I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m taking CMS.335 Short Attention Span Documentary. Abby ’20 has blogged about this class in the past, but I figured I would talk a little bit more about this class.
I’ll start off with the same things as Abby said: I’ve always wanted to make cool shit at MIT. Seeing as I didn’t end up as a pure engineering major, my methods of making things sit in the digital world, mainly in the form of blogposts. But this semester I wanted to challenge myself creatively, hence why I took both a comic book writing class and this class.
I’ve always had an interest in making videos, but found that everything I made was always somewhat unsatisfactory or a little off. I thought that the best way, then, to combat this is to force myself to make videos.
The assignments this semester were the same as they were in the past. We were tasked first to create a portrait of a person or a place. Abby showscases this video in her blog, where she shows off MacGregor desk. I personally did my video on my friend Jovita L. ’23, but she didn’t want the video blasted on the blogs.
The second assignment was then to create a 3-5 minute video on an issue, either showing both sides of an issue or heavily advocating for one side. I chose to do my video on MIT’s closed campus policy and why campus should be open. That’s kind of a spicy opinion, so we’re going to move forward from that blog and instead focus on my third assignment.
The third assignment was to create a 5-7 minute documentary that combines the first and second assignment: create a portrait of a person or a place and walk through some issue related to it.
I decided to do my third documentary on myself, my media journey, and my reliance on the Internet as a means of not feeling lonely. I wanted this documentary to represent growth, not only from where I was to where I am, but also make use of all the things I learned this past semester with respect to documentary making.
Making a documentary is such hard fucking work, but I’ve learned so much about the process in these past couple weeks.
MISTAKE: Not scripting first.
For the first two assignments, I gathered B-roll01 Secondary footage that serves as supplement to the main shot. footage first then conducting interviews and getting the narrative for my doc. Obviously this is…backwards and bad but it never really settled in that I was doing this wrong.
As a result of this choice, my documentary often had B-roll footage showing that didn’t make sense or was irrelevant to whatever the narrator was saying.
The benefit, though, of having a documentary about yourself is that you are the narrator and you get to decide all of the narration.
Because of this, I was able to write out my script for my documentary first and then I broke it down into separate scenes. For each paragraph break, I added a short description of what I envisioned the footage to be for every bit of narration. I found this incredibly effective since it gave me a shotlist by the end of it: a mix of archival footage I needed to gather, and other footage I needed to film.
MISTAKE: No clear narrative structure.
One of the biggest things my professor has emphasized in class is having a clear narrative structure — a structure that the audience can follow to understand where the documentary has been and where it is going. This can be as simple as (1) introducing a topic, (2) providing a pro of that topic and (3) providing a con. In past documentaries, I never really gave clear thought to my structure, and instead went ahead with what “felt right” or simply went off of vibes. This time around, though, I made sure to pay careful attention to what I was trying to convey. I structured everything in chronological order and made sure to highlight the purpose of each section: loneliness experienced as an only child, turning to the Internet for community, communities dying out and needing something to fill that space, finding Tumblr and using One Direction as a coping method, getting to college and no longer needing something to fill that space now that I was finally secure. There are definitely improvements I can make on the narrative, but I feel as though this is the first time I’ve actually had a clear vision and path for my narrative.
Normally, everything is shot with an iPhone but I disliked that so I actually purchased a vlogging camera for this class. I purchased a Sony ZV-1 (I thought I lost my Canon PowerShot G7 but, in fact, it was just in my room. I found this out a day ago. I am devastated I spent $800 on a new camera when mine has been here all along. But it’s okay, I got new equipment) not just for the class, but for any vlogging I may do after the class.02 I've given a lot of thought as to what's going to happen to my blog after I graduate. I've decided I'm probably going to start a Medium page for blogposts, as well as revive my dead YouTube channel just in case anyone does want to keep up with what I do post graduation.
The class gave us some equipment as well, such as a microphone, a tripod, and a filming light.
MISTAKE: Not using the tripod.
For my first two documentaries, I ended up not using the tripod as much as I would have liked and not exploring it enough. The tripod is actually incredibly useful for smooth pans, stable shots, and level shots. My first two documentaries have some shaky shots in them, or things are slightly cut off at the top and makes for a distracting viewing experience. This time around, I made sure to actually, well, use the tripod.
The only disappointment I had with the documentary this time around is the fact that since I’m the subject of the documentary, I can’t control the camera. As a result, there were some shots where I thought it would be a great addition to zoom in, or to pan to me, or even walk backwards as I walked forwards. One of these particularly takes place when I say something along the lines of “But time stops for no one…” In my head, when I planned the script, I wanted to do Dolly Zoom03 the camera physically moves backward while the operator is zooming the camera in, causing the subject in frame to stay the same size while the foreground and background are distorted in the Infinite. But because I didn’t have anyone to film me,04 See: Did not trust anyone to film this shot the way I envisioned it. I scrapped the shot altogether and replaced it with stock footage of a clock ticking. I might potentially go back and replace some of the footage with what I originally envisioned, but we’ll see how motivated I am.
3. Gathering archival and stock footage
A lot of this documentary uses a lot of archival footage and images to get the image across. I spent a good chunk of time trying to find an adequate representations of 2005-2007 Internet, such as clips of Club Penguin, Pixie Hollow, and Webkinz.
MISTAKE: Not putting in the work for archival footage.
A good chunk of the documentary is also about my first Internet community experiences on a Minecraft server, Stephencraft, a fan-made and -run server dedicated to YouTuber Stephen Georg. My past documentaries relied very little on archival footage and images, so often times I would grab whatever looked like it fit and rolled with it. This time around, though, I wanted to make sure that I actually used relevant good footage.
Because my laptops from that era (2014-2017) are long since dead, I actually got back in touch with a lot of the folks I used to talk to back then to get some extra footage and photos. It was an incredible nostalgia trip, and I cried a little bit after catching up with so many of my friends from the past. It’s crazy to think that I would not be the person I am today had it not been for this era of my life, and I was so happy I was able to capture some of that in my documentary and pay homage to the people who helped me back then.
MISTAKE: Lack of transitions as the narrative unravels.
I mentioned earlier how I spent more time focusing on narrative. In past documentaries, I never really understood how to transition from idea to idea, opting typically for some rough jump cut.
For this documentary, I paid special attention on transitions. I did this by creating sequences05 A set of clips that contains at least one vidoe track and one audio track for each section.
You can see I have things titled “CHILDHOOD” or “ENTER ONE DIRECTION” or “END OF AN ERA” to visually see on my Premiere timeline where one section starts and another begins. A lot of my transitions are brought about by fade ins and fade outs. Through this, I was also able to determine where to transition and how to do tone shifts for each. Which brings me to my next point…
MISTAKE: Not paying enough attention to music.
For my first documentary, I played a lo-fi Tetris mix in the background since Jovita focused on her journey with Tetris, whereas my second documentary had no music in the background at all. Music is incredibly powerful, as it is an easy way to set the tone of a documentary, or even sections of a documentary.
I tried to be meticulous when it came to choosing music, but choosing music is incredibly difficult. I found myself a lot of the time with a specific tune I had in mind, but had no idea how to write this down into words.
For the introduction, I envisioned synth-like music that came in waves, but had no idea what the tone of that was or how to express that. Other times, like during the college scene, I wanted something more nostalgic. Originally I envisioned something like a piano, with twinkly notes, but found that all the piano pieces I found online were too dramatic and intense or not noticeable enough. It was incredibly frustrating and even now I don’t know how people find music properly for this kind of stuff. I still am looking for a nostalgic enough song to go at the end of the documentary for the closing section.
Another strange thing that happened was that once I put a song in, it was impossible not to hear that section without it. In the introduction, I use an instrumental version of Robbers by the 1975. From that point on, I could no longer hear in my head what I originally envisioned which was super duper difficult since I knew Robbers wasn’t exactly scratching the itch I initially had, but now that initial itch was just. Lost in my head.
TLDR: Music HARD.
Once I had all these things together, I looked and saw that my documentary was 8 minutes and 44 seconds long, which..was far too long for the requirement. So thus I began cutting and cutting, removing bits and pieces here and there and there are still so many jarring transitions I don’t like.
I have a couple plans of things to edit, such as adjusting some of the volumes (there’s a really quiet bit right after the I DONT NEED YOU ANYMORE pops up on screen) and changing some of the transitions (there’s a really weird cut during the TIME STOPS FOR NO ONE bit) and maybe even refilming (I would love to attempt that god damned dolly shot) some bits. But…overall, after all of this, it was time for Step 5.
5. Posting the damn thing.
And bracing yourself for the critiques because this documentary is your baby you’ve been editing for three hours every night for the past two weeks and you absolutely love and adore her but with every rewatch your notice more and more flaws and it breaks your heart every single time because why can’t you get it right? But also you’re so proud of yourself for doing all of that but next time you hope to do it better.
- Secondary footage that serves as supplement to the main shot. back to text ↑
- I've given a lot of thought as to what's going to happen to my blog after I graduate. I've decided I'm probably going to start a Medium page for blogposts, as well as revive my dead YouTube channel just in case anyone does want to keep up with what I do post graduation. back to text ↑
- the camera physically moves backward while the operator is zooming the camera in, causing the subject in frame to stay the same size while the foreground and background are distorted back to text ↑
- See: Did not trust anyone to film this shot the way I envisioned it. back to text ↑
- A set of clips that contains at least one vidoe track and one audio track back to text ↑