September 15, 2015

A Hilarious Parody of the Documentary Style Taking Over the Internet

Phil: A Tribute to a Man
Wispy voiceover. An emotional, atmospheric soundtrack. Slow motion shots of a character doing random, mundane tasks. Copious amounts of silhouetting and backlighting. These are the hallmarks of the contemporary documentary short, and the basis for Jim Archer's hilarious parody.

Phil: A Tribute to a Man
Chances are, if you're a frequenter of the internet, you've come across a short-doc in the aforementioned style. They're practically everywhere these days, documentary shorts about artists, athletes, activists, artisanal-food-purveyors, and any other profession you can conceive. And for the most part, all of these films look and sound identical to one another.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, as the style has proven itself to be an effective way to craft brief, yet informative and occasionally-moving portraits of an individual. And it's proven to be an effective marketing tool as well (a good portion of these shorts are generated by advertising agencies). However, as filmmakers it's important for us to be aware of dominant trends and styles in our craft so that we can avoid being trite, or even cliché with our own work.

When you watch one or two, you think "Wow, these are really well made," but then you watch a few more you realize they are almost all made the same way. Which is fine, but when you couple that with a story about some LA skater trying to find meaning in his life for 15,000th time, it gets a little boring.

With that in mind, our friend Jim Archer, a filmmaker based out of the UK, put together an affectionate parody of the style. Not only did he capture the essence of the contemporary documentary short, but he managed to craft a portrait of perhaps the most undeserving documentary subject ever — a man named Phil.

Phil: A Tribute to a Man

I chatted briefly with Jim about why he felt compelled to make this project, and here's what he had to say:

I wanted to parody these types of films not because I particularly dislike them — a lot of them have great stories to tell — but so many of them seem to follow this same formula. It usually centers around one interview which will be 95-100% voiceover, an atmospheric and emotive soundtrack, slow motion shots of literally anything, and at least one shot of the subject looking one way then immediately looking the other — that's non negotiable. I feel that so many of the stories of these documentaries aren't actually that interesting. It's the just the production values that are, so I thought it would be funny to make one about a guy that REALLY didn't deserve to have a film made about him.

Jim also shared some of the technical/production details behind how he and his team went about crafting Phil's heartwarming story:

Phil: A Tribute to a Man
Phil: A Tribute to a Man

We shot on an ARRI Amira, which was perfect for this. It obviously delivers a great image but is also much more mobile than the Alexa. Considering we were handheld for the whole shoot and were running around a lot of the time, this was pretty important. Getting the dialogue to sound "natural" was important as well, so in the end we improvised the whole interview. Not only do you often end up getting the funniest stuff from improv, but you also get that conversational delivery which is pretty important when trying to imitate a doc.

If you have any questions for Jim about why and how he made this short, leave them down in the comments. Also, be sure to share your favorite (or the most ridiculous) example of a documentary shot in this style.      

Your Comment

38 Comments

I wanna make one similar to that, but I'll overuse slider shots, timelapse and extreme close-ups of craggy people. I'll call it "Bloom".

September 15, 2015 at 3:39PM

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Hahahahahaha

September 15, 2015 at 3:46PM

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Wayne Yip
Director
239

Brilliant! and please extreme shallow depth of field in every singly shot. Constant rack focus for no reason whatsoever will be a must.

September 15, 2015 at 9:00PM

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If we see this in doc productions, imagine on wedding videos! Epic soundtracks, voice over about how they met, gorgeous poses, people laughing and dancing at party, amazing out of town landscapes, brides maid trying not to cry at wedding ceremony... All the same, exactly. I wonder, a couple years later, if we could put all of these in a giant bowl, they would not even recognize their own videos.

September 16, 2015 at 6:57AM

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Rodrigo Afonseca
Filmmaker
81

I feel like short docs in this mold are often made with a lot of sincerity and for that reason I find the "let's point out how bad this kind of filmmaking is" tone a little abrasive and superior (just a little). I didn't really see that tone in the film though. In fact, I fail to see why a guy like Phil doesn't deserve his own film. I was kind of sympathizing with his existential angst, though I couldn't understand most of what he was saying. I am Phil "Deal with me!"

September 15, 2015 at 3:45PM

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Derek Olson
Directomatographeditor
607

Sincerity isn't an issue but you can tell the same story in many different ways.

September 15, 2015 at 6:19PM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
1103

Hey Derek, thanks for your feedback. I don't think this type of thing is bad filmmaking - that wasn't my intention. I just wanted to use this style to make something dumb and parody a style of documentary that is a little overused. Also glad you sympathise with Phil, I do a little too!

September 16, 2015 at 5:39AM

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Jim, this has providing healing for me. Thank you.

I've seen so many of these films that I'm now afraid to watch short documentaries.

September 16, 2015 at 11:57AM, Edited September 16, 12:44PM

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Josh Paul
Most often DP, Direct or Gaff
1131

Funny, and great images. To bad the audio is messed up.

September 15, 2015 at 5:10PM

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Making something out of nothing. Ad agencies anyone? Seriously filmmakers, you're better than that. Choose good stories and let them speak for themselves. Having to incorporate lots of manipulation is a tall tale sign your story sucks and can't hold it's own.

September 15, 2015 at 5:13PM

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Completely disagree. All filmmaking is manipulation.

September 16, 2015 at 1:12AM

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Russell Anderson
Editor, Programmer
145

Exactly. Check out the previous post on "Reinterpreting 'The Karate Kid'". Manipulation is part of the game if you're trying to evoke an emotion from your audience.

September 16, 2015 at 8:19AM

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Dale Raphael Goldberg
Director/Editor
282

I manipulate the character to coax out the reality/truth as I see it, not the audience by overdramatizing and flattening everything into a fairy tale.

September 21, 2015 at 9:26PM

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zetty
Filmmaker
726

Pretty laughable.

September 15, 2015 at 5:26PM

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Csonka Olivér
Wannabe anyone
260

Gorgeous image from that ARRI Amira.

...I would love to see a follow-up film about Phil's neighbors.

September 15, 2015 at 5:29PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32784

Come on, this trend is not that bad. Maybe it's just me but if the climax is well made, I actually get into stories, and if the cinematography is good, most of the times I end up enjoying the video. But yeah, maybe that's just me.

September 15, 2015 at 5:37PM

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Tommy Plesky
Director / D.P / Editor
1959

Funny.

September 15, 2015 at 6:02PM

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Jon du Toit
Writer / Director
167

You know what the really sad and pathetic thing is? Even though this style might seem 'oversaturated' in internet terms, it will probably still take Australian TV another 2 years to catch on. They're always 2 years behind everything. 5D wasn't adopted until 2012. Sliders only started getting used in 2013. They've just discovered offspeed and drones this year (and they're eeeeeeeeverywhere - and they've got no idea how to use them well). They'd love timelapse, but they don't have the patience to let people go out and shoot it. 4K is probably another 5-10 years away though, since we're still broadcasting in standard def, lol.

The old guard in Australian TV just needs to hurry up and die. They're an absolute joke.

September 15, 2015 at 6:28PM, Edited September 15, 6:28PM

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Ben Howling
Writer / Director
652

Thank you for this. I absolutely love it.

September 15, 2015 at 6:40PM

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Devin Bousquet
Director-DP-Editor
89

Is the name Phil a cheeky reference to Mr.Bloom. If so then it is even more funny :P

September 15, 2015 at 6:54PM

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Claire McHardy
Cinematographer
324

I dont think they intended this to be taken seriously - he said "I wanted to parody these types of films not because I particularly dislike them — a lot of them have great stories to tell — but so many of them seem to follow this same formula."

I agree. There's lots of copy and paste.

September 15, 2015 at 7:05PM

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Noel Evans
Director / Director of Photography / Cinematographer
127

This is incredible.

September 15, 2015 at 7:19PM

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Bennett Johnson
Director
58

On the Amira? .............................WHY?! Do you happen to have one hanging around the ol' casa or something?

September 15, 2015 at 7:21PM

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Beg/borrow/steal

September 16, 2015 at 5:47AM, Edited September 16, 5:47AM

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Amazing! A lot of documentaries made in this style are in fact beautiful and masterfully crafted and quite often they tell a very compelling story. It's a medium and style that works well as a biographical short-doc. That said it's important to be able to laugh at ones self and even one's industry, lest we take ourselves and our work too seriously. Kudos :)

September 15, 2015 at 8:27PM, Edited September 15, 8:31PM

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Vladimir Druts
Founder & Director at Intangible.co
350

I dont know why we should celebrate people taking the piss out of other people's efforts. I dont understand why this has been published on NFS.
It feels too me just like an excuse to show that you can actually film a high quality thing, so it's a twofold thing: I pretend to laugh at others efforts a way that showcases my skills. i would risk to say it is coward.
whatever the current trend is, it doesn't matter as long as it is honest, as long as we can get something out of it. As an aspiring filmmaker I've learnt a lot from efforts like this. Celebrating parodies like this only discourage our attempts to learn by copying what we've seen and building upon that.
I find this post quite condescending.

September 15, 2015 at 8:33PM, Edited September 15, 8:33PM

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I completely agree with you. This site *is* called "No Film School" for a reason I presume.

September 22, 2015 at 5:36AM, Edited September 22, 5:36AM

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"""I dont know why we should celebrate people taking the piss out of other people's efforts."""

Because it's called criticism and parody, and it's part of what makes people better, rather shallow shared praise and empty encouragment.

Besides this parody is someone's effort too. Who are you to take the piss on it?

"""I dont understand why this has been published on NFS."""

Because it's about documentary films, because it's fun and because it can help people avoid overused cliches in their next film.

"""whatever the current trend is, it doesn't matter as long as it is honest,""""

If it's a trend, then by definition it's not "honest". It's just people using the latest visual trends and tricks regardless of their personality and what the story they try to tell needs (which would have been the sincere thing).

September 27, 2015 at 8:48PM

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Reminds me of this news report parody:

https://youtu.be/aHun58mz3vI

September 15, 2015 at 11:13PM

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This is fucking gold.

September 16, 2015 at 3:52AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1245

In my opinnion, what this short doc highlights is that we are reaching a point where content/story/characters/research are becoming a secundary role less important than production values, which in the case of the contemporary short doc are evolving into a stereotype.

Thats a tricky path we are taking as add agencies now believe they can do an epic emotional short bio doc about everything. And this is wrong because when you asume all you need is good production values and you dont make efforts to find a great story then it gets boring, banal. Stories are first, production values are second. Reversing the order will make every other short film look similar.

I have some filmmaker friends who use rack focus and shallow depth of field in EVERY shot and they just tell me i like my images like that.

If something, this is a good post to remember that in filmmaking we, ideally, should choose lens, depth of field and sliders or jib movements in order to convey an idea or an emotion....not just repeat over and over the same formula.

September 16, 2015 at 9:09AM, Edited September 16, 9:15AM

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Alan Brain
Editor/ Director
88

I don't understand why so many people here are praising this derivative over-used 'style'. It's lazy. If you're doing it: STOP RIGHT NOW. Do something original.

While I'm here - an excellent parody of formula news reports courtesy of Charlie Brooker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0zYYCCsSjkw

September 16, 2015 at 5:22PM

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Karel Bata
Director / DP / Stereographer
417

@karel, thanks for the hilarious post, very spot on.
Any chance you know where I can find this Jim Archer spoof on Youtube? Unfortunately in my country vimeo (and also Reddit) are banned.

September 18, 2015 at 8:49AM

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Edwin Pieroelie
Managing Director
29

Ok so....he doesn't like this "Documentary Style" but then he makes the exact kind of documentary he hates. Slaps the "Parody" label on it, then uses it to promote himself. I see what you did there....

September 17, 2015 at 12:29PM, Edited September 17, 12:30PM

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Will Thomas
Director, Editor, Colorist
83

When you make a parody of something you BY DEFINITION make the "exact kind".

And promoting yourself is not bad -- being a cliche is.

September 27, 2015 at 8:49PM

1
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wonderfully funny! and filmed very nice too!

September 17, 2015 at 4:31PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
676

Definitely agree that this is becoming an overused way of filming docs, I'm definitely guilty of it.
Can anyone share links to docs that are pioneering a fresher approach?

September 17, 2015 at 4:34PM, Edited September 17, 4:38PM

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Finally! I been hating this artificial/superficial style for a long time -- add the extremely shallow depth of field so to completely lose sense of space and endless sliders timed to cheesy music and you will amount to what's considered "professional" and "contemporary" these days.

September 21, 2015 at 8:11PM, Edited September 21, 8:12PM

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zetty
Filmmaker
726

I just realized the sad and hilarious truth, that I would have been thrilled to have created something so beautiful and this guy is doing it as a joke. I suck, lol.

September 22, 2015 at 8:51AM, Edited September 22, 8:57AM

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Brandon Blackburn
Videographer / Editor
214

I was thinking the same. ;(

September 28, 2015 at 5:01PM

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"if there's no water I'll just get a cup and hold it."

This line would actually be beautiful given the context. However, many formulaic docs like these don't provide much context. You may as well add a bottle of perfume or a Lincoln MKC.

September 29, 2015 at 2:51PM, Edited September 29, 2:59PM

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