How documentaries have adapted to online platforms

Behind the scene. Cameraman shooting film scene with his camera.

The trajectory of documentary filmmaking dates as far back as the 1800s. When the Lumière brothers first manufactured the Cinématographe, one of the earliest known film cameras and projectors, they, in turn, became pioneers in documentary filmmaking. Filmed in 35 mm format, each of the 10 silent short films (less than a minute) captivated an audience and visually narrated what a typical day looked like from different points of view. For example, a blue-collar factory worker, an infant’s first meal, or an afternoon at the beach.

By the teens and early 1920s, modern art and journalism greatly influenced the documentary genre, from Realism, which created the illusion or effect of reality, to newsreels, which provided both archival footage and reenactments of actual events. Propaganda tactics were introduced in the 1930s and 1940s, during the second World War, while Cinema vérité broadened documentary films in technique, approach, and subject, later in the 1950s and 1960s.

Considered an antidote for those who faced limitations from the major studios, cinema vérité allowed filmmakers to shoot on location, use handheld cameras, incorporate light and synchronized sound, and enlist smaller crews. Later, documentaries challenged the status quo, often mirroring the counterculture movement and political tenure of the 1960s and 1970s.

Modern documentary films have helped expand the medium even further. With Fahrenheit 9/11 and Super Size Me, filmmakers focused on telling compelling stories with social impact. With nearly 11,000 documentaries released in 2020, according to IMDB, which is more than 3x the number released in the year 2000(3,399), documentary filmmaking is only growing with our changing times.

The Golden Age of documentary filmmaking

Now is a pivotal time for documentary films. With streaming platforms and their unending demand for new and original content, their is greater visibility of the genre and more awareness for its filmmakers.

“You see that just in terms of how aware audiences are and the different sort of platforms that they’re viewing documentaries on. It has become really varied and rich,” says Abhi Singh, a senior product manager for Adobe Premiere Pro and renowned filmmaker (Bhiwani Junction, Americanized, White Earth). “I think the benefit has been that it’s been a much wider, deeper, [and] richer set of stories that we are allowed to witness and experience and engage with, which is absolutely fantastic.”

Viewers want the truth

Documentaries are often considered “educational” or “informational” rather than entertaining. Yet given trends we see both on streaming and social platforms, today’s viewer wants a good show, as well as truth, authenticity, and transparency in factual content they watch. Investigative journalism, true crime, and reality TV series give the viewer an often imperfect, yet essentially authentic and relatable look into non-fiction storytelling, breaking down the barriers between the storytellers and the story.

Diversity in documentaries

Diversity has steadily grown in documentary film, subject matter, storytelling, and even the voices, both in front and behind the camera. Now more than ever, the medium has become a powerful and respected tool to shed more light on often ignored societal issues. As an example, filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison got her first Oscar nomination earlier this year for Best Documentary Short for A Love Song for Latasha, which recounts the killing of 15-year-old African-American Latasha Harlins, who was fatally shot by a Korean store owner in 1991, part of the catalyst for the L.A. Riots.

“Producers are more willing to take risks on young, diverse filmmakers that are telling authentic stories in their own communities, without that sort of prestige element to it necessarily,” says Singh.

How documentaries have adapted to online platforms

Availability has had a tremendous impact on how documentary filmmaking has grown. Years ago, the only way to watch a documentary film, feature-length or short subject, was either at a select art house or an independent theater or as part of a film festival, which often has a limited run.

Online platforms have amplified the impact of documentary films on our culture — from a growing plethora of streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple, Hulu) to video-sharing websites (YouTube, Vimeo, TikTok) and social media channels.

With the audience’s ever-growing demand for new and original content, documentarians are experiencing a boon in their visibility and opportunities available, according to Slate.

73 percent of Netflix’s subscribers watched a documentary in 2016. That’s 68 million people. When the world appeared to shut down in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, 34 million people streamed Tiger King in just the first 10 days of its release. With an audience of that size, documentaries can create global conversations and trends in a way that wasn’t possible previously.

For audiences, the success of Netflix alone directly correlates with our growing “appetite” for independent nonfiction cinema and extends even beyond video on demand services. According to IndieWire, more film companies like CNN Films and National Geographic’s Documentary Films have followed suit, becoming active buyers of documentary films in response to its growing audience demand.

Since 2014, Facebook has served as a tool for promotion and discussion around documentaries among younger groups, according to a 2018 Documentary Audience Research report compiled by Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival and marketplace in North America. Its findings showed that 53 percent of Facebook users have posted, liked, or shared information about a documentary, and after witnessing their friends share a newly released documentary on Facebook or Twitter, seven out of 10 Facebook and Twitter users will search for more information about the film, watch the trailer online, and make plans to watch a documentary film.

That same study showed that 72 percent of individuals (comprising mainly Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers) watch documentaries at least twice a month either online, in a theatre, on television, or on a DVD or Blu-Ray disc. And 55 percent of individuals are watching documentaries far more than they did three years prior.

Additionally, the traditional barriers to filmmaking have dramatically diminished over time. When Singh began his journey as a filmmaker as an MFA student at Stanford University, he used a 16mm Bolex for his classroom exercises, using actual film to make movies. The technology in film equipment, according to Singh, expanded, from DSLRs and interchangeable lenses to the now much smaller mirrorless cameras. As the price of cameras continues to drop and the power of cameras on phones and computer devices increases, more people, even those without a film background, can explore the art of filmmaking.

Technology to create a documentary film

While the ability to create documentary films takes imagination and craft to tell a story, software tools have further democratized the ability for anyone with a vision to make movies.

“Premiere Pro has all the power that people who are making Hollywood films have, [but] available to people who are making documentaries or other types of content for YouTube,” says Singh. “It’s just such a deep and rich tool. From its ability to read files from almost any format and any camera to be able to edit and compose your story effectively, work with this rich set of effects both for video as well as audio, to be able to work with your captions and graphics and the rich connection that it has with After Effects and Photoshop. It’s sort of an Adobe magic thing.”

Singh adds, “And now, the ability to have ‘speech to text,’ where you can upload your transcript to create captions, which used to be such a time-consuming aspect for every filmmaker. Then the ability to export out in any format and deliver to whoever needs that, to correct color and fix audio — it’s got a rich set of tools.”

Be compelling

While technology has welcomed wider audiences to documentaries, the tried-and-true power of telling a powerful, captivating story through documentary film remains tantamount. “The first 15 or 20 seconds of your film is so important to be visually compelling,” says Singh.

“It’s so easy for people to switch their attention to something else, especially if you’re distributing films online, so that’s kind of critical. The first 30 seconds will get somebody engaged with your story and having that be rich visually or the introduction of a character who’s interesting — all of those things are critical.”