As technology makes the world more accessible to us, so too does it open our eyes to the many stories and experiences out there to tell. Documentary filmmakers have been telling these stories for ages, and their platform for producing and presenting these stories has only continued to widen, also due in large part to technology.
It’s only fitting, then, that technology has availed itself to documentarians to help make their filmmaking process more efficient and effective and even improve the quality of the documentaries they create.
Cinema itself was a revolutionary technology in storytelling and journalism at one time. Now, revolutionary technologies like virtual production, volume technology and LED walls, AI, remote editing and storage and real-time rendering have made it even easier to make films that tell those stories more vividly than ever before.
In early 2022, French documentarians became one of the first in their country to incorporate virtual production techniques into a filmed production with the documentary series 2080.
Appropriately focusing on innovations in modern technology, the show incorporates not only motion capture and CGI technology but virtual effects (VFX) projected on an LED wall rather than a green screen (a virtual production technique known as “volume technology.”)
Virtual production is somewhat of a catch-all phrase for any filmmaking enterprise incorporating at least one virtual or CGI-based element. Many of the other technologies discussed here, in fact, could qualify as or contain an aspect of virtual production.
Among the technologies falling under the canopy of virtual production include those to produce:
● Performance and volumetric capture
● Virtual camera outputs, such as pan, tilt heads and master wheels
● The feel of a handheld camera
Cinematographers can now use simple and convenient drop-down menus to alter lighting and switch between lenses.
Though its applications for documentary filmmakers may only just be emerging, filmgoers can already see elements of virtual production in action in science fiction films—an apt genre for experimenting with new storytelling technologies—like 2013’s Oblivion, which used back-projection techniques to bring high resolution to backdrops containing actual footage rather than green screens. (You can see Oblivion’s masterful use of virtual backgrounds for free on DIRECTV STREAM.)
While it may be easier, certainly, to see how fictional films can incorporate virtual characters, worlds, elements and effects, documentarians can also benefit from this technology.
For example, to explain the workings of a complex engineering or biochemical mechanism, a documentarian can employ CGI. To recreate a setting or scene to convey a critical narrative within the film, a documentarian can create a virtual rendering of that environment and even the characters concerned.
What started as a technology for video game engineering providing an innovative way of manipulating polygons, backgrounds and VFX creations has become an increasingly valuable asset for filmmakers.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Artificial intelligence (AI) is one of the first and foremost modern technologies working its way into film production, as filmmakers are discovering the many ways it can play a major supporting role in the filmmaking process.
Scriptwriting and Analysis
AI makes the task of coming up with new stories that have the potential to wow modern audiences more efficient. AI algorithms can be fed large quantities of film scripts from which to cull and analyze data and apply what they learn to the writing of new scripts.
When it comes to documentaries, this can be incredibly helpful in coming up with effective and compelling narration. The time this use of AI can save filmmakers in finding good stories to tell can ultimately save production money.
Another application of AI for the writing of films is script analysis. Once documentarians compose their footage into a script, they can use AI to analyze that result and identify any weaknesses in its narrative structure or holes in its presentation of the information. It can then ask questions and suggest revisions to improve the script.
AI can help simplify and streamline pre-production by helping automate necessary processes such as schedule planning and location scouting. By helping to efficiently coordinate schedules of talent (interviewees, etc.) crew and location availability, AI can again help save productions time and money.
AI can help productions predict how successful a film may be with audiences and how much revenue it may pull in.
This can be useful for studios deciding whether or not to produce or distribute a particular documentary and how many resources to put behind it. Studios and filmmakers can also use AI to help match a film to its most likely audiences.
While cast selection may not be as big a factor with documentary filmmakers as with fiction filmmakers, there are still decisions to be made as to what faces and voices to show audiences to help tell their story.
Many documentaries have figures that must appear in the film to present the full story. However, they may also have parts of the story that several personalities may be qualified to convey, such as multiple officers, lawyers or friends of a victim or suspect in a crime documentary or multiple first-hand participants, witnesses or analysts involving a central event. In deciding which of these people to include in the film, AI can turn out to be quite useful.
It’s commonplace nowadays for studios to use AI to market their films.
They’ll use AI to analyze a film’s audience base and the popularity of the subject with filmgoers in various locations and demographics to help determine where and how best to promote the film. They may even use AI to help come up with those advertisements.
Using a technique called reinforcement learning, AI can develop musical patterns based on data it analyzes from other compositions as “inspiration.”
It can also base these musical patterns and their changes throughout a film on the tone or atmosphere of the movie at any given moment. It can even account for factors of the genre.
Algorithmic Video Editing
Using AI to edit films according to a defined set of rules is known as algorithmic editing. Nearly all films in the modern age use this technology to some degree in their editing process.
Some of the ways algorithmic editing can help streamline and improve the editing process of a film include:
● Organizing footage based on faces, landscapes or other visual identifiers
● Automatically cutting footage to suit a particular style or narrative flow, such as the flow and balance of interviews with direct footage
● Optimizing post-production workflow
Audio/Visual Restoration and Recovery
For his acclaimed documentary The Beatles: Get Back, a behind-the-scenes look at the band’s production of the album Let It Be, Peter Jackson used AI in a process called “demixing” to reveal muted conversations in the studio between the bandmates. (Stream The Beatles: Get Back on Disney+.)
Another example of AI’s use in film restoration and enhancement is how it was used to restore the Lumière Brothers’ seminal 1896 documentary short L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat) and then enhance it into 4K at 60fps.
Remote Editing and Storage
Documentarian filmmakers Jim Rota and Dean Gonzalez faced dual difficulties when trying to edit What Drives Us featuring Foo Fighters’ frontman Dave Grohl. COVID forced them to work from home, so they turned to remote editing to get the film completed. But, to remote edit the film, they needed a sufficient means of remotely storing the over 1,000 photographs and hours of B-roll footage and video interviews they compiled, comprising in total of about 54 TB of data.
Not only did they need a reliable remote storage solution to remotely access that data and save their progress working with it; they needed enough throughput with that storage to handle various key editing components, like playback, review and editing and sequencing scenes.
Rota and Gonzalez used an enterprise-grade NAS storage solution from OpenDrives called Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve 17. It allowed them to use a MacBook Pro for all post-production processes, from compositing many images into a single one to adding effects to correcting color for consistency to mixing sound–all from the same platform.
It also allowed them to transfer video files directly between the camera storage card, a workstation and an editing interface without needing to change the file format. (You can stream What Drives Us on The Coda Collection through Amazon Prime Video.)
Another outcropping of the video game industry, real-time rendering allows filmmakers to make changes to a digital environment almost instantaneously, avoiding the cumbersome render times that formerly stifled progress on production.
With the ability now to see and adjust how a production’s digital and physical components interact in real-time, they can work quicker and more precisely than ever.
While not a documentary, this technology can already be seen in films like the sci-fi epic Gods of Mars.
These are just some of the newest software technologies documentary filmmakers are using on their projects. Modern tech has also given documentarians a slew of filmmaking hardware innovations and improvements to advance their craft, from high-quality, pocket-sized cameras to drones.
One day soon, other modern innovations like virtual reality (VR,) augmented reality (AR) and AI voice synthesis and voice cloning will work their way into the documentary filmmaker’s standard toolkit.
Frank Moraes is the editor of the cord-cutter website HotDog.com