All about creative documentary

  • Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (1)

    Posted by · March 03, 2014 11:03 AM

    No matter how experienced you are in documentary filmmaking and all things African – no shoot is like any other. And in particular, this shoot is like no other. Trapped in what has been described a 'closed society' – the Bijagós archipelago – Noé Mendelle struggles to find some sense of balance between traditional and modern influences. When a blog becomes your only place to vent, irony is inevitable. Raw, unfiltered and dispatched on the same day, here is the latest post in her series

    Day 3 of travelling

    It seems that we are reaching Bubaque, one of the main islands in the archipelago of Bijagós, off the West Coast of Africa. Pitch dark over sea and sky.


    It took flights from Edinburgh to Lisbon to Casablanca to Bissau. And then a boat from Bissau that managed to get lost, break down twice, and now has to move against the current. We have been on it for ten hours and still a long way to go!

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  • Scottish independence and the film industry

    Posted by · February 25, 2014 3:55 PM

    This post was first published on the Huffington Post blog.

    When I heard producer Iain Smith say that "separation" was a problem, I initially assumed that he, as chairman of the British Film Commission, was using the unionists' preferred term for Scottish independence. However, it soon became clear what he was really talking about: "The separation of culture and commerce has been debilitating for the British film industry" -- a struggle Iain has been witnessing since the early 1970s when he graduated from the London Film School.

    I had come to this debate as part of Glasgow's Short Film Festival, trying find out about implications of a Yes or No vote in Scotland's upcoming referendum. Six film industry representatives were to discuss "what independence might mean for our film culture."

    Instead, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the panelists spent the best part of 90 minutes moaning about the miserable status quo. Belle Doyle, who was in charge of promoting filming locations at Scottish Screen and Creative Scotland for many years, put it like this: "It breaks my heart that there is not anything we can look at to say that the film industry is thriving."

    She pointed out how many other places were in a position to offer financial incentives to attract international productions in a highly competitive market. Professor Philip Schlesinger, a cultural policy researcher, reminded us that "we don't have a film policy yet," with the Scottish Government's 650-page white paper, Scotland's Future, only devoting one paragraph to the film industry and Creative Scotland's recently-published Film Sector Review "coming as close as it can to suggest a break-up of Creative Scotland." 

    David Archibald, Philip Schlesinger, Belle Doyle, Iain Smith

    "It's simply a matter of [government agency] Scottish Enterprise to engage in 'enterprise'," Iain Smith said, making it clear that this was about attracting investment, not publishing yet another report. "How many reports by Scottish Enterprise have there been already," Belle Doyle asked, "about eight? I can't tell you the frustration to see why there has to be yet another consultation, another report." Or, as an audience member put it:: "Creative Scotland don't have enough cash, and Scottish Enterprise have the cash but don't recognise film."

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  • Film's monopoly problem with digital

    Posted by · January 27, 2014 2:24 PM

    Not before time, the new year started with some promising news about selling films online. For the first time, the annual decline in DVD and Blu-ray sales in the US has been outstripped by the growth in digital sales, rentals and subscriptions. Home entertainment rose 0.7% in 2013 (PDF source). $6.5bn – over a third of total consumer spending – came from digital rental, retail and subscriptions, with download-to-own rising a hefty 48% on 2012. The figures don’t even include subscriptions bundled with other services (like a cable company’s deal with Netflix) or advertising-supported VOD like Hulu or YouTube.

    Screenshot of Hulu website

    Of course, a chunk of this growth has been for television and traditional film, and the biggest beneficiaries continue to be the studios and large rights owners. For independents – as Scott Harris detailed in his frank description of the struggles self-distributing Being Ginger – digital distribution is typically a lot of work for limited gains. Why is this?

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  • What's your starting salary?

    Posted by · January 06, 2014 6:03 PM

    Four months ago, Scott Harris released his first feature documentary, Being Ginger. He skipped the film festival circuit and premiered it at the two largest redhead festivals in the world while simultaneously making it available for download through his web site. He wrote a blog post for us about why he decided to take that route. Four months later we’ve asked him back to fill us in on how things have gone. Below he gives the graphic details.

    Before I decided to become a filmmaker I was actually an Engineering student at The University of Texas.  One of the great things about the Engineering program at UT was that they kept detailed records of the job offers graduating students received.  It meant that when I was a sophomore I could go down to the employment office and I could see that if I maintained my current GPA I could expect a starting annual salary of around $45,000.

    Then I became a filmmaker.

    Filmmakers don’t talk about how much money they make – ever

    I’ve always found it disheartening when I’ve gone to festivals and heard filmmakers talk about how they had to invest $100,000 of their own money into their film. I’ve always wondered if they ever made it back, either when the film aired on BBC Storyville, or later when it showed up on iTunes and Netflix.

    But no one ever talks about money (except to say that no one goes into documentary filmmaking to get rich.)

    Well, in honour of my time at Texas, and in the hope that it will help someone else, I’m going to lay out exactly how things have gone for me thus far.

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  • DRM: a return to Edison and the MPPC

    Posted by · December 11, 2013 4:08 PM

    After releasing acclaimed films without digital rights management (DRM), Scottish Documentary Institute experienced no negative side-effects or rise in piracy. In the second of a series of posts looking at threats and potential of the digital space, Nic Wistreich compares DRM to the birth of cinema. 

    Thomas Edison, photo by Louis Bachrach, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke (Wikimedia Commons)

    The monopoly that created the independents that created the studios

    Imagine having to pay a license fee every time you filmed something or screened your work. At the start of the 20th century, the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC) in America controlled patents around cameras, film and projectors, and demanded fees for anyone screening or filming anything. The MPPC were able to dictate what could get filmed and screened, telling a young Alfred Zukor who had just bought the rights to a big French success: “The time is not ripe for features, if it ever will be” (as described in Timothy Wu’s excellent Master Switch).

    Zukor, who would later head Paramount, became an early rebel who refused to play along, as was Carl Laemmle who declared himself ‘an independent’ – the first to use that name. Laemmle wasn’t independent for long, his company Universal became one of the biggest studios on the planet, as did those from other ‘rebels’ and ‘independents’ Willhelm Fuchs (20th Century Fox) and the Warner brothers Jack, Sam and Henry. When Laemmle started to make ‘independent films’ without paying a licence, he was sued 289 times in a three-year period by the Edison Trust, and eventually fled New York to the west coast with Fuchs, Zukor, the Warners and others, further from the MPPC ‘spies’ and lawyers, and closer to the Mexican border if a quick escape was needed.

    It’s hard to avoid the irony that the founding of Hollywood was driven by people trying to dodge the copyright and patents on technology. These patents had created an unhealthy monopoly, and had they prevailed they could have prevented America’s rise to dominate cinema (France at the time produced twice as many films as the US). And yet the film industry’s view of open video today – which similarly believes that video technology is too important to be owned, locked down and controlled by one company – has undoubtedly been damaged in the piracy debate.

    One US producer, well respected for his web-savvy approach, confided to me in 2008 that he didn’t like open source, calling it "the same as piracy" - in spite of thousands of open source projects from Wordpress and Mozilla to Redhat and Canonical running large, multi-million dollar, legitimate businesses. Somehow the issue of open technology – which powers every website in the world through HTML and the majority of smartphones through Android – has become confused with a filmmaker’s right to chose the price of their film, when they are quite distinct subjects. An open license around technology is not the same as saying every film must also be shared for free: open technology is about freedom from monopolies, not freedom from profit.

    Photo by James Gubera (Flickr/Creative Commons)Free as in speech, not as in beer

    Nowhere is the confusion of open tech and piracy more entwined than in the subject of digital rights management, the copy protection added to content to attempt to limit the ways consumers can use that content. As an architecture that can stop you playing the DVDs you bought overseas on holiday when you get home, or moving your Kindle files between tablet and phone, or accessing purchased downloads after you upgraded your computer, DRM has long been unpopular with consumers, yet to much of the film industry has been viewed as an unfortunate but important way to limit the risks of piracy.

    If you ever tried to copy or sample a rented VHS as a kid you might remember how in a pre-digital age, copy-protection succeeded in limiting small-level copying – copies ended up a technicolor mush. But in the digital era it’s redundant. At best it is an inconvenience: but no system exists that’s uncrackable as people can always digitise their audio or video output (or simply film the screen). And once a DRM-free copy exists, anywhere in the world, it destroys the economic value of the DRM-encumbered version.

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  • Pirates compete on quality, price, and availability

    Posted by · December 04, 2013 7:01 PM

    This summer, Scottish Documentary Institute used downloadable copies of I AM BREATHING for its theatrical Global Screening Day free from digital rights management (DRM) – and with no noticeable piracy or impact. In the first of a series of articles looking at some of the myths, challenges and opportunities around digital distribution, Nic Wistreich questions why it can still be so hard to pay to watch a film you want to see legally.

    Anne Sweeney - Creative Commons - ©CES2009Perhaps no sector has been more involved in shifting the debate around video piracy than the TV industry. It seemingly began in late 2006, nine months after Steve Jobs had sold Pixar to Disney, joined their board and become more involved in their operations. Disney co-chair Anne Sweeney (pictured) declared at a conference that piracy was not simply a threat, but a competitor – that pirates competed on quality, price and availability. On all of these levels, she recognised, Hollywood was losing: "We don't like the model but we realise it's competitive enough to make it a major competitor going forward." Hulu launched five months later and competed on all three levels with free, ad-funded, flexible streams; the BBC’s iPlayer arrived not long after.

    Piracy "better than an Emmy"

    Then in August this year, Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes appeared to jump the shark when he announced that piracy was "better than [winning] an Emmy." Time Warner/HBO’s Game of Thrones is one of the most-pirated TV shows of the last few years, and possibly one that has gained the most free marketing from piracy. "We’ve been dealing with this issue for literally 20-30 years,"  Bewkes said. "Our experience is, it all leads to more subs."

    The difficulty with Bewkes’ argument, when related to independent feature films, is that he’s talking about episodic TV. A percentage of the people who got hooked on early episodes and seasons of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead through pirate copies will subscribe to channels and services offering the latest episodes so they can watch them first. Their fandom expressed on Twitter and Facebook also builds awareness and might convince their non-pirating followers and friends to tune into those channels.

    A Field in England

    But one-off dramas, documentaries and features can’t benefit from these effects; a pirate stream or download will rarely translate into further money for the filmmaker other than occasionally through a future crowdfunding campaign, or platforms like Vodo or BitTorrent that let people Donate-After-View (DAV).

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  • The Grandfather of the Fantasy Coffin Trade

    Posted by · November 07, 2013 12:51 PM


    Benjamin Wigley tells us about his journey from discovering Bridging the Gap to his first feature documentary celebrating master craftsman and fantasy coffin pioneer, Paa Joe – and how we all can help him finish the film.

    Prior to the Bridging The Gap programme, I had made In Search of the Vissarion, following a Siberian community convinced that their leader was the Son of God. I travelled out there on my own and came back with 30 hours of footage. I wasn’t able to get the support I needed in post-production and so the film took three years to complete under the guidance of my old filmmaking tutor. One year later a film with the exact same subject was made for True Stories. I was disappointed – but at least I knew I had found a good story.

    At that point I had little faith in the filmmaking “system” and felt that people rose to the top through nepotism and good fortune. But when Noé came to the East Midlands and spoke about Bridging The Gap I was really excited about her response to my idea.

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  • Documentaries – Our Humanities

    Posted by · October 29, 2013 4:02 PM

    Once upon a time, Thierry Garrel was the most wanted man in the documentary world. Not just because being Head of Documentaries at ARTE France meant great budgets and quality audience but because filmmakers felt part of a documentary movement with a vision led by two passionate man, one Thierry at ARTE, the other one Alan Fountain, senior commissioning editor at Channel 4. C4 dared dreaming of being a publishing house and bringing voices across class and borders to speak out; ARTE created a cultural synergy between Germany and France which will not ever allow us to be enemies again. The current poverty and reduction of documentary programming on most channels makes some of us look back to those ambitious years with envy and nostalgia.

    But now that Thierry is no longer the pope but one of the monks (as he put it), he goes round the world with his vows of creativity and his bowl of wit and happily shares his documentary insight with young talent. Thierry was our guest at the first Bridging The Gap workshop and got all participants and SDI staff to walk and bounce on clouds! Thierry circulated an inspiring article on humanities in documentary which we are sharing here. The original French version was published in the magazine Images Documentaires for their 20th anniversary in December 2012.

    Photo-Thierry-Garrel_320.jpg“Prose has walked on foot for too long, and it seems to me that the time has finally come for poetry to get off the horse to let prose mount in its place,” wrote Lichtenberg more than two centuries ago. And Lukács seemed to respond – not without pessimism: “The form of the essay has not yet, today, found the path to independence that its sister, poetry, covered long ago: the path of development from a primitive and undifferentiated unity with science, ethics and art.”

    I can't help but think, on this 20th anniversary of Images Documentaires, of the path documentary has travelled through the past two decades; before only a minor genre, peripheral and ancillary. It’s been a path towards aesthetic autonomy in its languages and at the same time a centrality in today's society.

    Born as documentary, cinema throughout the 20th century was monopolized by fiction, its narratives, its imaginary universes, often formatted in story-factories that make our images and our legends in an industrial way. TV shows and the heavy media industries developed in a parallel fashion. It seems to me, however, that with the 21st century, cinema is in the process of rediscovering its original horizon and its primitive magic: the exchange and the sharing of experiences between humans through images.

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  • A great opportunity for non-financial valuation

    Posted by · October 16, 2013 4:46 PM

    Michael Franklin is a doctoral researcher at the Institute for Capitalising on Creativity and an industry consultant at Film Business Research. He wrote this response to Sonja Henrici's proposal of a 'Triple Bottom Line in Film?'


    Sonja Henrici started a really interesting debate proposing a Triple Bottom Line in Film (TBL). The concept as I understand it involves adding social and environmental concerns, “people and planet”, to the profit bottom line. Sonja suggests the need for a template, or standard accounting practice that measures “actual cultural value”. One purpose of demonstrating “positive social action” or “positive audience engagement” is the gaining of rewards like “future investment, funding or sponsorship”. Reflection of a film’s impact additional to financial measurement is proposed as a potential avenue to satisfy funders and investors in the independent film business.

    As Ben Kempas points out in comments on the post, the debate is timely given the attention on film funding in Scotland at the moment. Any institutional funding or investment for film must have a strategy behind it and underpinning such a strategy must be the intelligent use of data. As a consultant on the Virtuous Circle initiative of the Scottish Documentary Institute and an academic researcher dealing with this topic, I was kindly invited to contribute some thoughts. I am particularly focused on how the film market becomes digitally mediated through various metrics.


    Amazing data visualisation of traditional metrics for film evaluation by Tom Evans (atacatcalledfrank) – could we do the same for social impact?

    Clarity of Objective

    There is great merit in exploring non-financial valuation frameworks for creative works. Documentary film is a perfect example and many fiction features could also claim similar worth. However, this is an area fraught with complexities and enticing tangential asides. A great deal of policy literature on public funding investigates attempts to capture the non-financial returns on cultural or creative investment. This is a broad topic that falls in and out of fashion, but is yet to define stable results. The BFI reported on cultural value of film in 2011 and the general topic continues to attract attention of institutions like the RSA. But if the aim of this initiative is a practical outcome, these wide debates are diversions and crucial distinctions need to be made to define a goal more narrowly.

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  • Mum Goes Viral

    Posted by · October 07, 2013 3:26 PM


    Duncan Cowles, currently a volunteer in our team at Scottish Documentary Institute, made a video that, within 24 hours, had more than 350,000 views on YouTube. Can he teach us how to make things go viral?

    Let me start off by saying that The Lady with the Lamp was a complete accident. It has been however, my most successful accident to date.

    For those of you who haven’t seen the film here it is. (It’s only 3 minutes 49 seconds so if you don’t like it, you've not wasted too much time.)

    On what was probably the only day I hadn't washed my hair in the entire year of 2010, my mum came into my bedroom to inform me that my bedside lamp was not quite up to house standards, and that I should invest in a new one. Unbeknown to her I’d been in the middle of filming what was (from what I remember) a really exciting video blog for my second year film at Edinburgh College of Art, Pooling Together

    Anyway, I more or less forgot about the whole experience until editing where I re-discovered my mum’s interruption. I called my brother through to my room to show him. His reaction told me that at least those who knew my mum would appreciate the footage. So I took the film, at the time creatively named LAMP and showed my classmates and lecturer David Cairns alongside my hand-in piece.

    “Should I bother putting effort into a film ever again?”

    The general consensus was that it was miles better and more entertaining than the film I’d spent eight months making. “Should I bother putting effort into a film ever again?” I asked myself.

    Showing my mum and some visiting family members was the next step. Safe to say they all (Mum included) got a good laugh out of it, and my Grandma suggested a new title, The Lady with the Lamp, named after Florence Nightingale. I was all set to attempt submitting to film festivals.

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