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.
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.
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:
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.