How (and Why) Might We Build a “User-Centered” Documentary Production Workflow?

David Green
Newcastle University

Documentary filmmaking production models – although diverse – all possess characteristics derived from various narrative and genre conventions, which distinguish them as ‘documentaries’; whether they are ethnographic films, animated eco docs or interactive documentaries. The filmmaking methods used invariably determine the nature of the materials produced and, ultimately, what is seen by audiences. Within professional production models, practitioners draw upon a rich “grammar” of storytelling to present materials in a form that can be understood by ‘non-filmmaker’ audiences.

Skilled filmmaking practices such as ethnography and interviewing require contextual understanding of the production system as well as knowledge of the subject. These skills are usually taught (or learned on-the-job) and are therefore carried out by professionals in designated roles. Participatory production models aim to provide more empowering roles for documentary subjects by including them in the production workflow. Methods such as crowdsourcing allow “users” to contribute, but the majority of the workflow, including commissioning, editing and distribution is governed by “professionals”. Thus, many documentaries – even participatory productions – often suffer from a “filmmaker-victim paradigm” (1).

Presently, a variety of digital tools (2) allow inexperienced video-makers to produce and distribute video. User-generated content offering a “creative treatment of actuality”(3) grammatical complexity or legibility of ‘professional’ documentaries. By examining the existing practices of amateur video-makers, we reveal opportunities to develop new production tools and workflows that reflect non-professional “user”-behaviour, enabling a “user-centered” production model that automatically supports aspects of film grammar such as composition, editing and sound – and could support the production of more sophisticated “grassroots” documentaries.

I propose to present a recent study(4) of two parallel documentaries  (one ‘professional’ and one ‘participatory’) and discuss some ideas for production tools, which reflect the interactive potential of new distribution technologies.

1 Milne et al, A Handbook of Participatory Video, Altamira Press, 2012
2 YouTube, Vine, WeVideo, Popcorn Maker, Life Mirror, Wreck-a-Movie and Pipeline
3 Grierson, John, “The Documentary Producer”, in Cinema Quarterly vol.2. no.1. p. 8-24, 1929
4 Inside Opera – The Making of an Opera

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