Trailblazers and Tech Landmarks of Documentary Film HistoryTrailblazers and Tech Landmarks of Documentary Film History

Trailblazers and Tech Landmarks of Documentary Film History


Debuting nearly a century ago, documentary films have constantly employed the newest camera systems to bring startling views of the world to their audiences. Now the latest digital technology has given documentary makers the tools to craft works of astonishing visual quality.

MagellanTV members can be excused for taking the rich variety of our documentary programming for granted. Movies about scientific advances, space exploration, military campaigns, true crimes, natural wonders, biographies, and ancient and modern history regularly feature, as expected, the thrill of discovery.


What can be overlooked is that, more than any other art form, documentary films have a fundamental mission: to inform, even advocate, as they entertain. Rooted in the real world, successful documentaries appeal equally to our emotions and intelligence.


Advances in image technology have constantly reshaped documentary filmmaking from the very first motion pictures to today’s digital revolution. No visual art evolved this rapidly and deeply while remaining true to its fundamental mission to reveal the real world.


Strictly speaking, the earliest movies were documentaries – scenes of everyday life, such as trains entering stations, busy streets, sporting events, and other public occasions. But the novelty of watching common happenings projected onto a screen wore off quickly, and by the early 20th century films were a vehicle for fanciful storytelling.


Early Documentary Filmmakers ‘Go to the Thing Itself’

In 1913, Robert Flaherty, a geologist and avid photographer, made a return prospecting visit to the northern coast of Hudson Bay. He had made friends among the local Inuit community several years before and this time carried a Bell & Howell movie camera that he used to film aspects of life in the indigenous community. Dissatisfied with the results, he secured funding and returned seven years later to shoot the first feature-length documentary film, Nanook of the North. Released in 1922, it was an immediate hit.


The walrus hunting sequence from Nanook of the North.


Having to use his camera on a tripod, Flaherty orchestrated shots, such as asking his very cooperative indigenous cast to use traditional harpoons for a walrus hunt instead of the shotguns they had come to prefer.


Nevertheless, Flaherty’s understanding of Inuit culture allowed him to aptly dramatize lives lived in a harsh and unforgiving environment, an eternal story of resourceful human endurance. For the next decade, Flaherty produced documentary films about New York City and the South Seas while also shooting Pacific island locations intended for Hollywood feature films.


Leaving Hollywood for England in the early ’30s, Flaherty directed his second masterpiece, Man of Aran, a film depicting in staged sequences the harsh seafaring lives of the men who fished off the western coast of Ireland.


A stormy sea crushes a fishing boat and sends its crew fleeing for their lives in Man of Aran


Flaherty went to England at the invitation of John Grierson, an influential film critic then leading a government agency producing documentaries promoting British trade. It is generally accepted that Grierson was the first to use the word “documentary” to describe the new form of moviemaking in a review of one of Flaherty’s South Seas Island films.


Grierson is regarded now as the central figure in articulating the principles of documentary filmmaking, something he characterized as, “The creative treatment of actuality.”


“All the documentary traditions seem to flow from Grierson,” says award-winning documentary filmmaker and Magellan TV co-founder Thomas Lucas. He notes that while documentaries can restage or otherwise control scenes, they “have to go to the thing itself in some way. Their eye is always on the real world.”


Grierson not only outlined the principles of documentary filmmaking, but its purpose as well. The early 1930s was an era of financial collapse and widespread social dislocations. Documentaries, Grierson maintained, needed to expose injustice and social decay, guiding citizens in a democracy toward building a more equitable society.


Drawing on Fine Art Photography, Documentaries Guide Ideas

To attain these goals, documentaries relied heavily on expressive and dynamic pictorial compositions drawn from the aesthetics of art photography. The advent of separately recorded sound added music and spoken narration to the images. Documentaries of that era were dramatic works of high art. Landmarks include Grierson’s Night Mail (1936), which featured a poem written for it by W.H. Auden, and the American Pare Lorenz’s The Plow that Broke the Plains from the same year that featured music composed especially for it by Virgil Thompson.


W.H. Auden’s poem Night Mail is recited over a dramatic landscape sequence from the film of the same name.


At the same time, the dark potential of dramatic documentaries was grasped by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who bankrolled two notorious feature films, Triumph of the Will (1936), which glorified the 1934 Nazi Nuremberg rally, and Olympiad, a celebration of Aryan ideals composed at the 1934 Berlin Olympics.


This grandiose documentary style became one more casualty of World War II. Short, gritty newsreels, shot by news organizations under strict government supervision, brought unadorned, and often manipulated, accounts of the war to thousands of American and British movie screens. At the same time, top Hollywood talent, including directors John Huston, John Ford, Frank Capra, and George Stevens, was enlisted to shoot documentaries in support of the American war effort, while exposing the horrors inflicted by Axis enemies.


The war saw the widespread adaptation of 16mm movie film and cameras. Half the width of 35mm film, and so half the weight, 16mm film ran through cameras light enough to use without a tripod. Film could now be shot on the run, sometimes literally, without the stagey setups needed for traditional movie cameras.


New Cameras Create a New Brand of Documentary

By 1950, television had gained widespread acceptance in U.S. homes, opening a rich new field for news and documentary films. In 1955, a former combat pilot and current Life magazine editor, Robert Drew, set out to reinvent documentary practice, devising smaller 16mm cameras that also allowed the easy synchronization of images to sound recorded at the same time.


By 1960, Drew hired a cadre of young filmmakers, among them Richard Laycock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Alfred Maysles, to create works of what he called “Direct Cinema.” In an early interview, Drew said his documentaries were a “theater without actors… plays without a playwright.” He wanted them to “look in on people’s lives at crucial times… and see a kind of truth that can only be gotten from personal experience.”


Drew’s films required ongoing, sometimes intimate, access to their subjects, using their experiences to examine social issues like racial segregation, drug addiction, and the expanding war in Vietnam. The hour-long film Primary, shot by Drew’s team about the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary election between rivals John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, is a masterpiece. It opened the door for popular, feature-length documentaries to run in American theaters over the next decade.


 An up-close view of future-President John F. Kennedy’s political charisma, from 1960’s film Primary.


While Hollywood features remained bound to traditional filmmaking techniques, Direct Cinema films brought fresh methods of visual storytelling to audiences. Pennebaker’s 1965 Don’t Look Back, an account of Bob Dylan’s 1964 tour of England; Maysles’s Salesman, a film about men selling Bibles door-to-door; and 1967’s Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman’s exposé of conditions in a prison for the criminally insane, became landmarks of a new kind of cinema.


The ’60s were a golden age of groundbreaking documentary feature films, including the surfing classic The Endless Summer,  performance films Monterey Pop and Woodstock, and The Sorrow and the Pity, a damming account of the Nazi occupation of France.


For all their immediacy, the new documentaries were mainly characterized by a gritty black-and-white, or grainy color aesthetic that emphasized the controversial or offbeat nature of their subjects. On TV meanwhile, the low-resolution imaging offered by video cameras, shot on relatively cheap video tape, became standard despite its poor quality. Using either film or video tape, documentary makers were willing to sacrifice picture quality for ease-of-use.


Beginning in the 1970s, the Eastman Kodak Company began a series of refinements to its 16mm color negative film, with better picture resolution, finer colors, and greater sensitivity to low light. The improved movie film made possible something that had once been unavailable to filmmakers outside of the elaborate studio system – rich, sharp images.


In the 1980s, advances in the technology for transferring film negatives to videotape vastly improved TV image quality. MagellanTV’s Lucas cites three television series: the National Geographic Specials along with Nature and Nova on PBS, for bringing a new visual standard to nature, science, and travel documentaries.  


As markets for these leading shows opened up worldwide, so did production budgets. New effects, including the use of cranes and helicopters for swooping aerial shots, created a dynamic new visual documentary language.


Digital Technology Takes Over 

By the turn of the 21st century, digital video systems had improved picture quality to rival film. Panasonic and Sony both made digital video cameras that recorded action onto small videotape cassettes. Now, a single videographer could use one of the small cameras, easily carrying extra battery power and hours of videotape, to stay in the midst of ongoing action at a fraction of the cost of shooting film.


Camera technology continued to improve in the new century. Today, inexpensive digital “point-and-shoots” and high-end DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) and Mirrorless models can record high-quality video. Meanwhile, smart phones and home security systems have documented nearly everything about modern life, from the happiest occasions to frightening crimes and natural disasters. Documentary makers have never had so many tools at their fingertips. Two cameras in particular, one relatively cheap and the other very expensive, deserve special mention. 


Small and wireless, GoPro cameras can be sent into hazardous or otherwise tight situations once difficult (or impossible) for photographers to access. 


See through the lenses of GoPro cameras in the MagellanTV documentary Big Wave Surfers.


Once they were successfully attached to drones, GoPros rendered high-cost crane and helicopter shots obsolete, revolutionizing nature photography in the process. Animals may now be intimately observed in the wild from a distance. And, should loss or failure of equipment occur, the cost can be counted in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars.


Drone footage captures a striking new look at the life of a wolf pack in the MagellanTV documentary White Wolves: Ghosts of the Arctic.


At the other end of the cost spectrum, a startup camera company gained an immediate following among professional moviemakers over a decade ago. The Red company cameras, costing anywhere from $14,000 to $55,000, boast a large-scale data transfer from the lens to the recording device. Their small, boxy bodies can be customized to accept dozens of different lenses, while shooting at a variety of frames-per-second speeds, from super slow motion to time-lapse photography.


See what Red cameras can do in the dramatic MagellanTV documentary The Rise of the Great White Shark.


Now nearly a century old, documentary filmmaking has always employed the latest technological developments to bring audiences ever more detailed and informed views of our world. What started as a cumbersome, highly orchestrated process a century ago has evolved into a flexible and nuanced method of capturing intimate moments and important ideas. 


As fuzzy black-and-white images gave way to sharp color photography, and as digital technology superseded the ability of film to record the world, with higher quality and lower costs, documentary filmmakers have applied these innovations on a mission that does not change – to broaden and deepen our understanding of the astonishing complexity, and elusive beauty, of our world.


Contributing writer Joe Gioia is the author of The Guitar and the New World, a social history of American roots music. He lives in Livingston, Montana.


Title image: Documentary filmmaker Bruce Brown in the process of shooting his 1966 surfing classic The Endless Summer

(Source: Wikicommons/Photographer unknown)

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