Nonfiction films on the web
Seven websites that exemplify 22 design elements
Downloadable single-file version
A list of links to nonfiction films on the web. Prepared as an
appendix to a study on digital technologies that support
documentary filmmaking. Compiled by Åke Walldius, Center for User Oriented IT Design at the Royal Institute of Technology.
Design pattern links
Doc method links
These annotations were originally made to give the participants of the TV4 Seminar on Border-crossing documentaries (Stockholm August 18-19 2000) some material to explore after the seminar. They are written in english since the first day of the seminar was held in english and the presentation was planned as a Question-And-Answer session. Since the session indeed produced some important new questions, I have decided to extend the notes with some reflections and further examples which I hope will be of interest.
Goal of the list
The goal of the list is to give a glimpse of some of the existing techniques on the web that may become useful for documentary film projects. A secondary goal is to propose a constructive question that can guide the search for other relevant techniques and help structure the findings.
The Documentary has not yet reached the Web
Today, very few have the privilege to enjoy documentary film experiences on the web. The bandwidth is still too narrow, or too unstable, for most communities. Standards for compression, distribution, and presentation are still under intense development and far from being mature. And the underlying computer infrastructure is still characterized by what Don Norman has termed 'featuritis', a nauseating focus on 'new, sophisticated features' that have caused most end users more confusion than comfort.
But why just wait for it?
There are many signs that the web is about to become a useful tool for documentarists. Ted Nelson, one of the pioneers of hypertext authorship, who incidentally had a background as a film editor, used the term 'docuverse' to describe the emerging web of interlinked documents that he anticipated would liberate communities of many sorts: "Imagine a new accessibility and excitement that can unseat the video narcosis that now sits on our land like a fog."
Many different professions are engaged in their special fields
Ted Nelson envisioned a slow emergence of a 'docuverse' where film, step by step would merge with other (documentary) modes of expression. This renewal of the documentary tradition will be a complex and multi-layered process. While the building of a stable and user-friendly technical infrastructure is an immensely entangled activity, the evolution of social, linguistic and stylistic conventions is an even more complicated process. Therefore, to evaluate and share insights about the ongoing rebirth of documentaries will require contributions from many disciplines and trades.
To understand their contributions we need to learn many languages
The many disciplines involved in this media transformation makes the language border the first border to cross for those engaged in the search. Different disciplines have different concepts for what seems to be 'the same thing' to an outside observer. Hence, the key concepts in this presentation is based on the design patterns approach, a multidisciplinary approach aimed at finding a common vocabulary for people who work with IT and media design.
Sharing design patterns may help specialists exchange know-how
Briefly, the design pattern approach is based on the idea to collect, describe, analyse, exemplify, and publicise recurrent patterns of design for specific application domains. In architecture, the domain for which the approach was developed, patterns have names such as Family of entrances, Half hidden gardens, Courtyards which live, and The flow through rooms. In organisational design, consultants talk about Self-selecting teams, 3 to 7 Helpers per role , and Engage Customers. Researchers within Human Computer Interaction (HCI) have collected patterns such as Overview beside detail, Optional detail on demand, and Interaction history. Software engineers map the interplay between more abstract patterns such as Façade, Factory, and Singleton. To point to a few corresponding patterns in the domain of nonfiction film, a few recurrent patterns in Direct Cinema could be named: Characters followed along challenging paths, Themes emerge unexpectedly, Parallel recording and editing. (See A note on concepts for a few more remarks on this 'language in the making'.)
Which are the patterns of the documentary domain?
Up till now, critics and scholars of nonfiction film have preferred to talk about 'modes of representation' rather than about genres. These modes are characterised by their specific use of certain 'stylistic devices'. By focusing on the relation between the filmmakers and the events they portray, scholars have identified the 'Expository mode' which use stylistic devices such as Voice-over narration, Reconstructed events, and Classical dramatic construction. The 'Observational mode' is characterised by devices such as Filmmaker immersed in uncontrolled events, Prolonged takes reveal spontaneous interaction, and Research integrated in the recording phase. In the 'Interactive mode' the originators play a more active part through Filmmaker interacts with characters, Interviews, and Archival footage. In opposition to that mode, the 'Reflexive mode' tries to reveal the interpretative agency of the originator through Filmaker foregrounds ambiguity, and Contrasting interpretations. (See the Notes about documentary vocabulary for further comments on 'design patterns' as another way of looking at 'stylistic devices' and the modes, genres, and cycles they make up.)
Which questions makes us see the patterns that make up different genres?
Even if the formal elements listed above have been closely studied by critics and scholars, their relation to the audience and to the underlying technical and social context has not been followed as thoroughly. This is where the concept 'design patterns' may prove helpful as it can make us see the borders between different genres more clearly. By analysing which typical patterns a certain documentary use, we can detail more concretely which borders it is trying to cross and what new genre (hybrid) it is trying to establish or confirm. If we focus our examination on the borders themselves, as this seminar does, we can ask what borders are about to be crossed and which patterns that provide the practical compositional bridges. (See Other devices exemplified in the UK examples for further comments on borders about to be crossed.)
A question about accountability
The question of the seminar is: Which borders are the documentary getting ready to cross? More specifically, the question is about 'the possibilities' and 'the limitations'. If we find 'accountability' (or any other word for trustworthiness or poetic integrity) to be a key quality of a Documentary Film, we could rephrase the question in terms of which border-crossings that enhance accountability and which border-crossings that diminish it. If we also accept the notion that genres are made up of unique sets of design patterns, or stylistic devices as they are usually called, we could make our question even more directed. To sum it all up, this is the question that have directed my search for new documentary techniques on the web:
I have categorised each example with its institutional context (Web Centre, Magazine website etc.) and the possible, overall role of that institution in the transformation of the documentary (distribution, viewing, critique etc.). Since hidden cameras and 'Reality TV' was one of the themes of the seminar I have included two examples that examine the phenomenon of 'Cyber-snooping'. After some production data, a short and very informal characterisation of the example is given. Then, in italics, the nitty-gritty of the example is identified as the stylistic devices that make the example interesting.
Web Centrer for distribution, previews, and critique
Atom films: The Skater: Across Los Angeles, by Michael Tracey and Aurel Ziegler, 1999.
A day in the Los Angeles. A City film. Phantom ride on roller-skates. Poetic imagery. Compiled stills. Rythmic montage. Matching music. Personal narrator. Informative score. Historical references. Curiosity and amusement. Ethnographic and historical insights.
Movie-slider for instant scanning and review. Genre index for orientation and choice. Forms for rating and critique. Routines for receiving new titles.
Magazine website for trailers and backgrounds
Rollingstone Magazin; Ramblin' Jack Elliott, by Aiyana Elliott, 2000.
Artist´s portrait. Professional home video produced by artist´s daughter. Folk music history. Archival footage. Nostalgia. Ethnographic and historical understanding.
Interlinked background articles on theme and production process. Links to articles on related artists, albums and soundfiles.
TV network website as newsshow
ABC: Web newsshow with Sam Donaldson, 2000-08-09
Middle-of-the-road newsshow on surveillance on the Net. Anchorman supplies background. Some facts and figures. Interviews with a vendor of surveillance equipment and a federal inquirer. Lightly informative. Spurs further investigation.
Web window integrates content description, movie and controls. Links to related news coverage. Thematic index for orientation and choice.
(If you access this link after 2000-08-21, then you have to follow the link to the Archive given at the end of the list of This weeks newsshows.)
Independent mediacenter for reports on critical issues
FreeSpeechTV: This Land Is Your Land, by Dourg Hawes-Davis, Sierra Club, 1999.
An examination of the end results of a hundred years of forest management. Wildlife and archival footage that the computer can do little justice to. But which is complemented by a wealth of urgent facts about the cost of commercial logging of publicly owned forests, delivered by Sierra Club leaders, congressmen, US Forest Service planners, and biologists.
Archive for reviewing of broadcast videos. Store for bying them. Links for news and critical reports on the issues covered.
University website for participatory critique
UCLA Department of Film and Television: Center for Hidden Camera Research, by Professor Stephen Mamber, colleagues and students, 1997-.
Hidden cameras as subjects in Hollywood movies, television shows, and as featured on websites. Gallery of examples. Rich, informative, analytical, and fun commentary.
Timeline for navigation between excerpts. Interactive 3D window for reconstructions of camera placement. Links for critical investigation.
(Note that some of the QuickTime files on this site are really big. But don't let this stop you from enjoying the innovative devices used.)
University website for participatory production
M.I.T. MediaLab: A Random Walk Through the Twentieth Century, by Glorianna Davenport, Cheryl Morse, Michael Murtaugh, Freedom Baird, Richard Lachman, Peter Cho, Phillip Tiongson, Laughton Stanley, 1995.
Portrait of Jerome B. Weisner, one of the aknowledged leaders of the M.I.T. Rich, intertextual biography in the form of written personal accounts, narrated seires of stills, and videoclips. Intertwines the personal carrier of an academic leader with many of the last century´s issues of public debate.
Thematic timeline for orientation. Dynamic list for extended navigation. Decentralized autonomous agents for personalized navigation. Routines for receiving and integrating new sequences.
(If you are eager to see the clips mentioned in the seminar, then click images number 5 and 27 as counted from the upper left of the mosaic.)
Joint PBS and University project for critical investigation
Oregon Public Broadcasting: Nerds2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet, hosted by Robert X. Cringely, 1998.
Informative, critical, and fun tour of the history of Internet.
(No clips from documentary! No accounting and compensation devices in place, yet?)
Cast of character for extended orientation. Timeline for critical inquiries. Glossary for enhanced interpretation.
Don Norman's critique of 'featuritis'?
Don Norman has held several key positions within the computer industry and is one of its harshest critics in respect to the industry's attitude to end users. In books like The Design of Everyday Things and The Invisible Computer (see the website below) he explains how the broad adoption of IT will force manufacturers and software companies to leave the technology-centered design strategy for a human-centered strategy. He details his critique of 'featuritis' in the latter book, pages 80-82. Read more about the coming of 'information appliances' and user-friendly software on his homepage: http://www.jnd.org/.
Ted Nelson's quote about 'video narcosis'
The quote about 'video narcosis' is taken from Literary Machines (Eastgate System, order from Ted Nelsons website, see below). Ted Nelsons is probably most famous for his legendary project Xanadu, in which meta-data, the self-reflecting declarations of electronic documents, was planned to direct financial compensation to the documents' originators. Read more about the project at: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/people/ted_nelson/
and at Ted Nelson's own website: http://www.sfc.keio.ac.jp/~ted/.
A note on concepts
There are several good introductions to the pattern language approach and I have listed some of them under the heading Links to websites on design patterns. Below, I will only comment briefly on three aspects of special interest: the relation between design patterns and design guidelines, the task of compiling patterns from the domain of nonfiction film, and the need of sharing know-how across professional borders within an industry in turbulent growth.
The relation between design patterns and design guidelines
Design patterns are quite close to design guidelines in many respect. Both serve to sum up and share know-how, heuristics, and rules-of-thumb from a specific application domain. However, design patterns are less detailed than guidelines as they try to strip away technical details. Their underlying principle is to abstract that which stays the same between many examples and implementations. On the other hand, the formalism of mature patterns which have been recognised by many practitioners is quite elaborate. The representation of a mature pattern have the form of a one to five pages long investigation which: gives the pattern a telling name; describes the context, the synonyms, and the problem approached; then argues about the forces or arguments behind it; goes on to describe the solution it provides; and last but not least, describes the relation between the pattern investigated and other patterns which it interacts with.
The fact that patterns describe tried and tested solutions to recurrent problems give them the appearance of rules. But since these solutions are always supported by clear and concise arguments, and with references to other patterns, the solutions tend to stay more open and flexible than a regular set of design rules. The point is never to rely on strict directions but to use patterns as suggestions and guidance. This means that most recognised patterns are constantly open for debate, revisions and alterations. This is why the originators of the approach named their first broad collection A Pattern Language, not The Pattern Language. Their basic idea was that practitioners from many fields should make their own languages, based on the book, but more importantly, based on their own shared experience.
Although the definition and reworking of mature patterns is an important step in the pattern approach, individual patterns doesn't get really useful until they get assembled with their related counterparts from a specific domain. It is in the interplay between five to ten patterns that the organic qualities of the approach becomes visible. If we know the domain in which the patterns are recognised, then a good collection can make us see with new eyes how different things interact and support each other in subtle ways. This is why the originators stressed that it is what happens between the patterns that is important, that the approach is all about A Pattern Language.
Compiling patterns from the domain of nonfiction film
There is a long way to go before we can compile a rich collection of recognised patterns from nonfiction film. My aim here is to argue for that the approach should be tested. One reasonable way of doing that is to identify a series of emerging patterns that seem to be on the verge of renewing the documentary on the web. This way of using patterns, as a search mechanism rather than a tool to teach accepted practice, is an important one. The need for a common vocabulary to describe media transitions is at least as great as the need for teaching tools that deal with accepted practice. True, it makes it more difficult to try to grasp "things in the making" than mapping established procedures. But on the other hand, it also makes it more advantageous and fun. Hopefully their should be plenty of room for the generous and sharing attitude that is typical of other communities in which design patterns are used as a way to exchange know-how.
The need for sharing know-how
The generous, yet critical attitude that distinguish the debates in which practitioners share their know-how is worth a note of its own. Obviously, the general sentiment within these communities is, that the benefits of a sharing between colleagues more than outweigh the drawbacks of revealing ones own favourite techniques. Historians of technology, such as Thomas P Hughes, have shown that it is these anarchistic and curiosity-driven communities of computer scientists and dedicated professionals that have provided much of the driving force behind the software that makes the Internet a useful, friendly, empowering, and fun environment. Even though this attitude often comes natural within the institutions of education, research and other public service environments, many of the industrial environments of today seem to thrive on the same open-mindedness.
How do the concepts relate to the documentary vocabulary of the TV4-seminar?
How useful are concepts such as 'design patterns' (stylistic devices, schemata) and 'genres' (modes, cycles) when it comes to describing exemplary documentary films made today. Here, I will just give a few glimpses of how these concepts can help focus on some of the crucial qualities of the films that were shown during the first day of the conference.
During the first day, a series of newly made British documentaries were shown.
David Wingate gave an introduction that, among other things, highlighted the driving forces behind much of the formal and thematic innovation: to challenge the orthodoxies of the documentary concept in systematic ways. "Giving the audience what they want, but also what they don't know that they want", as he formulated one of his principles.
How does such a principle of challenge relate to the concept of recurrent patterns and symmetries that stay the same over time? As I see it, it is the small but deliberate extension of crucial patterns that provide the exciting trespassing of established borders. Most of the basic narrative and rhetoric patterns stay the same, but some are renewed in waves, or cycles, of films that oppose, challenge and contest the established norms. And it is in the choice of which patterns to renew that the filmmaker can show the audience "what they didn't know that they wanted".
Colin Luke from Mosaic Films gave the first examples of how subtle changes within a firm, almost classical narrative framework could have powerful, dramatic effects. First, he managed to sum up the interplay between money, technology, and the enterprise of filmmaking in a very convincing testimony about the whims of the marketplace. Then, he demonstrated how the small, digital videocameras of today allowed filmmakers to explore new environments by extending the patterns of the 'Observational mode'. The way I saw them, the excerpts he showed all illustrated the extension of one of that modes typical patterns: Prolonged takes reveal spontaneous interaction.
In the first excerpt, the cameraman is thrown off a raft, left behind, below water level, but keeps on recording as he drifts in the direction of a deadly rock, only to be rescued back onboard the raft the seconds before he hits it. This is of course an extreme example of how a prolonged shot, when you have the technology that supports it, can reveal incidents impossible to document with other means. The following excerpts demonstrated how prolonged shots could reveal more restrained events and relationships. An interview with a young boy at a boarding school seems to reach its expressive peak, after which most cameramen would turn off the camera, when it suddenly turns into a new revelatory direction. In much the same way, the tragedies of Russian families drawn into the turmoil of war is documented with a closeness and patience that earlier technologies, and earlier formal conventions, could not reach.
Even if this is not the right place to elaborate on it, similar analysis could be made of the excerpt shown by the two following documentarists, Chris Terrill and Jeremy Gibson. Colin Luke's examples were heavily influenced by the Observational tradition even if they made use of conventions from the Interactive tradition, (series of well prepared interviews). Chris Terrill, a former ethnographer, declared himself to be much closer to the Interactive tradition, pinpointing it in the image of "A fly off the wall" in contrast to the Observational ideal being "A fly on the wall". With excerpts from 'HMS Brilliant', 'Soho Stories' and 'The Cruise' he demonstrated how new digital camera technologies allowed him to become a curious and talkative visitor to secluded environments. The importance of elements such as Long projects and Prolonged takes was as obvious as in Colin Luke's examples. But the personal presence of the cameraman made itself felt much stronger in the way Chris Terrill interacted with the people he, and we, got to know during his voyages. The endurance in project length and shot-lengths was paralleled by a sense that there was a long-term contract and mutual understanding between the people Chris Terrill met and himself.
After Chris Terrills presentation of his own personal experiences as a Documentarist/Ethnographer, Jeremy Gibson, a producer at BBC Bristol, gave an interesting account of the successive waves of new documentary-inspired forms that the BBC reached popularity with during the 90's. Again, the agencies of the documentary challenge, production technologies, and stylistic devices were the main threads of the account. Gibson started, as did Colin Luke, by referring to the harsh contrast he felt in the early 90's between the flexibility of Camcorders in relation to the then dominant large-scale and bureaucratically entangled production apparatus. Out of this tension emerged the so called Video Diary, with follow-ups such as Football Diary and Teenage Diary, a production design in which the Protagonist assumes the role of cameraman. Although Gibson did not discuss any of the interesting formal questions of this wave he forcefully argued that this was "something radically different in terms of what it was saying and where it came from". What he did point to as an important precondition for the emergence of the diary cycle, and the other subsequent forms, was that the innovative energy, and thus the audience feedback, in the competing genres of drama, entertainment and (established) documentary programming was particularly low at the time.
Particularly interesting was Gibson's referral to the new time structures of the emerging forms as a crucial element of their success. The time-borders they crossed were: their higher pace of action (compared to their forerunners), a higher cutting speed, and their reliance on the Cliff-hanger link between episodes. Gibson admitted willingly that is was not the importance-factor (the relative political or social urgency) that brought it into popularity. But he claimed that this was in fact something that came later. The second wave of innovative programming he showed examples from could be termed Comedy Docusoaps. In Drivers Licence we get to know some of the most troubled pupils of a drivers school, with lingering close-ups on their patient teachers, friends and relatives. As the years went by, more challenging subjects provided the innovative energy. Gory workplace environments populated by tested employees got documented in series such as Vets in Practice (veterinarians) and Life of Brian (social workers). In Gibson's account this eventually resulted in a third cycle that may consequentially be termed Dramatic docusoaps. This cycle was exemplified in the series Au Pair where the total lack of regulation and the cultural clashes between employer and employee got effectively scrutinised.
Gibson's claim that this was indeed a new cycle, worth its own attention, can be supported with reference to Rick Altman's latest book Film / Genre (BFI Publ, 1999). Here Altman argues that new cycles emerge based either on shifts in semantics (themes, subject matter) or on shifts in syntactics (stylistic devices, design patterns). The key purpose of the border-crossing, according to Altman, is that it challenges the orthodoxies, that it contests the ruling order in the name of a community in the making. A community that mark out their new symbolic territory by either charging existing forms with new themes or by fusing new meaning into existing themes through presenting them in new (outrageous) forms. It is in extension of this argument that the centrality of the stylistic devices, or design patterns, becomes evident. If we can't trace the shifting syntax between for example the two cycles of Docusoaps, 'Primarily for Entertainment' versus 'Primarily for Critical Enquiry (although intensely entertaining)', how are we to account for the shifts in audience reception and its dynamic dependence upon themes employed and techniques applied?
Other stylistic devices exemplified in the UK examples
What follows is a short list of other stylistic device exemplified during the seminar. In one way or another, they all seem to be prompted or made possible by the development of digital technologies. A general theme of this development is that it has lead to a miniaturisation of equipment which in turn has provided for a greater mobility in the hands of experienced filmmakers. Again, the reason to focus on devices or patterns is to give glimpses of the practical and concrete interplay between technologies, themes, designs, genres and audience communities. This should not be taken as a proposition that all documentary analysis has to focus on stylistic devices. The general idea is only to highlight an important link in the creative chain of a popular craft. And to show that much of the discussion in fact touch upon these important links, even if they are seldom highlighted in terms of stylistic devices or design patterns.
Long recording phase: In virtually all of the films shown an extended recording phase had been made possible by the enhanced economy of the digital technique. In turn, this longer period of recording allow for an extended closeness to the characters and themes of the film. In that way such project designs can be seen as a precondition for Prolonged takes on the level of the whole process of researching, recording, and editing.
Immersive sound-recording: In many of the films small microphones with radiotransmitters were used, allowing for the sound-man to be tucked away in a room or a lorry on a street nearby. Together with the unobtrusiveness of the camcorders, this provided for an even greater mobility and closeness.
Editing in country of exhibition: In the Russian project Colin Luke presented, british editors were used with the argument that the series was made for UK audiences. However, the question was raised in the seminar whether Russian editors could have used much of the same material for a very different film for their Russian audiences.
Recording as part of Research: True to his training and experience as an ethnographer, Chris Terrill approached his environment with an open mind. This meant that he tried to understand more about it in the course of his interactions, thereby identifying himself closer with the people he met and with his audience. The point was to get the revelations on tape, to make them grow out of the material.
Do look in the camera: One of the techniques Chris Terrill used to get to know the people he met better was to encourage them to look him in the eyes. That meant that he sometimes asked them to abandon the habit of avoiding gazes directly into the camera.
Cameraman interacts with both eyes: Since Chris did not film all of the time he met other people, he made it a habit of his own to open his "non-camera eye" to signal that the conversation was about to shift to "off the record". That most of the people he met silently agreed to this pattern, and changed their eyeline of conversation accordingly, is one of the strongest evidences that the Documentary today is more about communication than about "information".
"Give me a character, not a storyline": This was Chris Terrill's way of saying that he certainly did not start his projects from the angle of getting a specific story across. What fascinates him, and what he hopes will fascinate his audiences, is to get to know people who face challenges that he can share.
Links to websites on design patterns
A personal and very broad presentation of the architect Christopher Alexander, the originator of the concept of pattern languages, is given by his colleague Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros at: http://www.math.utsa.edu/sphere/salingar/Chris.text.html
A clear and visually engaging introduction to the application of patterns to organisational design (and other fields) is given by Thomas Erickson, in the form of a downloadable PDF-file at: http://www.upassoc.org/html/download/patterns.pdf
A fascinatiing compilation of process and organisation patterns from a highly competitative Software Lab is presented by James O. Coplien at: http://portal.research.bell-labs.com/orgs/ssr/people/cope/Patterns/Process/index.html
Software engineering is the field of application that most of the references on the web are dedicated to. Here are two links from the same website. The first tells the story about how patterns got applied to software engineering. The second is a roadmap to a movement that has grown out of the pattern community, Extreme Programming, a movement that 'takes commonsense principles and practices to extreme levels':
Human Computer Interaction
Engineers and designer within the HCI domain have started to apply the pattern approach to the design of user interfaces. Here is a link to one of the most complete home pages, hosted by Thomas Erickson, and a second link the most comprehensive collections of HCI patterns, made by Jenifer Tidwell:
Links to websites on documentary methods
Again, the purpose is not to be comprehensive but to compile a short list that represents the existing diversity of approaches to the documentary on the web. They are all small microcosms of their own. The interesting thing is to reflect on which thematic and formal elements that unite them and will make them flourish through the intense use by many different categories of users.
News, reviews and videostore: Documentaryfilms.net:
Critical writings about documentaries: DocuMemory Links:
Centre for viewers and producers: California Newsreel:
Swedish Centre for viewers and producers: FilmCentrum :