Crafting an Elegant Essay DocumentaryKaren EverettMay 4, 2009
The essay or topic-based documentary is the second most popular art form dominating today’s independent documentary landscape. Although it shares in the festival accolades and box office commercial success of the character-driven documentary, structurally the essay doc is a different beast entirely, usually organized around a central idea rather than a protagonist on a quest. It looks different too, often employing talking heads, text, statistics, man-on-the-street interviews, educational graphics and slide shows to make its points. Popular examples include An Inconvenient Truth, Religulous, Bowling for Columbine, and The Corporation. Other essay films, such as Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World and Jean Marie Teno’s currently released (and recently playing the SF International Film Festival) Sacred Places (edited by Christiane Badgley), are more introspective tomes or poetic profiles than quantitative or data-heavy docs.
All of these skillfully crafted essays belie the chief difficulty that sinks many topic-based films: how do you keep your audience engaged rather than putting them to sleep? We are, after all, dealing with an essay (yawn). And yet most first-time filmmakers instinctually gravitate toward topic-based films because they are excited about exploring an idea. Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin said that "at the core of all essay is an interest so intense that it precludes filming it in a straight line. The essay is rumination in Nietzsche’s sense of the word, the meandering of an intelligence." This column offers editors and directors three specific strategies you can use in the edit room which I believe are in line with the contemporary trend in essay films—to reign in excessive "meandering" and keep your viewers glued to the topic until the credits roll.
1) Hybrid Strategy
One way to make an idea-based film as gripping as a character-driven doc is to meld the two forms. But let me first distinguish what I am calling the "hybrid documentary" from the term "hybrid narrative film." The latter refers to a film that is part narrative (fictional) and part documentary (real life), which is not what I’m talking about in this article. A so-called hybrid documentary weaves together two structural models. As structural experts like Fernanda Rossi, Sheila Bernard Curran and (in the narrative world) Robert McKee have outlined, the character-driven aspect will follow a protagonist (or several) on a quest to achieve or gain something in the face of great difficulty. The essay or idea-based aspect will present arguments that support a central idea (see "Structural Strategy" below). Structuring the hybrid doc is not an easy feat, so I recommend that editors create an initial assembly cut of each model before combining the two. A great example of a commercially successful hybrid doc is Supersize Me, ranked the 9th highest grossing theatrical documentary release with more than $9 million in revenues. Director Morgan Spurlock attempts to stay in good health while eating only McDonalds’s food for an entire month. In the course of his various difficulties (vomiting, high blood pressure, impotency), Spurlock presents stunning evidence of the dangers of America’s fast food diet in the form of experts, lawsuits, anecdotes, research and other data.
The beauty of the hybrid approach is that you can construct an elegant, complex documentary that demands both left-brained analytical engagement and right-brained emotional immersion. Done right, your viewer is held rapt. Other successful examples of hybrid docs include Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, No Impact Man, and King Corn. Note that the last two are personal documentaries in which, like Supersize Me, the director/protagonist has the advantage of contriving a narrative arc (living for one year without leaving a carbon footprint, growing an acre of corn) upon which he can hang his intellectual arguments. Plot points pave openings for cerebral proof.
2) Stylistic Strategy
Traditionally, PBS essay-style documentaries were characterized by talking heads, narration and occasional b-roll used as "wallpaper." Not very cinematically appealing materials, to say the least. Then along came Ken Burns who put his imprint on landscape beauty shots, reenactments, actor’s voiceovers and rotating zooms on photographs. Today we may yawn at these once-engaging tactics. In the last few years, creative directors have racked their filmic sensibilities to come up with fresh stylistic approaches.
On the visual side, essay films are now employing animation (Bowling for Columbine), humorous verite scenes structured as character vignettes (Religulous and Sicko), and most refreshingly, spectacular graphic gimmicks. I recommend studying such fine examples as the psychological profiles in The Corporation, the clever timelines in I.O.U.S.A., and the guilty/innocent verdict "stamp" in Who Killed the Electric Car? The other chief reason to use graphical representations in your editing repertoire, in addition to adding visual verve, is to convey complicated information. Witness the funny ballooning timeline in I.O.U.S.A., which helps us wrap our heads around economic theory and all those zeros in a trillion dollars. If you can afford it, develop both animation and graphic treatments for your more knotty concepts. If your budget is tight, then aim to convey ideas through simple reenactments, verite scenes in which some genuine action unfolds, or spectacular landscapes heightened with simple Motion filters such as the "lens flare." The bottom line: give viewers a reason to watch your film, rather than read a magazine essay on the same topic.
What about the sonic landscape? Definitely hire a composer. Essay films are notoriously talking-head heavy, so the idea of introducing what filmmaker Jon Else calls more "yackety-yack" seems counterintuitive. For a period, narration fell out of favor, as a generation of filmmakers eschewed the booming, omniscient voice of father god. These days, narration as text has become quite popular and effective. In the future, perhaps the unseen, third-person human voice will make a comeback as storyteller extraordinaire. I happen to favor narration. From an editing standpoint, it keeps your cuts spare (rather than wrestling with jump cuts and long-winded interviewees to make a point). From the audience’s vantage point, narration clarifies, a welcome tactic when ideas get dense.
3) Structural Strategy
While there are plenty exceptions, most idea-based films can be divided into three parts. I use the word "parts," rather than "acts" intentionally, to distinguish the powerful essay we are crafting from the classic three-act narrative structure first articulated by Aristotle. (For an excellent primer on how to construct a fundraising trailer for each of these two types of films, see Fernanda Rossi’s innovative book Trailer Mechanics.)
In Part One, which runs no more than one-quarter of the film’s length, you introduce your viewer to the film’s topic and ethos, or intellectual sensibility. What is the film about? Is your approach critical, affirming, investigative? Most importantly in Part One, you present your hypothesis, or central idea. Let me stress that your film’s premise should be a remarkably simple idea, i.e., "global warming is real," to really grab your viewer. Filmmakers with multiple dissertations and agendas make the mistake of diluting their vision and diverting their viewers’ attention. Another way of presenting your essay film’s single thesis is by asking a central question. For example, in Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore asks, "Why does America have the highest homocide rate from handguns?" All the other questions he poses in the film lead to that central question. For a great scene-by-scene case study of Bowling for Columbine’s essay structure, check out Sheila Bernard Curran’s excellent book, Documentary Storytelling. In Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog poses this question: Why did Timothy Treadwell get so close those big bears (that they ate him)? The documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? poses its central question in the title.
In Part Two, the bulk of the essay film, you craft arguments in support of your thesis and then organize these claims in a way that keeps momentum building. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore (and by extension, director Davis Guggenheim) puts forth several contentions to support his now rarely contested thesis—that global warming is an impending crisis. First, he debunks the naysayers’s research. Then he presents scientific evidence that temperatures and sea levels are rising, species are drowning, water shortages are creating arid farmland, food shortages are becoming epidemic, etc.
If your central idea is posed as a question, then Part Two explores different answers to that single question. Why did the Grizzly Man get so close to the Alaskan bears? Was he it because he was a fearless advocate for four-legged endangered species? A showman? Was he a man with an intuitive, non-verbal, bear-whispering talent? An egomaniac? Was he insane? Likewise, in Who Killed the Electric Car?, director Chris Payne cross-examines one suspect after another to find who should answer for this crime against the environment. Was it the car company CEO’s? The marketing executives? The American consumer? Technology?
How do you order your arguments or answers into an escalating format? Generally, you save the most intellectually powerful and damning evidence for last, although this will depend on whether you have the footage to illustrate it. Sometimes spectacular cinematography trumps the power of points made by talking heads. In other words, you may decide that great visuals accompanying a less powerful argument merit placing it toward the end. Or, your organizational strategy may be chronological, if your timeline naturally builds suspense. Or, you may hold for last the arguments that are best illustrated through moving character vignettes. I say "vignettes" because essay films are more likely to feature character snapshots rather than full-blown character arcs. Michael Moore excels at this strategy in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko.
Part Three of an essay film raises the stakes even higher, perhaps by expanding the geographic realm of the topic, looking into the future at the implications of your case, or presenting solutions. Now that you’ve made your argument, it’s time to turn a structural corner and spend a little time (not much) speculating on what it all means. OK, the earth is heating up. What are the consequences? What can we do about it? In a similar vein, now that we’ve pointed the finger at all the suspects who could have sent the twentieth century electric car to a premature tragic death, where do we go from here?
In Part Three, you need to decide on how you want to end your film in terms of tone. Do you want your audience to leave feeling hopeful? Outraged? Troubled? My instincts tend toward the hopeful, particularly if you’ve spent most of your viewer’s attention span in a critical analysis of the status quo, as many social issue documentaries do. The Celluloid Closet, a terrific essay film that indicts Hollywood for its homophobic erasing and vilifying of gay people, ends with a flurry of hopeful signs: gay characters appearing in television sitcoms and dramas, straight actors playing gay characters, gay actors coming out. Give your attentive audience a dessert for their denouement—such as a sweet montage of success stories—and they just might honor your film, as evidenced by Fields of Fuel, an ultimately buoyant documentary about bio-fuels that won the 2008 Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
Editor Karen Everett, owner of New Doc Editing, is writing a book entitledDocumentary Editingand teaches editing at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She directed and produced five documentaries, including an award-winning PBS biography of the late Marlon Riggs. To inquire about a free editing or story consultation, contact her at Karen@newdocediting.com.
A relevant social group is a group of people who share the same set of meanings, or feelings, attached to a specific artifact. In this case, it is all groups of people who feel the same way about the electric car. There are many relevant social groups involved with the electric car. They include General Motors, the consumers/drivers/fans of the EV1, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the federal government, Ovonics (battery company), and the oil companies. General motors is a relevant social group because they are the ones who manufactured and sold the EV1.
They originally decided to abide by the state’s law about selling a certain percentage of electric vehicles, but soon after decided to face the consequences of not selling them. They installed poor quality batteries in order to deter consumers even more and argued that they could not make money off of the electric vehicle. GM did not properly, if at all, advertise for their electric vehicle, and when consumers came to them regarding the electric vehicle, the limitations of this vehicle were exaggerated in order to deter them from purchasing or leasing.
General Motors took back all EV1s after their leases were up, not allowing the leasee to renew their lease, and crushed all of the remaining EV1s. The consumers, or fans of the EV1 are a very important relevant social group. This group drove the EV1 and did not want to see it go. They investigated where they were taken and tried to buy them back. They reached out to General Motors in the hopes of saving the EV1, however they were unsuccessful. The oil companies are another major relevant social group. They knew that they would lose a lot of money if people decided to switch over to the electric vehicle.
This is why they decided to kill the electric car before it took off. 2 The government, in partner with the oil companies, sued the state of California in order to overturn the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate. Also partnering with the oil companies, the government “put forward hydrogen fuel cells as a better alternative to gas and battery electric cars. ”1 The California Air Resources Board (CARB) knew that by introducing the electric vehicle that they would be able to solve their air quality problem caused by vehicle emissions. Thus, they introduced the Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate.
Alan Lloyd, chairman of the CARB until 2004, played a major role in having the mandate less restrictive and gave in to unproven hydrogen fuel cell technology. This is what may have caused the death of the electric car. Ovonics created a battery that would allow the EV1 to go twice the distance that they were currently able to do. However, they were suppressed from announcing these better batteries by General Motors. They then sold the supplier’s majority share to another company. The group of people who introduced the hydrogen fuel cell and the idea of the fuel cell car are also a relevant social group.
They introduced a new idea in order to take the attention away from the EV1. 2. Interpretive flexibility is the fact that different social groups can influence the development of the technology by the meaning that it has to them personally. The car companies, General Motors in particular, interpreted the EV1 as a vehicle that was of no use to them because they could not make money off of it. By introducing the EV1 they would lose out on profits made on the regular vehicles because there would be no regular tune ups, oil changes, and less brake jobs. They did 1 IMDb. IMDb. com, 2013.
Web. 02 Mar. 2015. <http://www. imdb. com/title/tt0489037/synopsis>. 3 not want the EV1 to evolve and become the car that everyone drives. GM decided to only lease out these vehicles and sabotaged their own car selling program in order to get out of having to provide the electric vehicle option. This in turn could have been the cause, or one of the causes of the death of the electric car. The consumer or fans of the EV1 saw it as a great car to drive and really liked the look of the car. They also liked how it was environmentally friendly without being a burden to charge or buy.
Ultimately, consumers were excited about the EV1 and wanted to see them succeed. In contrast however, there were many consumers who were unaware of the EV1 and/or did not have enough information regarding these new vehicles. This could have made the difference in keeping the electric vehicle alive; if everyone had been made aware of this vehicle, it may have had a larger demand, and may be prominently driven on our roads today.
This interpretation was similar from the stand point of CARB. They saw it as a way to solve their air quality problem and to better the state for future generations. However, Alan Lloyd of CARB, interpreted it slightly differently because of his biased opinion (became the Director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership). 2 He, along with the oil companies, saw it as a loss of profits because if people started to only drive the EV1, then they would not need oil as much or as often.
The EV1 was not a good thing to the oil companies and they did not want it to succeed. Oil companies even went as far as manipulating oil prices in order to deter consumers from switching to oil alternatives. Ultimately, this may be the main reason, combined with others, as to why the electric car died.
2 “Who Killed the Electric Car? ” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n. d. Web. 03 Mar. 2015. <HTTP://EN. WIKIPEDIA. ORG/WIKI/WHO_KILLED_THE_ELECTRIC_CAR%3F>. 4 Like the oil companies, the government did not want the EV1 to succeed since oil is a multi-billion dollar industry. They would also lose money if the oil companies did not sell as much. Therefore, they fought to weaken the mandate in California or to eliminate it completely. They also offered huge tax breaks for consumers who purchased SUVs in order to deter them away from the electric vehicle. This can be seen as another cause of the death of the electric car.
Ovonics created a battery that would solve one of the main issues surrounding the electric vehicle, the driving range possible per charge. This company clearly wanted to make money and to see the EV1 to succeed in order to make money by installing their battery in this vehicle. However, they were unaware of General Motor’s intentions and unintentionally sold all rights to the battery to General Motors, who did not advertise or use the new, stronger battery. If this company had had the chance to advertise their new battery and have it put into the EV1, the car would most likely be much more popular, and still alive.
The EV1 may also have had the chance to evolve further because of the technology of this new battery and the continuous research to follow. The group of people who introduced the idea of the fuel cell car powered by hydrogen and made with electricity had an impact on the outcome of the electric car. This idea for a vehicle was announced in order to take away from the attention in which the electric vehicle was receiving. This concept was entirely made as a distraction, as it was not realistic; this is because it required a greater amount of energy than the electric vehicle, and it did not have the same range.
This was yet another concept created to kill the electric car. 3. 5 A technological frame is when the meaning attributed to an artifact by members of a relevant social group is negotiated and discussed. This consists of goals, problems, problem solving strategies, solutions, etc. It also structures the interactions among the members of the relevant social groups. 3 Consumers found that a major problem was that the EV1 did not go long distances. This made it unappealing to some people who would travel for work or not want to be worried about charging their vehicle every 30 miles that they drove.
They also found that car dealers were not advertising or upselling the electric vehicle which may have caused them to not want to buy the car. However, they also saw it as a greener solution to their current gas emission cars. Which is why so many consumers leased the EV1. Consumers made it their goal to save the EV1 and put a big fight in trying to get back the cars that still remained. Car companies, specifically General Motors, found that this technology would not make them much profit, which is a huge problem.
They stated, that due to all the research and development that had to go into each vehicle, they would not be able to make money off of it. However, this was a lie. The reason that they did not want to sell the EV1 was because they would lose profits on things such as general tune ups, oil changes, and break jobs. They made it their goal to get out of the mandate that required they offer these vehicles and to go back to gas fun cars only. All of these things were not needed or done much less frequently with the electric vehicle.
The oil companies’ problem with the EV1 or any electric vehicle for that matter, was the fact that if it really caught on and became predominantly driven on our roads, they would lose a LOT of money. It is obvious why, the more electric cars that are on the road, the less gas 3 POWERPOINT SLIDES – PROFESSOR LAROSE 6 guzzling cars are, and therefore they would lose a major consumer of oil. Therefore, they made it their goal to get rid of the electric vehicle before it really got going. The government also saw that they would lose money from the electric car being driven more frequently by more drivers. They then made it their goal to get rid of the mandate and ultimately the electric vehicle.
In order to achieve this goal, they sued the state of California and gave huge tax breaks to those who bought and drove SUVs. CARB began with making it their goal to improve the air quality in the state of California. They saw the EV1 as a solution to their air quality problem. This is why they introduced the Zero Emission Vehicle mandate. The EV1 was the perfect solution to their problem and made them look like they were making a difference in the state of California. In contrast, one member of CARB saw it as a loss to the oil industry and therefore fought to have the mandate revoked.
Ovonics, the battery company, saw the EV1 as having a problem, not a far enough driving range. This is why they made it their goal to come up with a solution, the stronger battery with a farther driving range. This solved the problems that consumers faced when deciding which vehicle to purchase. By providing a battery that allowed the EV1 to go up to 300 miles per charge, consumers would want to buy the vehicle right away. The fuel cell group thought that they could solve everyone’s problems by introducing a vehicle that ran on both fuel and electricity. They made it their goal to distract from the EV1.
This made is appealing to the oil companies, the government, and General Motors. However, experts knew that this type of vehicle was impossible to have and was not realistic or comparable to the EV1. It was merely a distraction from the EV1. 7 4. This documentary is reminding us about the concept of closure regarding the fact that it is not permanent. As new social groups form, interpretive flexibility is reintroduced. This can cause a new round of problems with the technology. 4 This can be clearly seen in the timeline of this documentary. Back in the day, when cars were invented, they were seen as the greener option to horse and buggy.
However, as technology changes, cars have become the main cause of many environmental issues. Therefore, we are looking to make a greener option to gas run vehicles, hence the electric vehicle. Even once we have found a solution to this current problem, it is evident that other problems may arise in the future in which we will be back to stage 1, with new relevant social groups and new interpretive flexibilities. 4 “Who Killed the Electric Car? ” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n. d. Web. 03 Mar. 2015. <HTTP://EN. WIKIPEDIA. ORG/WIKI/WHO_KILLED_THE_ELECTRIC_CAR%3F>.