What’s Wrong With Documentaries?

Lately, there has been a trend to try to make complex subjects palatable and easy to digest, by making video documentaries about them.  They come in all grades of production values, from a single web cam “piece to camera” recording, made in somebody’s bedroom in a single take, with ambient lighting and sound, all the way up to slick, high-end, polished productions that have been professionally edited, post produced and graded.  These documentaries frequently show up on YouTube or for sale as DVDs.  Sometimes they are screened in limited screening sessions in various towns and cities.  They usually cover extremely useful and worthwhile ideas.  The whole “TED talks” phenomenon, for example, places valuable lectures, by thought leaders, in video format, on line, for personal consumption, at a staggering rate.

The idea behind making a documentary is that a picture paints a thousand words, so video is a very compact, high-density, high-impact means of delivering a narrative.  The information seems to reach the parts of the audience’s brain that other storytelling methods can’t reach as easily.  They don’t call television schedules “programming” for nothing. 

The idea that audiovisual presentation is the most efficient and effective means of conveying information to mass audiences would be true, except for a few fatal flaws in the argument.

The first problem is that there are just too many of them.  Nobody can watch them all, even if they are good, they contain information of genuine importance and interest to an audience and have a compelling story to tell.  Life is just too short.  Only a small fraction of your online time puts you in circumstances where you can sit back and watch an audiovisual presentation, passively, without annoying somebody or being interrupted. 

Mostly, you need the ability to do something else, multi-tasking style, while the audio continues, flipping back to the visuals only when you want to see what’s going on.  Ideally, you want to be able to easily skip back a few seconds, to dig back in.  In most browsers, going back is hit and miss and skipping to another browser tab to do other work or read other things stops video (and hence audio) playback, momentarily.

The second problem with worthy video documentaries is that they are just too damned long.  You can’t easily skip over sections, skim or speed read them, like you can with text (e.g. a book or a blog).  On mobile devices, where usage is metered, restricted and overages exceedingly expensive, long documentaries can break the bank. 

Indexing into most video documentaries is poor or non-existent, especially on YouTube (but the situation is admittedly slightly better with DVDs).  You cannot easily pick up from where you left off, last time you were watching, or jump to the information you are most interested in, based on chapter headings and synopses.  Your options are to watch it all again from the beginning or try to guess where to place the playback pointer.

Online video players are notoriously flaky.  Your viewing experience is frequently interrupted by buffering, non-dismissible ads for products you don’t want, or already have, which you’ve seen a thousand times before, playback freezes, unexpected page reloads and video player resets, caused by touching “share” icons or some such, which lose your place in the video stream, network interruptions, Wi-Fi blips and so on.


Most video is published without a transcript, so search engines struggle to locate a video that has relevance to a search you might conduct and worse, to index into a video to the place (or places) where your specific search terms are mentioned in the narrative.  There is no way to search for video that has <some textual description of visible stuff> in it, or even to search for video frames that look a bit like this picture.  You can’t even reliably search by who appears on screen, who made the film or who else was involved in its making.  It’s as if IMDB doesn’t exist, for video documentaries, or keep index points in the video stream for where various people appear on screen (hint: it doesn’t).

Documentary makers aim for the lowest common denominator always, speaking down to most people, in order to maximise their appeal to the largest audience.  In fact, that editorial tactic fails.  As you gain people with less ability to follow a more complex narrative, you lose those that are bored rigid by an overly simplistic one.  If you happen to be a viewer who is faster on the uptake or already up-to-speed (partially) with the preamble or issues presented, then the Noddy-style explanations are a big time waster and turn off.  Such a kindergarten-level treatment can waste a lot of your scarce time and attention, as a viewer.

So many documentaries use up time needlessly to make it to the required broadcast length, with endless shots of people driving from one place to another, establishing shots and so on.  They spin the narrative out, pacing it slowly, using “gee whizz, and then we discovered…” styles of narrative, or false cliff-hangers, to increase tension, because there really isn’t all that much to say.  It could be said more succinctly (and effectively, in my view).  When a video maker pretends that the exposé of the information is a journey that you’re being taken on in real time, that’s a complete editorial fiction.  No you aren’t.  The video maker already knows the outcome.  He’s just spinning you along.  Why tease the audience like this with a made up fiction that it’s some grand voyage of knowledge and discovery?  As a film maker, state your argument clearly and succinctly.  Is it really productive and conducive to having your message communicated memorably, if you deliberately waste the viewers’ time?  I don’t think so.

Documentary makers ought to start using non-linear, interactive media, so that an abridged or summarised narrative can be drilled down into, to get more detail, optionally.  If you need it, it should be there for you, but if not, you should be able to skip it without losing the overall thread of the narrative.  This is a big challenge for directors, editors and script writers.  You need to create the fast track and also the version where detours are taken.  Computer game makers manage it.

There should always be a brief summary video, that makes the main points in a very few minutes, a longer narrative, which allows you to skip over all the deeper details (for those that already know them), or simplistic explanations (for those that are new to the subject matter) and a version which lets you meander down one piece of detail or another, if you so wish.  The default, long-form video, where every last frame of the narrative and all the detailed supporting material pans out linearly, in real time would, I wager, become the least watched version, if the alternative version were available, yet it is the only thing offered, today.  Documentary makers effectively say to their audiences, “watch the whole damned thing, end-to-end, or leave it entirely”.

Video is a good means of storytelling (a potentially brilliant one, actually), but we need to provide viewers with the means of cutting to the chase, getting the gestalt of the message quickly, in synopsis form and allowing them to do the equivalent of speed reading and skimming, so that they can get the gist of the message, without watching each and every frame of the video.  Video editors need to consider audience information absorption pace and avoid time-wasting. 

As film makers, we must all do much better.  There is important information to convey.  It’s too important to have people ignore it, because we made it too difficult for them to watch.


Incidentally, this is my 600th post.  You guys keep reading them!  Thank you, for that.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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2 Responses to What’s Wrong With Documentaries?

  1. novaspire says:

    I agree with some points. Most people don’t have the time, curiosity or intelligence so they will get a basic understanding of concepts from a documentary. I think documentaries are referential. It’s just scratching surfaces, if people want to learn more about the topic they probably go read a book on the topic. Another thing about narratives, there is always a narrative which goes unexamined. People that want to explore the topic from more and different angles, will. I find it amusing you can now watch clips on youtube with 1.5 to 2.0x speed.

    • Thanks for commenting. My point was that documentary makers could accommodate both those with low curiosity and those that want to know much more, through the adoption of more interactive media types. Books are a great alternative, of course, because they are interactive. My challenge was to ask documentary makers to make their videos as interactive as a book. Thank you for commenting.

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