The Great Wide Open – Episode 5

The Great Wide Open is a different climbing video than I am used to because it discusses history, culture and American identity. It speaks about the American Independence day and watching fireworks from “Devils tower“, a laccolithic butte. This is an interesting rock formation. The rock has vertical cracks that are impressive to see.

There are many aspects that I like and enjoy about this video. I like the visuals and I like the discussion of history and opportunism and passion. The segment that I like less is about death. I associate death with scuba diving rather than climbing. Recently I have watched quite a few documentaries about climbing and death. The film Sherpa and one other explored the themes both of mountain professionals and the risks they take and the other looked at climbers and the risks they take. They’re interesting topics but exploring the lives of people who live their passions is more pleasant. One person said “I think too many people live their lives, five days looking forward to the two day weekend and they don’t look forward to their life on the small amount of time we have on this earth.” That’s why I enjoy watching documentaries about this topic. For brief instants we get to dream and to aspire to new things.

There is a lot of attention in the media today about how women look and how they are perceived. The focus needs to shift away from how women look and focus instead on what they can do. Climbing news and videos are one way to achieve this goal. We see women who excel at their chosen sport and this has a positive effect. It takes us away from the superficial and presents us with the concrete. In climbing we notice women for their prowess rather than their looks and this is positive. I appreciate them for their ability  to challenge and overcome their fears. I frequently climbed with someone who was afraid and I would not hesitate to do it again. Enabling others is a good quality to have.

Squadron Scramble – book review

Squadron Scramble is an interesting book to read in post-BREXIT England because it highlights aspects of the Second World War that BREXITers forget about. It looks at how the main character had to flee France via Dunkirk as well as the situation that Polish airmen had found themselves in. First they lost their homes, then they had to flee France when it was invaded and finally they went to England via North Africa.

You can read more about Polish Air Forces in France and Great Britain following this link for factual rather than fictional information and context. The book provides us with an easy to read, easy to understand scenario. If you had lost your country and you were flying for a third country would you want to shoot pilots as they parachute to safety or would you allow them to live.

If you were in England during the Second World War at what point would you have felt secure and confident that Germany would be overwhelmed and beaten. When would the battle shift from a fight for survival to a fight for supremacy?

This book focuses on the air war during daylight hours when Hurricanes and Spitfires were in their element and only glimpses at dog fighting at night. The book touches superficially on a number of topics without providing as much depth and context as it could.

This is an interesting documentary about the Polish contribution to the Battle of Britain. It shows how effectively they helped to fight the German Luftwaffe and how they were betrayed by the British people once the war was over. They had fought to defend England and defeat the Germans in order to ensure that their country would be freed from the Germans only to be betrayed when their country was handed over to the communists. Some of them went back to Poland but had to flee to other countries. They were not honoured in the victory parade either. The documentary is interesting as it provides its viewers with a good account of the Polish contribution to the British and Allied war effort.

A Rock Crawler and Wildlife Film Making

When Gordon Buchanan was following bears in the United States we watched the resulting documentaries on television. We have seen him a number of times in episodes of countryfile as well. Now he is working on getting footage of wolves in the wild. For this project he is staying out in the wild and following a pack of wolves day after day for weeks. As part of this project he is filming with a broadcast camera and gopro cameras which he fixed on to a “rock crawler”. The Rock crawler is a remote control car with the body removed.

The BBC were working on a documentary about polar bears and for certain shots they created a den for filming purposes. It helped to tell the story but people felt that the purity of that documentary had been tainted. This genre of documentary aims to tell a genuine story with no reconstruction or trickery. Everything has to be genuine.

As we see from the footage above Gordon Buchanan was able to get the camera right up to the den and film the wolf cubs from the mouth of the den. This technology is great for story telling because it provides the camera operator with greater flexibility. He is able to get the camera to where he wants it to be without going there in person. In theory animal behaviour is genuine.

Sensory: BBC Wildlife Director John Downer & the technology of 'spy-cam' filmmaking from Getty Images on Vimeo.

With this technology a greater variety of shots can be achieved, from flying with specific birds to traveling under water with penguins and lounging in a pool with tigers. In essence spy creature cameras allow wildlife filmmakers to get genuine animal interactions without relying on luck. They can make their own luck and the natural history documentary genre benefits.

Flowing water – a visual experiment

Flowing Water – A visual experiment is a simple one minute video. The first images were filmed at the Arboretum in the Jura and the timelapses show clouds playing above the Jura near La Dôle. La Dôle is where the doppler radar is located. That radar shows rainfall and precipitation so that air traffic controllers can advise pilots of weather conditions.

With the amount of rain that has fallen over the last six or more weeks every river is full of water. As a result of this they are flowing fast and debris can be seen. When rivers flow fast they are fun to watch. The next step would be to capture waterfalls over a period of minutes or hours. If we stopped recording just as the rain stopped we might get interesting results. The peak wouldn’t appear until soon after the rain stopped.

I was lucky with these clouds because they moved quickly from one side of the screen to the other. They also formed and dispersed quickly. As a result I could set the interval to take images every few seconds. I could quickly see the result and adjust. When I filmed the clouds I filmed the ground and the trees as they came in and out of the shadow of clouds, I filmed a tighter shot where you could see the transmission mast and then I pointed to the sky and tried to capture the movement of clouds with blue sky as a backdrop. Some moments are fun to watch.

Sharkwater – a documentary worth watching

Sharkwater – A documentary worth watching.

If you have one and a half hours of free time I recommend watching this documentary. It discusses the anti-whaling work by the Sea Shepherd, the work it did to combat long lining around the Galapagos and it touches on the shark finning mafia and corruption.

The documentary also looks at the public perception of sharks. It shows that they are not the dangerous animal that they were thought to be until recent history. The film ends with a shot of the narrator free-diving with sharks and being perfectly relaxed. At one point he says “sharks are so sensitive that they can feel your heart beat, if you are calm they will stay but if you panic they will flee”. I paraphrased his exact words.

Another theme that is explored in this documentary is the food chain. He mentions that plankton absorb a lot of Carbon dioxide and that with the overfishing of sharks the ecological balance will be ruined as the apex predators are lost. He pushes strongly for the conservation of shark numbers. We are familiar with the current Save our Sharks movement.

This is an interesting investigative documentary about the economy surrounding shark finning and why it has a negative impact on the food chain. If the documentary was updated it could look at the economic viability of shark tourism that has grown in recent years. Sharks, in some places are more valuable alive than dead. If you don’t have time to watch the entire documentary then I recommend that you watch the last thirty to fourty minutes.

Spy-cam wildlife filmmaking

Spy-cam wildlife filmmaking is an interesting discipline. It builds upon the decades of innovation that the documentary film genre has built upon. From the earliest images by the Lumière brothers of the workers at a factory to the development of film editing by Eisenstein and Dziva Vertov demonstrated by “The Man With the Movie Camera to sync sound with the Crystal sound system used by Jean Rouch for Chronique d’un été.

The BBC is seen as the leading example of high quality television programming and this has been the case for decades. The Natural History Unit is responsible for some of the best wildlife documentary films and series and with good reason. They adopt the latest technology, hire crews for months or even years at a time, to capture nature’s spectacle and beauty, and bring it to living rooms around the world.

Sensory: BBC Wildlife Director John Downer & the technology of ‘spy-cam’ filmmaking from Getty Images on Vimeo.

This attention to detail and this dedication to getting the best images has resulted in some of the best looking documentaries around. the Blue Planet Series, the Planet Earth series, Life and others have provided people with what I like to call a video encyclopaedia of the natural world.

The technological innovation that we see in the video above demonstrates how animals and behaviour that we had seen through a tele-lens can now be seen up close and with as natural a behaviour as possible. Almost every book I have read about the documentary genre speaks about capturing life with as little alteration of natural behaviour as possible. This technology is making that wish a more realistic goal.

Day In Auschwitz

“If you were young and healthy and if they needed labour then you were selected as slave labour. You would have suffered a slow death rather than a fast one”. This soundbite is 13 minutes in.

In this documentary a concentration camp survivor takes two girls who are the age she was when she arrived through the camp and tells them about her experiences.

We owe it to future generations to keep re-sharing these accounts and documentaries to prevent such actions from ever happening again.

I have just finished watching the documentary and I feel almost shell shocked. I have been to the camp and I have read about the topic. I have also watched a number of topics on this topic. What makes this the most poignant documentary is that this woman, this grandmother of eight is making sure that future generations are aware of what Auschwitz life was like. She tells us about survival.

Human – A Yann Arthus-Bertrand documentary

The French have an interesting history of documentary film. Jean Rouch explored social questions with his film Chronique d’un été, a revolutionary film at the time because of the tech that they used. The Cinéma Eclair and crystal sound sync. A few decades later Yann Arthus-Bertrand is following in Jean Rouch’s footsteps with a net cast far wider. Instead of Paris and France we see interviews with people from around the world.

The documentary is split in to volumes and each volume is divided in to sections. At the beginning of each section you have footage showing the diversity of landscapes in which people live as well as the people themselves. You see images of a caravan on a dune, images of a river delta, a fishing boat being unloaded.

People are answering questions about love, abuse, work and more. You feel compassion for these people because they stare straight in to the camera and they are speaking to us, who are in the audience. We feel compassion for these people, we are moved to laughter by some and to tears by others. There are some beautiful images created by what the people say.

One person speaks about buying things. He says that we don’t buy things with money but that we buy them with time. That is a beautiful and more accurate image than we are used to. I love gadgets and sports so I often think of how long an investment will take to offset. I used to think “in a week” I will have covered the expense.

Another image painted by words that I like is that of wealth and comfort. When you are poor the river is empty and so every stone is a challenge. With wealth you do not need to worry about the stones because the river is full.

This is an observational documentary, typical of the cinéma verité movement and the French and German school of documentary. We are not told what to feel or think. We are presented with evidence and we are to draw our own conclusions. It can be perceived as slow and dull by some and beautiful by others.

It brings us to the “All Seeing Eye” that Vertov discussed at the very birth of the documentary genre. His ideal was to have cameras that would film and document “life unawares” as they went about their daily lives. In so doing the cinema was an observer, without interacting. Of course these are just interviews so there is some interaction between the camera operator and the talent on screen. They are meant to speak from the heart, without censor. They were meant to give us an honest representation of who they are and how they feel. It gives us a serious glimpse in to the lives of others.

it makes me think of the interviews I have listened to, of the stories I have heard told when I was logging and transcribing footage for a video archive. Some of the things people speak about are timeless and others are contemporary. With this documentary record of people’s thoughts and emotions so a moment in time is preserved. I have yet to watch the next volumes and will do so in the evenings. I recommend you take the time to watch at least part of these documentaries.

Netflix provides a better opportunity for documentary content distribution than Discovery

In the 1990s when satellite distribution of television content was in it’s infancy we got a satellite dish and I would watch the Discovery Channel from the start of the broadcast day to when the programmes were played for the second time that day.

By watching so many documentaries I learned a lot about the world. I watched Mythbusters, Lonely Planet, Modern Marvels and many many other documentaries. It is only ten years later that I stopped watching Discovery. By that time I was no longer in the family home and so documentary viewing was more restrictive. Whilst at the University of Bournemouth and the University of Westminster I did take advantage to watch as many documentaries as I could find. The dissertation I wrote during my third year of studies was about the documentary genre. I had an academic reason to watch these documentaries. It was no longer a hobby.

Aside from the selection of Discovery channels and University VHS tapes documentaries can also be found on national and European channels. I am thinking of Temps Present, Passe Moi Les Jumelles and other factual programmes and current affairs content. These documentaries fit within a specific format to be broadcast at the same times every week.

We then have artistic documentaries like those broadcast on Arte, shown at independent cinemas, festivals and more. These documentaries are not adapted for mainstream viewing. They fill a niche. They are sometimes hard to watch and other times so niche that aside from those with that passion or interest no one will ever watch them.

The Discovery Channel network broadcasts set documentaries at set times on set channels for a set number of hours per day. Viewers can either watch documentaries as they are broadcast or on demand. As PVR arrived viewers could shape their viewing habits around their lifestyle rather than the other way around.

Discovery channel documentaries have two serious flaws, that as a documentary professional cannot stand. The first of these is commercial breaks. When I watch content I want to watch it from start to finish. I don’t want it to be interrupted because it means that for two or three minutes I have to find something else to do. This could be a serious trigger to people having a laptop or tablet with them when watching TV. The second very big flaw with Discovery TV documentaries is sensationalism and repetition.

I found that when watching hour long documentaries on Discovery television channels more than half of the time is spent repeating what has happened and what will happen with very little content left over. You will spend an hour watching a show that could have been over in just 24 minutes. This is an excellent way to lose viewers.

Netflix is a video on demand platform. This platform makes available all of the content it has licensed to it’s customers. This content is ready to play within seconds and has no adverts. This is great for content creators. It means that they can spend more time moving the story forward. There is no need to worry about viewers starting to watch a show half way through. It means that if you have a 42 minute slot you can spend 52 minutes telling the story. This is great for content creators.

The flaw of Discovery Channel documentaries and commercial television in general is that they make mediocre content and then add adverts every few minutes. This means that a mediocre programme will be watched from one commercial to another before the channel is changed. They live under the misconception that sensationalism and excited narration will keep viewers. It has the opposite effect, at least on me.

Netflix allows you to watch the BBC Blue Planet and Planet Earth documentaries with no adverts. This gives documentary makers an advantage. Imagine watching Planet Earth documentary episodes that are 52 minutes long with an extra 15 minutes or more of adverts thrown in. For this reason Netflix is an excellent documentary distribution platform.

‘Make what people want to watch and the rest goes with it’. I don’t think that has changed at all. My job every day is to make what people want to watch.”

I have written several times about my notion that documentaries are encyclopaedias. Planet Earth and Blue Planet documentaries are a perfect demonstration of this. Each episode is about a specific biome. By watching each documentary your knowledge and understanding of the world around you increases.

Compare this to the sensationalist hyperactive content that the Discovery channel network places in between adverts. Their content is so sensationalist and so condescending that I switch programme within minutes, if not seconds, of tuning in. Through having to appeal to a mass audience the Discovery Channel documentary network fails me as a viewer. Their content is too unpleasant to watch.

I want to learn, I want good camera work, good editing and good narration. When documentaries have all of these features I will watch them. I want both the content creator and the content distributor to treat me with respect. Although Netflix is not perfect it does a better job than Discovery.

Mythbusters: A fun documentary series

Recently Netflix Switzerland made Mythbusters available on their service. As I watched episode after episode I noticed the camaraderie between those whom participate in the show. We see that Adam and Jamie occasionally argue but that overall they are having a lot of fun. We see them laugh, joke, tease each other and collaborate.

Their show is a science show where fun myths are challenged. They have two goals with each myth, establish whether it is confirmed, plausible or busted. They then scale up and reproduce the results.

The first two seasons are short and low budget using prosumer cameras and we notice the difference between camera image quality from shot to shot. The first “season” as it is called on Netflix Switzerland must be the pilot episodes.

Information taken from the Wikipedia page
Information taken from the Wikipedia page

The first episodes of the season are great because their editing style is good. Every minute of programme covers something new. In later seasons, at least for the broadcast versions and those shared via youtube advertising provisions ruined the watchability of the show. I am speaking of the lead in to each segment and the lead out.

Netflix is payed for directly by the customer and there are no ad breaks. As a result of this I would re-edit content for the 50 minute duration rather than broadcast the TV edit. It allows for the producers of the show to provide more content and information to their audiences.

Netflix content should be reformatted for the longer viewing duration. It should take advantage that there are no commercial breaks to get content to flow without fade to blacks and without repetitions. It should also take in to account binge viewing.

Documentaries will benefit from services such as Netflix and Video on Demand. They will benefit because they can edit content to be seen without commercials and without the constant need for repetition. As a result rather than have 40 minutes of content and 10 minutes of repetition documentaries will have 50 minutes of content for the viewer.

Two stories or more are usually explored per episode and in the earlier episodes you have cutting from one story to the next no more than two times. As they produce more episodes so the editing goes from Story A to B to A to C to A to B to A again and then to C. This flip flopping between experiments results in the editor having to summarise what happened before and what they want as a result frequently. This repetition is optimal if people watch just five minutes of a program but ruins the viewing experience for those watching an entire episode. Let’s see if they resolve this issue for Netflix.