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.

Book Goes Behind the Scenes of Oscar-Connected Documentary Productions

Documentary Case Studies book cover.
Documentary Case Studies book cover.
Documentary production processes differ greatly from the more streamlined (factory?) approaches of mainstream fiction media. Without the written script, paid actors, and deep budgets, documentary makers face many variables that might advance, pause, or change a film’s progress. Some of those variables might even halt the film’s production altogether.

Learning about what happens on other films can help documentary filmmakers handle the challenges that might appear in their own productions. Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told, by Jeffrey Swimmer, provides just those kinds of insights and more.

For this accessible volume, Swimmer interviews directors and producers who worked on Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning documentaries. The chapters cover films such as 20 Feet from Stardom, The Act of Killing, Food, Inc., Gasland, Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport, Man on Wire, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Restrepo, Sergio, Sound and Fury, Spellbound, Super Size Me, and Undefeated.

To write these chapters, Swimmer conducted interviews with Josh Aronson, Greg Barker, Jeffrey Blitz, Simon Chinn, Josh Fox, Mark Harris, Sebastian Junger, Robert Kenner, Daniel Linsday, James Marsh, T.J. Martin, Frieda Lee Mock, Morgan Neville, Deborah Oppenheimer, Joshua Oppenheimer, Elise Pearlstein, Morgan Spurlock, and Roger Weisberg.

Though structured by title, the book develops several themes across these interviews. One of the largest overarching themes is working with participants. Though often quite watchable and engaging, charismatic subjects can still prove challenging. For Man on Wire, high-wire walker Philippe Petit is just that charismatic subject, but Petit also proved reluctant to consent to the production and demanded involvement other aspects, such as interview choices, interview filming, and dramatizations. Sergio offered a different kind of challenge with the charismatic subject. Though Sérgio Vieira de Mello had died in 2003, interview participants remained reluctant to say anything negative about him on camera.

While a few filmmakers start with their own stake in an issue, such as with Josh Fox and Gasland, most are outsiders to the cultures and communities appearing in their films. In creating Sound and Fury, which offers an inside look at the Deaf community and the divisive issue of cochlear implants, Josh Aronson needed to find access, to gain the community’s trust, and to show the community’s views fairly. He learned some sign language to help with communicating, but the filmed signed interviews still required careful translation to prevent alienating the community.

Of course, finding and choosing the right interview participants remains the fundamental challenge for any documentary production. Spellbound follows the National Spelling Bee, which draws finalists from regional competitions. How do you choose engaging candidates who might make it to the finals from such a large pool? is one question that Jeffrey Blitz faced. Mark Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer also faced a similar challenge with Into The Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. Morgan Spurlock solved the “casting” problem for his fast-food experiment by “casting” himself in Super Size Me.

Offering a range of interview voices is important, but some participants remain reluctant to talk at all. This situation arises in particular with documentaries that address political issues, including Food, Inc., Super Size Me, and Gasland.

These participants become part of the documentary’s story, which creates more issues. Many materials about the Holocaust exist, so Harris and Oppenheimer needed to find a new angle. Food, Inc., needed to balance gruesome scenes within its story. Morgan Neville encountered the largely overlooked stories of backup singers in 20 Feet from Stardom, but he struggled to bring those stories into one narrative until postproduction. Every chapter in Swimmer’s book offers points about these storytelling struggles.

Money — mostly the absence thereof — was also a prominent refrain in these chapters. Some started with funding but still needed completion funds. Some maxed out credits cards and juggled them to make expenses meet. Some started with nest eggs and soon ran out, accruing more debt. Of course, the money woes impacted travel, equipment, and other expenses, which in turned impacted interviews and storytelling.

The chapter I highlighted most was about The Act of Killing, which flips the script on genocide documentaries to focus on the perpetrators and not the victims. Director Joshua Oppenheimer worked with one of those perpetrators, Anwar Congo, to recreate the multiple murder scenes. Inspired by the Hollywood dream factory, Congo had some extravagant ideas about faked chase scenes and on-location scenes, but Oppenheimer turned him down. The chapter’s strength lies in the discussions of the trauma that Oppenheimer himself experienced both during the production and the nightmares afterward.

Swimmer writes in a conversational style that makes for a quick and engaging read. The quoted remarks and the background information mesh well together, and Swimmer avoids unrelated tangents and academic theorizing. His choice of Oscar-connected titles is a savvy one, and the production issues these case studies reveal are relevant for filmmakers and documentary enthusiasts alike.