Monday, September 18, 2017

Thoughts on Micro-Documentaries and Movies

It's interesting how reading some seemingly innocuous comment can suddenly trigger a strong creative urge. That happened to me, several weeks ago, after reading the comments to a posting on Kirk Tuck's The Visual Science Lab blog.

The blog article was about the book The Age of the Image, by Stephen Apkon, whose thesis is that we live in an age when, as Kirk Tuck states:

(W)e are moving from the written word to the language of motion pictures. The author makes a convincing point that, in the near future, to be truly literate will mean understanding the grammar and language of video; both how to decode it and how to create it.

In the comments to the article, reader ODL Designs wrote:

I had the idea, when watching some footage of farmers reduce the rat population in their fields using dogs, of making micro documentaries explaining interesting things like that.

Boom. Like that, it hit me. The idea of making "micro documentaries." If video is equivalent to the "written language" of our day, then perhaps we should start our journey toward visual literacy by practicing the equivalent of the haiku or vignette; not feature-length "cinema," in all of its pretentiousness, but shorter works whose length is not driven by some archaic measurement standard like the size of a reel of film, or the attention span of an audience, or marketing standards from nearly a century ago.

I know what has hampered me in the past, when considering my journey toward visual literacy, is this feeble notion that a person can take up some modest assortment of video equipment and suddenly become a "film maker." Or, similarly, that such a fledgling novice should consider setting their sights on becoming like a small-scale version of a Hollywood film company. As if there were only one model for how the individual can employ the visual arts as a means of communication. That model of the classic Hollywood film system is outdated and irrelevant. Forget it. It would be like following the model of the newspaper printing business as a means for reaching a wider audience on the Internet via blogging. That was then, this is now. Heck, even blogging itself is a bit passe these days.

I have this sense that, as creatives, we often bite off larger projects than we can chew. Sure, long-term goals are important, but I'm sensing the importance of doing something for today. Projects small enough to complete in one day's time, from conception, to execution to editing and post-production. Maybe it's a simple thing, just one solid thought or idea. How would that work on video? What would be the elements of visual language you'd use? Would you use narration, or let the montage of scenes do the talking?

I get the sense, from talking with other fledgling "film makers," that short pieces are looked down upon as somehow less than feature-length films. As if they are mere student works, kiddie practice, something you need to grow out of to be a big-boy auteur. This argument makes little sense if we consider the short-story writer versus the novelist. Are short stories somehow intrinsically inferior to novels? What about poetry? Are poems inferior because of their frequent brevity? I don't think so. And, I suspect, neither do you.

What short-story writers and poets often do is publish their work in collections. Now here's an idea worth considering. For the creator of video "shorts," or micro-documentaries, this makes a lot of sense, especially considering many pieces could be grouped together by common themes or undercurrents.

So, on the day that I read Kirk Tuck's blog article, I was struggling with repairing my aunt's old Royal Model 10 typewriter (which is still on my work bench, yet to be completely sorted) when it struck me that here's a subject for a micro-documentary: a selfie-documentary (selfiementary?) of my inner struggle with being a barely-skilled, fledgling typewriter technician, having promised my aunt I could fix her machine yet evidently not being able to do so. I immediately knew how I wanted to approach the video, a documentary-style interview piece where I'm verbally confessing my inner feelings as if answering some off-camera interviewer's questions, intercut with clips of me fiddling with the machine and its inner workings.

I also knew I wanted to record the video in black-&-white, and immediately knew to use the Panasonic Lumix camera's Dynamic Monochrome film style, which gives dense shadows and hard, contrasty footage. Sure, I could have "graded" color footage in post to achieve black-&-white, but it wouldn't be as good as what those little Lumix cameras can do themselves.

Another stylistic consideration was the choice of lens. Since I'd just started using the 7Artisans 25mm f/1.8 manual focus lens, I thought it would be perfect for a more film-like image, since it renders like an older lens design and mechanically focuses like a cinema lens with a stepless aperture ring.

The piece finally came together in my mind when I realized that, in repeated test-typings on the Royal typewriter, I'd been using the phrase "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country," which suggested the video's title, and implied an undercurrent of responsibility to my aunt to somehow come to her aid, in the repair of her machine.

No, this isn't "Arte." It lacks the finesse and sophistication of a more scholarly approach. It's not recorded in 4K - the new litmus test - with a Red camera. Heck, it's just YouTube, for gosh sakes. But I like it. I like the spontaneity, the creative inspiration that spurned this piece. I like that it represents, to me, a working model for how to proceed forward with micro-documentaries as an elegantly simple way to communicate one concrete idea in a brief few minutes of the viewers' time.

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Blogger TomR said...

The micro-documentary movement is well underway, YouTube being the prime example. I'm a great fan (thanks, Joe!). The challenge, as with the Internet itself, is separating the good stuff from the mindless drivel.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Ted said...

Microdocumentaries are awesome! I admit I've gotten sucked into watching a lot of Vox and CrashCourse videos lately. I love how inspiration jumps from one place to another in the digital age and is instantly reinterpreted into something new, a way of thinking about interactions. So our blogs are oldskool? nah, they're a tool we've developed in an ever-expanding quiver - one which affords support to new ventures into new tools for the quiver. Never surrender print - never surrender web. Video is just the new "never surrender". (:

2:36 PM  
Blogger Bill M said...

Selfiementary, great idea. When I was doing more repairs than I do now I often wished I had someone to video what I was doing. Having a video of a repair is more interesting than stills. Many of mine were for my own reference although I posted them hoping they may help others. I'm no good at video recording and repairing at the same time.
The one nice thing about digital electronics is that as the prices came down the usefulness went up. Now many more people can afford decent video and audio recording and editing equipment to make useful video and or audio recordings. I've got to give that lens a try. How's it compare to the Panasonic 25mm f1.7 (besides being 1/3 the cost)?

5:54 PM  

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