Posted in Filmmaking

The Growing Technology in Documentary Filmmaking


Technology has had such a profound impact on filmmaking in the last two decades that it is easy to almost take for granted just how much it has influenced the way we look at movies. For example, the computer has changed everything we know about movies. From the early CGI-effects in Tron to the impressive CGI in Jurassic Park to the startling use of CGI in the beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, the computer has become an essential tool for filmmakers looking to enhance their stories with special effects. Equally important is the digital wave of filmmaking, which has given respected directors the freedom to tell their stories cheaper and faster.

Technology has arguably had even more of an impact on documentary filmmaking. As the marketplace for documentary films continues to grow, the booming technology of recent years has done nothing but assist documentary filmmakers tremendously with telling their stories in the way they want them to be told.

Up until the 1990s, documentaries were never that commercially viable compared to narrative films because the technology didn’t exist for documentaries to truly pose any significant threat. Film festivals were still not quite prevalent yet, and the slowly-growing digital medium was still years away.

Cut to the dawn of the new millennium, when a movie called The Blair Witch Project comes along to shake up the industry. When a movie like that, which cost just pennies in relation to the millions of dollars it made at the box office, comes along, people start to take notice, and other filmmakers begin to see that in order to be successful, one doesn’t need fifty million dollars to make a movie.

The last two decades have shown an explosion of documentary films, primarily because the technology now allows for anyone with a dream to go out and make a movie. All one literally needs is a camera, a computer, an editing program, and an idea.

There are positives and negatives to this wave of filmmaking. The positive is that now people with important stories to tell have the easy means to get the equipment and the resources to make their films. Also, the more documentary films entering the marketplace as a viable form of education and entertainment, the more documentary filmmakers will feel inspired to bring forth their own work and find more stories to tell. The negative is that the new technology forces such a great number of films and competition at film festivals that up-and-coming documentary filmmakers have to be really creative in their storytelling and film-making. There isn’t room for mediocrity in the documentary marketplace; the need for unique visions is crucial, and the power of story is everything.

The documentary filmmaker Jonathan Caoutte is the perfect example of somebody with little film-making experience and an even smaller amount of dollar bills in his wallet who took an ingenious idea and creatively put together a very personal and fascinating film. His 2004 film Tarnation cost only $218 to produce and met critical and financial acclaim, going on to be nominated for Best Documentary at the Independent Spirit Awards and making nearly 600K at the box office. In looking closely at Tarnation, one will be able to see the manner in which technology played a role in the film, particularly concerning its iMovie editing system and digital evolution, and the way in which Caoutte brilliantly uses the archival footage of various technologies throughout the film to comment on a generation shaped by popular culture.

First, it’s important to look at the various technologies that exist for editing systems and how director Caoutte put his film together. It’s incredible to think that non-linear editing systems didn’t come into full use until the 1990s, as, before then, editors had to put films together by hand, painstakingly. Non-linear editing systems gave editors the freedom to scroll through the shots and timelines on their computers easily, being able to make a cut at the push of a button.

The most significant and highly used editing platform was, and still is, the Avid system. Most films released theatrically, even today, are edited on the Avid platform. There are various Avid programs priced low for consumers, but it still one of the more expensive programs of the bunch. Slowly catching up to Avid is Final Cut Pro, which has become a major player in major motion pictures. Avid and Final Cut Pro, while easily obtainable by general consumers, are thought to be for high-quality projects.

Apple’s iMovie, however, is not typically considered for anything suited for the big screen. The idea of sometime editing a feature-length film on iMovie and then getting into A-list festivals like Sundance and Torontos and getting theatrical distribution from that very film edited on iMovie was essentially unheard of before Tarnation. This goes to show the power of story and the creative use of the little that director Caoutte had to work with. He isn’t someone who sat down to edit his film knowing exactly what to do. Instead, he had a story and hours of archival footage to wade through to create a documentary film, and clearly, he is a born filmmaker, because he knew exactly how to put the film together in his own head.

Even though it’s looked down at as a bad seed compared to its much higher honored editing counterparts, iMovie has many positives that can be used for the inexperienced editor’s advantage. Caoutte has said that using iMovie was easy because it doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as other editing systems like Avid and Final Cut Pro. One has to read the manual and truly practice to get used to these two editing systems, but anyone can sit down and learn very quickly the style and mechanics of iMovie. Music can be loaded onto iMovie much quicker than the other systems as well, and since music played such a vital role in Caoutte’s editing strategies, he was able to cut the film very fast, even though he wasn’t an experienced editor.

Another positive aspect to the iMovie technology is that it doesn’t allow for long periods of rendering time compared to Avid and Final Cut Pro. While the other editing programs can take upwards of multiple hours to render footage for playback purposes, iMovie renders extremely fast in order to cut down waiting time. This aspect to the iMovie system is particularly important to Caouette’s film because of the use of all the titles. With the dozens and dozens of titles used throughout the film, it is essential that he didn’t have to wait around for them to render in a much slower editing program. Caouette was able to edit on his own time and be able to take the fast editing time to its fullest extent. There is nothing like the dread of waiting when it comes to a creative editor looking to put together the expansive puzzle of hours of documentary footage. Caouette, who had hours and hours of archival footage to work with for his film clearly had no intention of ever having to slow down.

The digital component to the film-making process and the lightning-fast speed of the editing duties with Tarnation contribute to the highly unusual production of the film, and allow for true experimentation. There is no way that Caouette could have made the film the way he did in the 1990s because the technology wasn’t there yet. It would’ve been really difficult to take twenty years’ worth of archival material and put it together seamlessly in a film.

Just a few years’ time and the instant access of iMovie allowed Caouette to not only put his film together, but experiment with structure and images. iMovie has a bunch of digital tricks installed into the program, and Caouette feels no shame in trying the majority of them in his film. He not only uses fast cuts and slow-motion in parts of the film; he also uses repeated images, split-screen, and kaleidoscope effects. All these digital tricks add to the innovative nature of the film. Most experience filmmakers trying to tell a similar story would veer away from any sort of tricks because they learned in film school and/or in making other films that using digital tricks isn’t the right way to go. Caouette thankfully goes against the mainstream and throws in some tricks not just because he can but because it adds to the emotion and personal journey he experiences in the film.

In a similar respect, the music in Tarnation is particularly engaging, but it is clear that the filmmaker wasn’t thinking about clearance rights while putting the music together. He uses an eclectic group of artists like Nick Drake, Glenn Campbell, and Frank Sinatra, and he oftentimes edits to music, not caring like many other filmmakers would about how later these songs could be used if the film were released theatrically. Caouette succeeds in so many ways with the film because of this lack of hang-ups, the freedom for expression, the will to put anything he wants on the screen, and the skill for telling a story the way he wants to tell it.

The archival footage starts to showcase how Caouette has grown from a frightened, closeted child to the man he is today, but the footage also serves to comment on a generation shaped by popular culture, bombarded with bursting technology, and influenced by various forms of media. Tarnation is unique in that it doesn’t use any kind of on-location shooting, script, or actors.

When Caouette set out to put the movie together, he didn’t necessarily have to shoot very much. He already had most of his material in twenty years of archival footage. He had been documenting his life from a young age. As a sexually confused teenager living in a less-than-ideal household, with a mother battling schizophrenia and grandparents dealing with their own mental problems. The best way for Caouette to escape was through the use of home video. While the technology for home video was quite rough in the 1980’s, the possibility was already there for him to truly document as much of his life as possible. He surely didn’t think at a young age that one day long down the road he would use all the footage to put together a personal documentary (which makes it even more astonishing that he kept all the footage in tact for its use in the film years later) — instead, the video was a momentary way to vent his feelings on camera in any way he wanted. He could talk to the camera, he could act and play various parts, and he could lose himself in a moment where suddenly all the terrible aspects of his life have drained away.

The archival footage brings forth even more of a story when Caoette started to film his family members, including his mentally unstable mother and eccentric grandparents. The younger Caoette pushes the camera into their faces looking to get any kind of juicy material he can get a hold of. As he grows older, however, Caoette begins to mature as both an artist and a person, finding better access into his life and the lives of his mother and grandparents through the use of the camera. As his life goes on, the quality of the video technology improves, going from really poor Hi-8 tapes to the mediocrity of VHS tapes to the more acceptable but still semi-crude look of DV. The audience of Tarnation gets to see a man age twenty years and find not just a transformation in himself but a bonding with his fragile mother, who leans to him for help even when she’s extremely upset at him for trying to ask her personal questions on camera. By the end of his journey, he is obviously scarred by the horrors and problems he has faced in his life, but there is a possibility of hope when all is said and done, and in a documentary as personal as Tarnation, that ending factor makes the film quite moving.

Video technology has made an entire generation of both filmmakers and non-filmmakers shaped by popular culture. Nowadays anyone from the age of five to ninety-five can pick up a camera, make a movie, and stream it on the web for all to see. This major concept was most assuredly not really present in Caoette’s time of living through his hellish teen years, but the technology was advanced enough at the time for young people to finally be able to make little movies and create early kinds of blogs to not just pass the time but educate themselves about making movies.

Today’s group of young filmmakers is the first group to have access to cameras and editing equipment at a very young age, and thus, the opportunity for more unique visions are possible at an earlier age than ever before. Caoette had never made a high-quality motion picture before Tarnation, but he had seen a lot of films and had made so many little videos as a kid and growing adult that the knowledge was there — he just had to find the means to lay it all out on a blank canvas and see what he could paint, so to speak, with his technological tools. The archival footage shows that an entire generation found the possibility to speak their minds not just by conversations with others but also through the means of technology, bringing forth the possibility of documenting a life on camera. While something as high-concept as Peter Weir’s The Truman Show seems like fiction, we are entering a time when a person can document every day of his or her life if he or she wants to. The possibilities when it comes to the newfound digital technology are endless.

The difference between Caoette and a zillion other young filmmakers, both in the narrative and documentary realm, is that Caoette understands the power that twenty years of footage can hold if put together in a film that has weight, meaning, and accessibility. There are probably many other filmmakers who have tons of footage, but much of it may have lost or destroyed, or there is nothing to really make of any of it. Caoette has the good fortune of not only having archival footage that promises a fascinating personal journey but also archival footage that tells a heartbreaking story about a relationship between a mother and son that has become difficult and trying over the years.

Caoette uses his skills to blend together the endless hours of footage with a unique blend of editorial prowess and bells-and-whistles finger punching to create a voyeuristic journey into the psyche of a troubled young man. The utter accessibility of video technology has allowed for this story to be told, and it is vital that the success of Tarnation be inspiring for other young filmmakers who are now part of the digital revolution of film-making to tell stories their way, no matter the small cost. $218 can surely go a long way.

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