How Emerging Technology is Shaping the Future of Documentary Filmmaking

It’s been almost a century since pioneering filmmaker Robert J Flaherty journeyed across the icy Hudson Bay, Quebec, to the small Inuit village of Inukjuak, known then as Port Harrison.

Flaherty had explored the Hudson Bay area just years earlier in 1913, filming the lives of Inuit people in the Belcher Islands with his brand new Bell and Howell hand-cranked camera. However, while editing the footage upon his return to Toronto, one of Flaherty’s cigarettes sparked a blaze that destroyed the 30,000 feet of nitrate film he had captured. Two years worth of work had been reduced to ash on the editing room floor.

If the accident had deterred Flaherty from pursuing filmmaking, he may never have gone on to direct one of the first ever feature length documentary films, Nanook of the North. Flaherty made his 1920 expedition to Port Harrison, determined to continue filming the day-to-day lives of Inuit people, more specifically a celebrated hunter of the Itivimuit tribe. With him he brought two “Akeley” 35mm motion picture cameras, 75,000 feet of film, a Hallberg electric light plant and a projector. Nowadays, Flaherty would only have needed to pocket his smartphone and be on his way. Not only would the footage have been better quality, he’d have been able to record audio as well.

The 35mm Akeley “pancake” Camera

The Akeley camera Flaherty used was revolutionary for its time and was arguably one of the first cameras designed with documentary filmmaking in mind. Its inventor, Carl Akeley, was an explorer and naturalist who realised that no commercially available cameras suited his in-field wildlife filming. He decided to build his own camera, which would be more compact and sturdy than other cameras of the time, and include a built-in tripod head for smooth pan-tilt motions. The Akeley’s circular design earned it the nickname the “pancake”, but also meant the camera’s shutter angle was 230 degrees rather than the 180 degrees of a standard “box style” camera. The result of his innovative shutter design was a longer shutter speed, capturing roughly 30 percent more light than standard cameras. This was ideal for Akeley’s wildlife filming, where artificial lighting wasn’t always a viable option and allowed him to shoot at dawn and dusk. The camera quickly became popular with explorers and naturalists, and was still being used in the 1940s – more than two decades after its creation. The idea of a new camera model lasting more than 20 years in today’s market is almost unthinkable.

Almost a century after Nanook, documentary filmmakers are still pushing the boundaries of in-field filming with the help of emerging technologies. Recent developments have made documentary filmmaking more immersive, cinematic and accessible than ever before.

Better, faster, smaller

RED Cinema Camera. Photo: Flickr CC / Alik Griffin

Camera technology is developing rapidly, and the emphasis has long been better quality cameras in smaller packages. This is particularly important to documentary filmmakers, where mobility is key. In the past documentary makers and video journalists have often been forced to compromise quality for mobility, or vice versa. However, the rise of “run n’ gun” cinema cameras in recent years has changed the game. High budget documentaries are beginning to utilise Digital Cinema Cameras such as the RED Epic (used in Twenty Feet from Stardom and Next Goal Wins), BlackMagic and the ARRI Amira, which was touted as a “perfect documentary camera” on its release. For lower budget documentary films a popular choice of camera is the Canon C300 (used in Cartel Land), while high-end DSLRs like the Canon 5D are also a favoured pick. With RED’s first 8K Digital Cinema Camera – the Weapon Vista Vision – released at the end of last year, there are rumours circulating that Canon, Panasonic Lumix and Sony may follow suit in 2016. There are also speculations that Canon have set a goal of having 8K for all their DSLRs by 2017. Not only will this lead to more cinematic-style documentaries in future, but may also help produce films that are more intimate, unobtrusive and vivid.

Rise of the Drones

Now the “must-have” toy for independent filmmakers. Commercial Drones, Quadcopters, UAVs, whatever you want to call them, are fast becoming part of the documentary filmmaker’s inventory. Almost 9% of our “cost of docs” survey respondents said they had used drone footage in their latest documentary, and this looks set to increase with latest estimates predicting the value of the small drone market to hit $10bn by 2020. The kinds of large-production arial shots that could only have been achieved by hiring a helicopter or small plane in the past are now available to filmmakers working independently. The equipment does, however, come at a cost, especially as the UK Civil Aviation Authority requires drone operators to hold a valid qualification that often requires training. 

This year GoPro will be releasing it’s first drone Karma, meanwhile Parrot’s plane-like drone Disco, which reportedly can travel up to 50mph, will also be going on sale. DJI’s first ever 4K Phantom will be going on the market in 2016 as well. Another interesting release for filmmakers is the Lily drone camera. This looks particularly exciting and could change how self-shooting documentary makers work. The Lily drone will track and film any subject carrying a wrist worn controller without needing any other commands. You basically have your own personal cameraman. For self-shooting filmmakers who want to present or star in their own documentaries, or even documentary makers who just want a second ‘cameraman’ when filming a subject, the Lily drone could be invaluable.

Action cams such as GoPros are also playing a larger part in documentary filmmaking, as small, unobtrusive and durable cameras. Almost 18% percent of our survey respondents said they had used an action camera in their latest documentary. With GoPro set to release its 8K Hero 5 later this year, the trend is set to continue with even smaller high-quality cameras.

Smartphones: the future of archive?

Smartphone shooting. Photo: Flickr CC / Tomscy2000

Smartphones have had a sweeping impact on both digital journalism and filmmaking, so it goes without saying that they will continue to shape documentary filmmaking. The impact of smartphones was exemplified in our recent survey, where 7.9% of our respondents said they had used a smartphone to film their most recent documentary. Famously, Malik Bendjelloul finished filming his Oscar-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man on a smartphone (with the help of a £2 8mm Vintage Camera app) after funding for the film dried up.  In 2011, the first feature film shot entirely on a smartphone, Olive, had its theatrical release. Smartphones have enabled independent and amateur filmmakers to create good quality content at relatively low expense. The growing number of filmmaking, video editing and field recorder apps has made smartphone filmmaking even easier, as have smartphone-compatible lavalier microphones and lenses.

But the influence of smartphones doesn’t end there. Perhaps the largest change in digital journalism over the past decade has been an increase User Generated Content, or ‘UGC’, which has been facilitated largely by smartphones. On-the-scene amateur video – often from multiple angles and sources – is now key content when a news story first breaks, and may be the only video records of an event. Historical documentary makers in 10, 20 or 50 years time will be able to utilise a vast library of amateur archive footage compared to the amount available to filmmakers today.

From viewers to explorers

VR Headset. Photo: Flickr CC / Nan Palmero

Immersive technology such as virtual reality could shift the role of the viewer in documentaries. Instead of simply watching what the filmmaker wants us to see, viewers can explore an environment themselves, effectively taking the middle man out of journalism. The concept of VR documentaries may seem like a distant future, but in fact they are already being made.

Filmmaker Chris Milk has made two VR documentaries; Millions March, which documents a 2014 protest in New York, and Clouds Over Sidra, which explores a Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Last year filmmaker Marcelle Hopkins shot a virtual reality documentary in South Sudan, titled On the Brink of Famine, using multiple GoPro cameras and 360 degree rigs. We also heard news last week that the BBC is producing a VR documentary about the 1916 Easter Rising to engage audiences with history.

In an interview with the Guardian, Chris Milk says: “So much of journalism is conveying a place and time that existed, to someone at a later date: giving a person the context and trying to make them feel as informed as if they were actually there.”

“Being able to put people in the place gives them not just a better sense of it, but gives them more empathy and a deeper emotional connection to the people that were actually there.

“That’s where the true power of virtual reality lies in regards to journalism: connecting human beings to other human beings in a way that we haven’t seen before.”

The technology needed to shoot VR will become more widely available in 2016 with both Nikon and GoPro announcing the release 360 degree consumer action cameras earlier this year. GoPro’s may even work in tandem with its newly announced drone as well.

Could we be watching the 2026 Oscar-winning feature documentary through VR headsets?

Documentary filmmaking has come a long way since Robert J Flaherty’s expedition across Quebec. While the key storytelling elements have remained largely the same, the technologies used to tell those stories has evolved considerably.

One of the aims of documentary film is to transport the audience to a different reality – someone else’s reality – as an invisible observer to an unfolding story.

And so developing technologies which can capture that reality in ways that are authentic, unobtrusive, inspiring, and above all evoke empathy, will continue to be a key priority for documentary filmmakers.

What do you think new technologies can bring to documentary filmmaking? Are there any gadgets or innovations in particular that are shaping the field? Let us know your thoughts!

Words by Robbie Pyburn