Photography tools

The tools of the documentary filmmaker’s profession


Two very different and very distinctive new films show just how much variety documentaries can be. Obviously, this is true of the content. What subjects haven’t been devoted to documentaries? With this pair, this range is also linked to the form.

Currently airing on Disney +, the three-part film by Peter Jackson “The Beatles: Come Back” concerns the making of “Let It Be” by The Beatles, both film and musical recording. Jackson has won over 60 hours of film footage and over 150 hours of audio in 7h30 of documentary. It’s a traditional approach: archival material, no voiceovers, certainly no reconstructions. Another acclaimed musical documentary featuring footage from the same year, 1969, is another example. Questlove’s “The summer of the soul” was released in July.

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in “The Beatles: Get Back”.Linda mccartney

Jonas Poher Rasmussen “To flee,” which screened at this year’s GlobeDocs festival, opens on December 3. Not at all traditional, it is a mainly animated account of the flight of a refugee from Afghanistan to Denmark. Animation is not unknown as a documentary technique. Director Keith Maitland used it forcefully in “Tower” (2016) on a 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas at Austin. But it’s certainly rare – and an example of how good a documentary filmmaker’s toolkit is.

Mavis Staples, left, and Mahalia Jackson performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, in a scene from the documentary "The summer of the soul."
Mavis Staples, left, and Mahalia Jackson performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969, in a scene from the documentary “Summer of Soul”.Projector photos via AP

A different music documentary from this year illustrates another technique that is not usually associated with non-fiction films but in this case very useful. Todd haynes “The velvet metro” is in many ways quite formally conventional: archival footage, talking heads interviews. Velvets are unconventional as subjects, of course. Where the film is formally unconventional is in the frequent use of screens shared by Haynes. This serves two purposes. This allows him to cram a lot more information into each shot. It also increases the energy level, which is appropriate in a movie about a group and a scene that relied so heavily on amphetamines.

During the last rooftop gig of “The Beatles: Get Back,” Jackson also uses a split screen.

Split screen images of "The velvet metro."
Split screen images from “The Velvet Underground”.Apple TV +

Another way to deliver more information to viewers is also affecting texture, beat, and beat. That would be the duration. The grandmaster here would be Frederick Wiseman. His most recent film, “Town hall” (2020) arrives at four hours and 32 minutes. Such a length allows the filmmaker to give a more complete and less restrictive vision of a subject. This is certainly the case in other Wiseman epics at “In Berkeley” (2013) and “National Gallery” (2014). Note that Wiseman does require such length. What remains his most famous film, “The follies of Titicut” (1967), is 84 minutes; and the one that preceded “Mairie”, “Monrovia, Indiana” (2018), is “simple” two hours and 23 minutes.

A photo from the documentary "Town hall" directed by Frederick Wiseman.
A still from the documentary “City Hall” directed by Frederick Wiseman. Courtesy of Zipporah Films, Inc.

The scenography is a standard feature of the narrative film. It is not associated with the non-fiction film. Yet one of the most distinctive aspects of Errol Morris’s work “American Dharma” (2018), about former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, explains how the filmmaker modeled Bannon’s favorite movie, “Twelve O’Clock High,” in which he interviewed him. It is a surprising device which is surprisingly effective.

Errol Morris, left, interviews Steve Bannon on the
Errol Morris, left, interviews Steve Bannon on the set of “Twelve O’Clock High” in “American Dharma”.Nafis Azad, courtesy of Fourth Floor Productions

Photographs are by no means unusual in documentaries. Even with all of the archival film footage, Jackson often uses it in his Beatles documentary. It is also not uncommon to see them used in an expressive way. But it was. Ken Burns changed that. His flagship documentary “Civil war” (1990) have shown how effective it can be to zoom in and hover over photographs. The technique is so associated with it that it is now commonly called the “Ken Burns effect”And Apple uses this term in its video production software.

Civil War cannon as seen in Ken Burns documentary "Civil war."
Civil War Cannon as seen in Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War”.Courtesy of Florentine Films

What is probably the most famous use of film photography takes place in a short narrative film. Except for a moment, Chris Marker “The Pier” (1962) consists only of still photographs. Marker (1921-2012) was best known for his very unique documentaries. His remarkable latest film, the short “Stopover in Dubai” (2011), concerns the assassination of a member of Hamas by the Mossad. These are only images from surveillance cameras, a format all the more touching because it is extremely familiar and apparently foreign to artistic considerations.

A scene from "The Pier," directed by Chris Marker.
A scene from “La Jetée”, directed by Chris Marker.Courtesy of New Yorker Films

Surveillance images are an emblem of our time. Computer simulations are another. Rodney Ascher uses them extensively in his stimulating investigation of human consciousness, “A glitch in the matrix.” Alex Gibney makes quite specific and inspired use of computer simulation in his film on cyber warfare and Stuxnet worm, “Zero days” (2016).

Of "Zero Days."
From “Zero Days”. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The most effective tool available to a filmmaker, documentary or otherwise, is not technological. It is the close-up, that is to say also a convincing human presence. by Shirley Clarke “Portrait of Jason” (1967) is a good example. The subject of Clarke’s film, Jason Holliday, is a former cabaret performer and all-time con artist. This is the documentary as a one-man show, its 105 minute duration consisting of Holliday speaking and moving and generally seducing the camera. The first axiom of cinema is to see is to believe. The first axiom of a successful film is to see is to feel. Both apply here.

Jason Holliday in "Portrait of Jason."
Jason Holliday in “Portrait of Jason”.

Mark Feeney can be reached at [email protected]