March 14, 2022

A Story About Water

Students and faculty from Missouri State University are in the middle of a 2-week research trip to Jamaica doing water-quality testing and a study of how water flows through the karst topography on the southwest coast. It’s important work because many people living in the Bluefields area rely on streams and springs for their daily water.

I’m along for the ride with one of my students who is interested in making a career of documentary filmmaking. We’re documenting the trip, the research, and working up a couple pf personality profiles about locals who are important members of the community.

This scene happens, oh, every evening on Belmont Point.

Members of the research team enjoying the above scene.

Students taking care of social media.

Locals playing checkers at a rural tavern.

 

March 8, 2022

Rub Their Noses In Reality

What I learned from Attica: Sometimes you have to rub the noses of the audience in reality.

This Oscar-nominated feature documentary at first seems like any other of the expository mode. It’s certainly competent in its reporting and intimate in its interviewing (always an important achievement). The cinematography is competent although the limited b-roll gets repetitive. It’s really the harrowing, first-person stories and historical detail that hold this film together until…

…the director Stanley Nelson drops the hammer on you in the third act.

You don’t get to see what a massacre is like. You get to see the massacre itself. And its aftermath. You get to see the cruelty as it happens.

Sometimes you have to show it all.

Attica and Flee are my picks to win. I’ll tell you what I learned from Flee next.

February 28, 2022

Visual Stories Need Context

I didn’t like Ascension, one of the 2022 Oscar nominees for best feature documentary, because, in my opinion, it doesn’t rise to the level appropriate for a nomination. It perhaps would have been a better viewing experience for me had I seen it before the nominations. A nomination creates expectations.

The trailer overpromises. The director under-delivers.

My suggested logline: Many routine shots of Chinese people working while we listen to annoying ambient music and occasional snippets of conversation with little context.

Yes, there are some moments of stunning cinematography — and you see many of them in trailer. There are also long moments of well-composed but otherwise dull shots whose interest inheres in the extent to which we find the situations curious or confounding.

I know I promised to make these less reviews and more commentaries on what I learned. So here it is:

The audience needs context, especially if the trailer is going to promise “an inside perspective on modern China.” The cinematography is certainly “inside.” But we’re given little help to understand the “eye-opening visuals” that are telling a “universal story.”

How to do that? That’s the tough question.

While I’m a big believer in using text to keep the audience oriented, I’m also aware that’s a delicate dance.

February 23, 2022

Less Than Reviews of the Documentary Oscar Nominees

I don’t do documentary film reviews.

I probably could do them because I have more than 40 years of experience as a professional writer and 25 years of experience as an academic whose intellectual field is partly about writing. I’ve done a lot of stuff.

I like to discuss things I learn from documentary films. So I’m going to so that with the current Oscar nominees over the next couple of weeks.

Perhaps working up a FWIW graphic would be a good idea 🙂

February 20, 2022

Make Better Nonfiction Video With This One Simple Trick

A friend of mine shared a hilarious cartoon recently on Facebook about what the field of astronomy would look like if information were delivered through clickbait.

Nail. Head. Hit.

So I left a reply thanking him for the public service and suggesting the application of these techniques in other inappropriate areas — nonfiction filmmaking, for example 🙂

The journalism professor in me is right properly “offended” by the whole clickbait thing. But other parts of me are wondering how much this particular discourse is harmful if, in this example, I actually give you one simple trick for making your nonfiction video better.

There are some “simple” tricks. Not tricks, really. That’s just the operative clickbait word. Instead, if I deliver actual useful technique that is both simple to achieve and effective for your purposes, then I have given you good measure for your click. Obviously, the problem is that so much clickbait does not deliver.

So now I have given myself a challenge. Give you one simple trick. Something real. Something useful. Something effective.

Here it is: Get closer.

What Robert Capa said about news photography applies in many respects to nonfiction video: If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.

What I like about that one simple trick is how complex it is (ooops). Yes, proximity is important when you’re feeding the beast of an emotional medium. Filling the frame with information is basic. But more, it’s also about empathy. Making nonfiction video is a full contact sport. You need to be present in the subject’s space — physically, mentally, empathetically.

I failed. I have not given you one simple trick. What I hope I’ve given you is something to think about.

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