Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Dumbing Down Docs - Who To Blame??

Author John Shirley on documentaries:

Incredibly Annoying, Insulting Documentary Editing

There's a trend to edit documentaries--even the more serious ones involving history and science--with editing tricks that “jolt“ the viewer with suddenly-sped-up motions, deliberately wrenching cuts, abrupt switches in camera viewpoint, spastic camera motion, etc etc etc, to try and give the film a “sexy“
high energy feeling. This is an expression of the film maker's assumption that you're stupid and lazy and you suffer from Attention Deficit. You don't have the attention span to watch a documentary that flows, that is rationally cut together. You need to be babied along, like someone snapping their fingers or
jingling keys to get an infant's attention. Ken Burns didn't have to do it, and his stuff is successful. No one has to do it. It's a degradation of the culture of documentary film making."

Mac Tonnies chimes in:

Anyone who's suffered through a typical UFO documentary (say, the ones on the Discovery Channel) will immediately know what Shirley's talking about. The rules seem to be:

1.) Assault the viewer with lots of randomly inserted stock footage from little-known 1950s sci-fi movies.

2.) Go for lots of "moody" lighting that makes speakers seem like they're tuning in from another dimension. This gives them a suitably "spaced out" appearance and helps ensure that they won't be taken seriously.

3.) Employ dumb sound effects. Whirring, beeping, humming. You know, "space" sounds!

4.) Show the archetypical "Gray" alien visage as often as
possible, regardless if the documentary is actually addressing aliens. Space exploration, extraterrestrial intelligence, UFOs -- it's all the same, so who cares?

There's some truth to this, no doubt , although there are notable exceptions (Burns is one, Errol Morris is another). Let me suggest a few reasons why, however - not all of which are the fault of the filmmaker, or the network that commissions the film:

1. Blame, to some degree, music videos, which changed the way people perceived not only music, but also television and film.

2. Blame the viewers as well - if filmmakers are insulting their intelligence, that's because these people want to be insulted, or can't tell the difference anymore.

3. Finally, blame the filmmakers and the networks, for taking the easy way out, instead of making challenging films (and I speak here about subjects other than just UFOs and the paranormal as well).

I liken a good documentary to good sex, where faster / quicker is not necessarily better.

A good documentary should have plenty of foreplay (what I like to call the "slow reveal"), some genuine suspense, and a narrative structure that actually tells a story, whenever possible.

As for stock footage, avoid it like the plague. I've never used a single second, and I wouldn't, unless the images were directly related to what was being talked about at the particular moment on the screen - for example, footage of an exploding A-bomb would be fine if you had Stan Friedman talking about aliens being in New Mexico in 1947 to monitor atomic tests, or something like that.

Finally, and this a factor overlooked, I think, by both Shirley and Tonnies, blame ever-decreasing budgets (largely the result of the proliferation of channels without a concomitant increase in the pool of potential advertisers). Travel is expensive. Paying crew is expensive (even my habitually underpaid gang of misfits). Stock footage, while it can sometimes be expensive to acquire (although not always), is usually a cheaper alternative, particularly compared to re-creations (if you want to do them well).

Anyway, things won't change much until people start demanding that they change, which I don't expect to happen anytime soon, at least not in the numbers required to make a difference. Vox populi rules, and, as with modern pop music (Britney Spears etc.), the public seems perfectly happy with the re-cycled, dumbed-down, Coles-notes version that they're getting.

Meanwhile, I'll keep trying to buck the trend, and - within the budgets I have to work with (note to the Canadian networks - I'm not complaining!!) - create films that inform and entertain at the same time.

Paul Kimball

1 comment:

Mac said...

Great points.