docs

When is it Right to Expand Your Documentary to a Docuseries?

There’s no denying the growth in popularity of documentaries in the last 20 years. From Morgan Spurlock’s fast food adventures in 2004’s Super Size Me to the focus on SeaWorld’s controversial orca in Blackfish nearly a decade later, documentaries have been making a difference as more people show interest in factual and not just fictional stories.

Docuseries, however, have shown the greatest surge of late, almost entirely due to the rise of streaming services like Netflix and the expansion of HBO’s original content output. Audiences have a better ability than ever before to watch what they want when they want — the perfect platform for episodic content.

If you’re entertaining the idea of expanding your documentary to a docuseries, consider the following to help you decide if it’s the right (or wrong) move for your project:

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You have something truly unique

Perhaps one of the best ways to gauge if your documentary would be more effective if expanded into a docuseries is by asking yourself one question — is your subject fresh and exciting?

Elaine Frontain Bryant, Executive Vice President of A&E, shared an interesting nugget of information concerning how vibrant and competitive the docuseries market has become: “In the world of the DVR and trying to be Netflix-and-streamer-proof, it’s the subjects that people haven’t seen before that feel the hottest,” she said during a talk with realscreen.

Additionally, your access to the story should be unique. Whether that comes through your own personal drive and good research (see below) or a natural, personal connection to a subject, your documentary should be one that only you can tell. It is this unique angle that will make your story fresh and interesting to an audience looking for something new.

You have a story you really care about

If you’re putting in the effort into making a film, be it documentary or narrative, you likely already have a personal investment in the story. When it comes to creating a docuseries that requires following a subject or people for an extended period of time, you will need that passion throughout the process.

Docuseries often need extra time as you research, plan, shoot, and edit each and every episode. The less interest you have, the harder it may be to maintain a high level of creativity and dedication. Find a subject that you’re so passionate about that you are willing to give your all to tell its story.

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Your subject is interesting enough

If you feel that your subject matter is unique and you have a lot of passion for it, the next thing to ask yourself is if people will still be interested after the first two or three episodes of your series.

Many of the most groundbreaking documentaries in recent years were effective because they formed an emotional connection with viewers. Although docuseries can provide powerful and thought-provoking content, the story needs to be especially captivating if you want to preserve interest for several episodes as opposed to single feature-length sitting.

You’re ready to do the work

Filmmaking is tough endeavor, no matter what kind of project you have in mind. The fact that docuseries are episodic and require additional hours of content means you’ll inevitably have that much more work to do.

This includes through research, following leads, fact-checking, creating outlines, shooting and editing content, and so much more. If you don’t think you’ll have the time or energy to take on such a feat, expanding your documentary film into a docuseries is probably not the right choice.

Interested in studying documentary filmmaking? Check out more information on New York Film Academy’s documentary school programs here.

4 Groundbreaking Documentary Films to Note

Most of us consume quite a lot of TV and Netflix, and we tend to think of cinema as a means of entertainment. But the visual storytelling medium of film is capable of so much more, and there’s a dearth of real life stories and authentic and diversified representations of people on screen. This is where the documentary comes in. A documentary film is more than just educational non-fiction film: a well-made documentary can move the viewer as much as an Oscar-winning narrative film. Whether you’re a cinephile or a budding film maker, watching documentaries is an integral aspect of understanding how the cinematic medium works as well as for exploring its full potential.

Here are some groundbreaking documentaries that you just can’t miss.

1. “Super Size Me” (2004)

Directed by Morgan Spurlock, this film is built on a very interesting premise: Morgan decides to eat only McDonald’s food for 30 days straight! From Feb. 1 to March 2, 2003, he ate at a McDonald’s outlet three times a day, consuming around 5000 calories per day.

Given the rising obesity rates, the movie is an eye-opening look at how dangerous junk food is for one’s physical and mental health. It took Morgan over a year to lose all the weight he gained from the experiment. The movie was so successful it was nominated for an Oscar, and a comic book based on it has been released.

2. “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004)

The highest-grossing documentary film of all time, “Fahrenheit 9/11 ,” directed by Michael Moore, takes a cold hard look at the presidency of George W. Bush — especially the invasion of Iraq and the worldwide damage and chaos it caused. Coupled with intelligent humor and investigative journalism, the film displays a nuanced critical analysis of the situation.

Fahrenheit 9/11 made over $150 million. Among its many accomplishments, the film prompted several controversies, won the Palm D’Or, received a 20-minute standing ovation at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and also featuired a cameo by Britney Spears. The movie’s title is of course a reference to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” thereby ironically putting everything into perspective.

3. “Waltz With Bashir” (2008)

This autobiographical war film by Ari Folman is important for its innovative and heart-wrenching way of tackling its subject: the 1982 Lebanon War. Given that the documentary medium is primarily associated with realism, the film eschews the use of real people to talk about their experiences. Instead, most of the film is narrated via animation which has a gritty, graphic novel feel. When real footage is inserted in the narrative, suddenly, it hits you like a ton of bricks.

The style of the film not only challenges the traditional expectations of a documentary film, it also artistically conveys that some things are so violent and so depraved that it’s impossible to show them as they are.

4. “The Square” (2013)

A three-time Emmy Award-winner, this film depicts the ongoing crisis in Egypt. Marked by gritty cinematography, it begins with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 at Tahrir Square and showcases the daily reality that most of us tend to turn a blind eye to. Over 500 hours of footage was edited to make this film.

And we have another reason for you to watch it: this groundbreaking political documentary was shot and co-produced by New York Film Academy graduate Muhammad Hamdy! For his remarkable work, Hamdy won an Emmy for Best Cinematography.

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Now that’s inspirational!

This list is just scratching the surface, but it should give you an idea of how diverse, original and experimental the documentary genre is, using a myriad of styles and techniques to critically and innovatively show audiences dynamic, true stories that may otherwise go unnoticed.

So if you’re looking to take a filmmaking class at NYFA, why not give documentary filmmaking a shot?

 

5 Social Justice Documentaries to Watch on Netflix

Whether you call it the Civil Rights Movement of the millennial generation or however you prefer to phrase it, there’s no denying that the world is politically tumultuous at present, and folks are speaking out loud and proud about those social justice issues that matter to them most. And while we’re all busy learning, protesting, challenging the status quo, or creating meaningful art, there’s nothing like a good documentary to keep us inspired, informed, and engaged, while on the path to making radical changes to improving our world as we know it.

Whether you are advocating for racial justice and reconciliation, gender equality, animal rights, or equal rights for those of the LGBTQ and transgender community, here are five social justice documentaries available to stream online right now, courtesy of Netflix.

1. “13th” Ava DuVernay, Dir.

An in-depth examination of the judicial system in the U.S. and how it reveals our nation’s racial bias at the intersection of justice and mass incarceration, Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-winning documentary posits that slavery in the U.S was never fully abolished. Her thesis is that slavery only evolved into our nation’s current prison industrial complex that criminalizes certain behaviors, unfairly targeting African-Americans. Named after the 13th Amendment, which freed slaves and prohibited slavery, “13th” demands that viewers recognize the existence of modern-day American slavery by another name.

2. “Miss Representation” Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Dir.

Premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Jennifer Siebel Newsom draws on the experiences of everyday women and celebrities like Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin, and Ellen DeGeneres, who concede that women cannot aspire to become what they know nothing of. In short, the film questions why there aren’t enough strong women role models in mainstream media, and implores those who view it to take a pledge against gender misrepresentation: #DisruptTheNarrative!

3. “Prescription Thugs” Chris Bell, Dir.

In this sobering look at America’s legal drug abuse problem, director Chris Bell turns his camera to the abuse of prescription drugs and big pharma, and eventually to his own harrowing addiction. This film explores the goals of pharmaceutical companies, the doctors involved in this epidemic, and the nature of addiction. This thought-provoking expose is one to watch to better understand how ordinary people deal with pain, and their response to addiction in an economy that profits off of them.

4. “Second Chance Dogs” Kenn Bell, Dir.

*Trigger warning for animal lovers.

In this emotionally charged documentary, we follow several dogs who’ve experienced various situations of abuse through puppy mills and hoarding, and despite it all, have been rescued and rehabilitated. Originally aired on Animal Planet, the film follows a facility dedicated to their recovery through patience and innovative techniques at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center.

5. “A Sinner in Mecca” Parvez Sharma, Dir.

On his own pilgrimage to Mecca, openly gay Muslim director Sharma documents his own personal journey, fulfilling a lifelong dream. In the film, he strives to make a place for himself in the Wahabi Islam he’s always known, and the extremism Islam he’s come to know but that has no resemblance to his religious and spiritual beliefs.

What are your favorite social justice documentaries to stream right now? Let us know in the comments below, and check out NYFA’s documentary programs.