21st Century Doc-Making: Faster, Cheaper and Definitely In Control
As a documentary producer/director for almost two decades, I have had the opportunity to experience first-hand the meteoric evolution of technology over that time, and the commensurate changes in the process of making documentaries. But as much as things changed in the past two decades, over only the past few years a whole new spate of technological advances have once again completely revolutionized the documentary process––in some cases, in ways we never could have imagined.
In the spring of 2001, I was asked by the History Channel to produce a rather ambitious four-part documentary series. Being that I had spent the past few years toiling in the world of hour-long, single-story, vérité -style documentaries and had recently returned to working in the traditional independent documentary model (out of my living room), I viewed this new challenge with some trepidation, much excitement and more than a few questions.
I knew that my colleagues who were experienced in the production of first-rate historical series (mostly for PBS) worked using a time-honored production model which had changed little over the years. They did tremendous amounts of research, amassed huge archives of images and footage, shot many interviews––and did so with the large production staffs, long schedules and infrastructure afforded by generous PBS budgets.
My problem was that I wanted to make a historical series of equal breadth and quality, but on a reasonable cable-television budget, without lots of office space (in my living room), and with a very small staff. It was clear to me that would be impossible using the traditional production model. But I believed that, given the state of the art of newly available technology, I could do it.
The series in question was to be four hours on the history of medicine (which will premiere this September), by any measure a major undertaking. And to up the ante, we decided (at the suggestion of History Channel executive Susan Werbe) to hang each hour on a contemporary medical case. So, in addition to telling some two dozen compelling, illustrative stories culled from 2,000 years of medical history, we would also need to find, shoot and cut four captivating vérité stories.
The first problem we had was research. Aided by veteran historical doc producer Alison Guss, I had to comb through centuries of medical discovery in only a few short months. Not long ago this would have involved endless forays to medical libraries and archives, some local, others requiring costly travel. Add to that the time and cost of endless Xeroxing of documents, cold calls looking for experts, etc. But that was then. Now, we had what turned out to be the most invaluable of all the newly available tools at our disposal––the Internet and a broadband connection.
Within days of beginning our research, we had Googled our way to indexes of virtually every history of medicine collection worldwide––all of them searchable, and downloadable––without leaving our desks: the Roentgen Museum in Remscheid, Germany, the Wellcome Institute in London, the Academy of Medicine in New York. Almost instantly, we had hundreds of years worth of scholarly papers, images and original documents at our fingertips. News databases such as Lexis-Nexis and Proquest provided us with original newspaper and magazine articles dating back 150 years. A variety of online booksellers provided us with lists of every available book on medical history, as well as instantly put us in touch with individuals who had copies of rare and out-of-print volumes. With a click of the mouse they were delivered to the door of my little production office, often the next morning.
One of the stories we were telling was the wonderful tale of a 17th century Dutch draper named Anton von Leeuwenhoek, who is credited with first describing the existence of the invisible world of microbes, a world which he viewed through his little, hand-fashioned microscope. Although we had drawings of his microscope, we felt we needed a real one to use in our story and, as there are only a few in existence––all in museums––we couldn't get our hands on one. When I was notified that a 19th century Dutch replica Leeuwenhoek microscope was being auctioned on eBay, I proceeded to bid on it, but lost. But when the auction was over, I emailed the winner and asked if he would consider renting me his prize for my film. He responded that he'd be happy to help, no charge. Experiences like this occurred––whether with objects, documents or interviewees––again and again throughout the production of our series.
On our series, we shot 16 days, mostly with two cameras, to tell our contemporary medical stories. We did 26 interviews with historical experts and some 15 historical recreations from Boston, Massachusetts to Padua, Italy. And as our series producer Megan Cogswell never hesitated to remind me, had we been forced to hire a Beta crew at $1,200-$1,500 dollars per day, well...you do the math. But because we shot with our own Sony DSR 250 and PD 100, we had maximum flexibility in our schedule, we were able to afford the services of first-rate DP Joey Forsyte, and we were able to shoot close to 50 days.
It may well be that the process of collecting and managing the archival material for this series is where new technology has made the biggest difference. I knew that traditionally, archival operations for projects of this size involved small armies of researchers fanning out over the globe to collect still images and footage. And the process of tracking it all and getting it into the show was a massively expensive and time-consuming ordeal.
I had the crazy notion that we were going to do our series with only a single archivist, working from my apartment. Once we had identified our stories, Alex Dionne, our AP/archivist, set about the gargantuan project of collecting the imagery that would bring them to life. Again, the Internet and cable modem proved indispensable. In short order, she was able to search archives like Corbis-Bettmann, the National Archives and even obscure sources like the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm or the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minnesota, all online. For images that were not online, we took a small digital camera (Olympus 4040) and went to them. No processing or printing. All the collected images were instantly downloaded and entered into an extraordinary set of interlocking databases constructed for us (on a Filemaker Pro platform) by archival tech wiz Katie Mostoller. Soon we had a searchable database of almost 3,000 images, along with their provenance, the available rights, the cost and contact information––all on Alex's laptop!
When it came time to bring all the still imagery in our series to life, new technology continued to amaze and impress. One of the most grueling elements of historical documentary is the ordering and animating of the still imagery. In the past, Alex, Darcy and I would have spent weeks going through the rough cuts, identifying the almost 900 images we'd finally used, where in the shows they appeared, and for exactly how long. Then, a rather expensive and time-consuming animation-stand shoot would have ensued, and finally, the tape of that shoot would have been digitized and the individual animations cut into the shows. But not any more. This is how we did it:
1. Each show's Avid list was imported into our archival database (10 minutes over the network).
2. Out dropped a list of all the images in that show, in order, with thumbnails of each image, its exact duration and the timecodes in and out. Also, the info about where it came from and the cost of licensing it.
3. From this list, Alex could order all the images, most of which were delivered over the Internet, the rest on CD.
4. All of these then went to our graphics team at VERB Media.
5. The editor then output an OMF file of each hour, which went to VERB as well and was imported into its AfterEFX system. VERB now had our entire timeline in its computer to provide the image numbers and exact timings for all the animations.
VERB could then drop the completed animations (400 per show) directly onto a Beta output of our locked cut (with timecode of course) to make sure they were all right, after which they delivered high-resolution Quicktime movies (all on a little Firewire Drive) for us to drop into our Avid online.
And far from compromising image quality for the speed and convenience of this process, the animated stills look better than anything I've ever done in a traditional rig shoot. I realize that I may be sounding like a crazed, born-again tech junkie, but I remain firmly convinced that great stories, great writing, and great pictures––not great toys––are what make great documentaries. That said, all of the aforementioned technologies, while not substantially changing the overall cost, permitted us to reallocate our budget from expensive camera crews, high rent and an antiquated post-production processes to more research and writing time, more shooting days, a longer, more thorough edit, better image and footage licensing and, first and foremost, the ability to hire the most talented people to do the job. And I'll take that any day.
Jeffrey Tuchman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.