I’ve been watching an awful lot of documentaries for the past couple of years, mostly out of a self-interest, but also because I tend to like them. I especially like documentaries where the subject matter is not so self-evident, like people who play lots of online games or The Fisher-Price Pixelvision Camera or people who wait in line for 30 days to see a movie.
But I also watch dozens of other documentaries in which the subject matter is pretty well established. They cover subjects like skateboarding, or historical figures, or eclectic characters. Certainly every year there are a dozen or so “celebrated” documentaries that have gotten the attention of the culture at large that I see out of duty or interest.
And through this mass of documentaries, I see a bunch of cliches or common choices that I think of as needless and weakness. They may represent, possibly, inherent flaws in the medium. Just like heavy makeup is often required to make people look a certain way under the lights used to shoot professional television shows, perhaps these shortcuts are simply endemic to the process. I call them “manias”, because the filmmaker seems to be overcome with them in the deep throes of the editing room, faced with a piece of dead space and trying desperately to make the film compelling where it might not be.
I’m sure a lot of these are already covered in some manner out in the wide world of film criticism, but I’ve built these up in my own mind, and as a result, I have my own terms for them. They are:
Perp Walk, Monkey Dance, Picture Postcard, Clown Show, and Razzmatazz.
I’ll cover them and then be on my way.
Perp Walk is where the interviewee is shown walking down the street, or down a hallway, or any sort of general location. It’s nearly always accompanied with a voiceover by the interviewee. In some cases, it might be a way to mask a problem with the original footage of the interview, but more often it’s just to be able to fit in some pleasant shots of the outdoors into a film that might not have them, like an in-depth documentary about an engineer or an overview of politics. You see the person, looking down, looking away, and down the street they go. Sometimes the camera is still, sometimes it follows them or walks ahead of them like a stalker. Extra bonus if the person you’re making walk doesn’t actually seem to do much walking in their spare time.
Monkey Dance is filming the interview subject “doing what they do”, even if it makes no sense that they would be doing things. If they do work with crime-solving, they’re shown looking through a microscope. If they’re a computer hacker, they are shown typing something at the keyboard. It feels stilted and weird, and oftentimes you can see the look on their face as being somewhat distant or confused, since in point of fact they are not actually doing anything. Dance, little monkey, Dance.
Picture Postcard is a meaningless shot of a vista, a landscape, a place, with no commentary, or commentary unrelated to what you’re looking at. They’re often shot beautifully, with just the right hint of sunlight and blue skies or interesting buildings, but they’re not actually of a place that exists within the story, they’re just general shots that could have been purchased off-the-shelf from a stock footage company. Maybe they even were.
Clown Show is the use of someone who is not really related to the subject at all for the purposes of being “unusual” or giving comic relief. If you pull a homeless guy aside and aim a camera at him and ask him stuff he couldn’t possibly know about, you’re going to get some pretty “funny” footage. If no homeless are conveniently located near your studio or house, you can just do “man in the street” interviews and ask people questions. Since most people aren’t interested in your subject at that exact moment and are unlikely to be thinking ahead of time with answers (since they were, by definition, on their way to somewhere when you stopped them), their answers will be inaccurate, misguided, smirking, and, in some fashion, comedic. This is, basically, a slight of hand trick, replacing time that could be spent going over the subject with a knowledgable person with someone who is neither interested nor prepared to discuss the subject with you. It is not difficult to make anyone seem like a clown. And it fills time nicely.
Razzmatazz is the most alluring and easy of the shots, actually part of the same family as picture postcard: long, lingering closeups of some object vaguely related to the story being told, shot with loving caress by the lens to give you a different perspective about the subject, but really just filling space. Maybe if you’re doing something on the space program, you look at a close-up shot of an LED counter clicking down, or maybe you see a slow-motion shot of water dripping into a cup while someone describes the murder that went on in the house. Either way, you’re looking at the beauty of the shot and not really what’s being covered.
When I shot my documentary, I intentionally crippled myself and filmed no monkey dances, picture postcards (although I did take photos) or perp walks for any of my interviewees. I just couldn’t stand the idea of making these nice people “do things” for fame and fortune (which a good portion of them neither want nor need, and my interviewing them was a gift to me, not the other way around). The camera can make people agree to a lot of stuff they normally wouldn’t, and that influence should not be taken lightly.
The question, of course, is how many of these I will fall into as I edit my own work. Razzmatazz is kind of unavoidable, although it is my hope to stuff the documentary so full of information that multiple viewings will yield additional facts and figures that you didn’t get the first time through. Clown Show might happen, although more because someone said something amusing than because they know nothing about BBSes or textfiles; everyone I interviewed either knew what a BBS was or knew what I was doing.
Next time you watch a documentary, especially the short ones on TV that were done under a very tight budget or schedule, see how many of these little short-cuts they’ve peppered even with a 20 minute segment. It’s stunning. I hope I didn’t spoil your next dozen hours of viewing.
Also, while I’m ruining Christmas, watch one of these “reality shows”, or documentary-like series, and ask yourself the one question that tears down the suspension of disbelief like the flimsy wax paper it is:
How did the camera get there for that shot?
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