The video collage documentary

We went to see the documentary 2016: Obama’s America this week. Based on Dinesh D’Souza’s book, this movie looks at President Obama’s heritage and the influences his family has had on his political views. Even when the topic is fascinating, documentary movies can be quite dull, but this one was beautifully produced using lots of interesting visual techniques to keep the viewer engaged.

One thing that struck me was how these techniques could be used to produce family documentaries too. Because many of the people involved in the story line were dead and there were few photos available, the producers used clips of current videos taken at the locations discussed along with historical photographs and graphic elements to provide visual interest as D’Souza narrated the story and interviewed people. Many of the video clips were taken in Kenya, Indonesia and Hawaii to provide “atmosphere” during discussions of events that took place in those locations. While you didn’t actually see the Obama family in action, you did get a visual feel for the places being discussed. Ken Burns did something similar in The Civil War, mixing current photographs and video clips of the battlefields with historical images as they are being discussed in the presentation.

The way D’Souza’s narration was handled also added interest to the production. Instead of being a disembodied voice-over, they filmed him in many places and popped those clips in and out of the production while the narration kept steadily on. I was tickled that some of his interviews showed him on the phone in one place and the person he interviewed – also on the phone – in another place. It seemed natural that a researcher would discover something that generated more questions and immediately call someone who could help answer them, but then I realized what a costly effort it would be to capture that kind of conversation. I found it a very effective “prop”.

All of these things took place in a sort of video collage with images and video clips constantly moving on and off the screen forcing you concentrate more as you watched. Graphical elements physically dragged your eye across the screen, directing your mental focus from one place to another or even back to an earlier time. It was very effective. No one was going to fall asleep during this documentary.

The movie was rather long – an hour and 45 minutes – and after a while all this visual activity became an effort to watch. For a short production, however, I think this collage technique can give a great story the visual energy it deserves – and generate rave reviews from your family too.

Here’s a look at one of the movie trailers demonstrating this collage technique.

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