“I wanted to make sheep shearing sexy, because that seemed like an unusual thing to do.”
Yes. You read that correctly. As this director’s unique choice of subject suggests (and as we shall see), you don’t necessarily need the length of a feature film in order to tell a compelling story.
Here are three bite-sized documentary films that pack a lot into less than six minutes, by carefully conducting their elements of style.
Enjoy these sensory snacks!
1. Age of the Farmer | Dir. Spencer MacDonald, 2015
“65 is the average age of farmers, and there are not enough young farmers to replace them. How did we get here?”
Filmmaker Spencer MacDonald traveled the Pacific Northwest to document the thoughts and feelings of young farmers. He lived with the farmers he interviewed, trading room and board for labor. His dedication to and intimacy with his subjects shines through in the film’s poetic cinematography and sound design.
Unlike some nature documentaries, Age of the Farmer does not depict nature as a utopia untouched by man. Instead, MacDonald’s short film reminds us that humans are as connected to the Earth as are the crops, rivers, and trees – but as some of the farmers argue, we as a modern society have forgotten our connection to our planet.
The farmers’ disembodied voiceovers keep the focus on the film’s beautiful imagery, inviting us to share in the farmers’ appreciation of the land and lifestyle it affords. Not every documentary needs to feature “talking heads” in order to tell its story – MacDonald’s work stands as testament to the power of a sensory experience.
2. Sheepo | Dir. Ian Robertson, 2016
“Ian Robertson’s new short offers a glimpse into the sweat-soaked world of competitive sheep shearing.”
Sheepo immerses us in sight and sound. “I wanted to make sheep shearing sexy,” Robertson says, “Because that seemed like an unusual thing to do.” His treatment of the craft dazzles with details and polish usually reserved for commercials. It’s packed with Closeups, flares, and slow motion cinematography, all packaged in a tight and fluid edit.
Of course, the sound design also helps create the film’s strong sense of rhythm. The buzzing of the razor punctuates the shearer’s interview, as he describes his mission to be the best and fastest competitive sheep shearer in the world.
By taking a strong point-of-view – “make the subject sexy” – Robertson has made his work stand out. Every decision is driven by this creative intention. The film knows precisely what it wants to be and successfully realizes that vision.
3. On Killing: Murder | By cut.com, 2016
“In 1976, Ed Hull was convicted of first-degree murder. He was released on June 15, 2015.”
On Killing: Murder, the eighth episode in cut.com’s series, is a portrait of Ed Hull, who was convicted of first degree murder in 1976 and released from prison in 2015. The filmmakers ask him to recall the details of the night of the murder from forty years ago. It’s clear from Hull’s mannerisms and speech that he has lived this night over and over again in his head.
The filmmakers choose to intercut Hull’s interview with images from his hometown and life post-prison, resulting in “a moving photo album” of sorts. This B-Roll reveals more about the man while providing tonally consistent and visually compelling images that sometimes help with transitions. For example, around 01:57, a montage ends with a shot of telephone cables, setting up for Hull’s next sound bite.
On Killing: Murder features a much bleaker visual style than Age of the Farmer and Sheepo. Its muted color palette characterizes the town, and Hull’s interview is painted in murky shades of brown. Both creative decisions communicate the seriousness of the situation without telling us what we should think about it. Do we believe Hull’s account of events? Do we feel sorry for him? The filmmakers simply give us the story and leave us to draw our own conclusions.
When making a documentary, not only must you find a story – you also must decide how to treat it visually, aurally, and editorially. Every frame is an opportunity to further your narrative. Some narratives need a couple of hours to unfold, while others can do their subjects justice in just a few minutes – assuming their elements of style work together!
Author: Courtney Hope Thérond