustments, both large and small, require knowing your camera inside and out.

4. Sensor size matters.

“Sensor” refers to the chip within the camera that gathers light. Smaller sensors tend to render everything in an image in focus, while larger sensors allow playing with the depth of field and creating bokeh, or a kind of artistic blurring. Smart phones employ smaller sensors, but changes in computational processing now allow creating depth of field in post-production.

4. Cameras are more complex than you think.

This point hit home most for me. Over the decades cameras have become more and more consumer friendly, and many cameras require little instruction to figure out how to make them take adequate pictures. Spending time with the instruction manual might help you become more familiar with the camera’s controls, but the complexities I mention here are beyond that. One example is 8 bit versus 10 bit cameras. Dynamic range varies from camera to camera, with 8-9 stops appearing on many DSLRs and 13-14 stops bringing a wider range and less blowout. Crop images versus full frame images I knew about, as full frame has been creeping down to prosumer and consumer levels for years.

5. Proper lighting eases camera limitations.

In this session lighting and camera appeared to work in tandem. In low light, the camera ISO / gain might be turned up to capture the image better, but in doing so the image becomes noisier. Cheaper zoom lenses often have lower f stops, which cut the light the further they extend. Proper lighting can help in both of these situations.

6. The variety of lighting options is mind-boggling.

Lighting kits and setups contain almost as much, if not more, gear than a camera and its accessories. Stands are a start, but lighting options include everything from an LED panel with bi-color (blue and yellow) built in to a single targeted light mounted on a tripod. Light boxes offer another option. The Kino Flo system offers a wide range of possibilities for lighting indoor interviews. On top of all that, reflectors and scrims change the light quality as needed, not to mention changing the table lamps if on location.

7. Gaffer’s tape is your friend.

Gaffer’s tape is the Swiss army knife of filmmaking.

8. Three-point lighting is not just for film studies.

Three-point lighting refers to a fairly standard system of lighting used in film. Film studies teaches this system as a way to explain the relationships between lighting and cinematography and between lighting and story / genre, such as high-key lighting (bright) and comedy and low-key lighting (shadowy) and film noir.

It consists of a key light, which is the brightest light and the one the camera should be exposed for. The backlight creates a frame or halo around the interview participant, and the fill light knocks out or softens the shadows created by the key and back lights. The fill can be helpful for softening features on self-conscious people’s faces as well.

9. Believe it or not, there’s a formula.

The formula is called the “inverse square law.” Basically, if a light is moved back two feet, it loses four times its power. If a light is moved back four feet, then it loses 16 times its power. The camera settings need to be moved 2 f stops for each square removed.

10. Starting a kit doesn’t require the kitchen sink.

A basic setup can include a camera, a prime lens (50mm), a zoom lens, a tripod, and enough spare batteries to last a day of shooting.

11. That said, choosing a camera kit might prove challenging.

This last one is more my own thinking. There are so many suggestions for cameras to consider: Canon C100 or C100 Mark 2, Sony F5100 or F700, Canon DSLRs, Blackmagic cameras, and even just sticking with a smartphone.

Overall, the session offered many more takeaways than the ones listed here, and it offered some good starts in thinking about equipment for my own projects.