Cms. 338 Innovation in Documentary: Technologies and Techniques

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CMS.338 Innovation in Documentary: Technologies and Techniques

Instructor: William Uricchio


Meeting times by appointment: contact Jessica Tatlock at

Documentary has long been a contested term. It was born with John Grierson’s creation of the neologism in 1926 to describe Robert Flaherty’s film Moana, an enacted fiction about a way of life that passed with the western colonization of Samoa. Grierson’s notion of the form as “the creative treatment of actuality” covered a lot of ground, and we have seen the term documentary applied to a wide range of films ever since. Variously reflecting the filmmaker’s intent, or production circumstances, or the marketing of the film or even the way the film has been seen by audiences, the form has enjoyed remarkable elasticity … and a profound sense of imprecision. Consistent with Justice Potter Stewart’s famous threshold test for pornography, people seem to ‘know it when they see it.’ We’ll test that hypothesis, and see if we can come up with somewhat more systematic parameters.
This course will explore the definitional conceits and practices that have given documentary its historical form, focusing in particular on moments relevant to today’s transformations in the genre. Radical forms of collaborative authorship (called for in Vertov’s writings); transformations in technology (the work in Direct Cinema and interactive cinema pioneered at MIT); challenges to the notion of storytelling (interactive narrative); even the idea of the archive and curatorial act, all bear upon the current state of documentary. Our task will be to explore the new, keeping in mind the questions – and findings -- of earlier generations of filmmakers.

Documentary, like our media ecosystem generally, is in a state of rapid transition. Ubiquitous recording and playback technologies, the participatory turn and the blurring of producers and users, challenges to inherited notions of ownership, new forms of media literacy, and many other factors have been game changers. Documentary, with its defining relationship to actuality, has historically been slow to change – but not any more. The past few years have witnessed remarkable levels of innovation. Location-based documentary, expanded notions of data (beyond word and image), interactivity, and various strategies for the participation of new publics (collaborative and collective documentary) have all made headway. Academics, critics and film festivals are struggling to keep up.

Much of our work will necessarily be speculative, but we can temper that through some hands-on experimentation. The final project for the course offers an opportunity to plan and develop a ‘new’ documentary. Otherwise, the course will be built around readings, screenings and most of all, discussions.

All required reading material for the course are available on the course stellar site.


MIT’s Humanities Film Office has many classic documentaries among its holdings. You can check them out in DVD and video form (14N-428). Most of the newer forms of documentary (interactive, cross-media, etc.) can be found on-line, often with accompanying reviews and other ancillary information. Useful portals for media products and discussions include:

Please explore these sites – not only is there a lot to see, but the organizational schemes and taxonomies you will find there are particularly relevant for our discussions of this fast emerging area.


The course has three ‘gradable’ components: 1) participation in discussion (25%); 2) written responses to the screenings and films on the course Stellar site (25%); 3) final project (50%).

Final Project

Given MIT’s commitment to mens et manus, mind and hand, the final project for the course will entail hands-on work. ‘Making’ can range from preparing plans for a production (specifying the goals and rational, the technology and technique, the effects and desired affect – in other words, essentially a ‘paper’ pre-production project) to actually creating a sequence or even project that in some way tests and extends some of the ideas discussed in class (in other words, a material project). The preferred domain for a topic is something pertaining to MIT’s rich and largely unknown media history. Since this history occurred here, since the archives are often here (and in some cases on line), since the people, their colleagues, their labs and legacies are often here, there is plenty to work with. How will you organize your materials (location based? QR-code or other geo-locative strategies? Archival-based? Etc.), how will you organize your ideas? How will the user encounter and make sense of your material? Collaboration is a key principle of the current documentary scene, and any work on this broad topic would only benefit from collaboration – with one another and possibly with a broader sense of participants. Grading will be based on an assessment of how you’ve put to work, tested or even extended the issues discussed in class on a topic of your choosing (again, vis a vis MIT’s media history). Creativity, engagement with the ideas discussed in class, and collaboration are the main issues that will be assessed. A short prospectus of your plans will be due March 12; the final project is due and will be screened / discussed in class on May 7.

People such as Herbert Kalmus (technicolor), William Schreiber (optical character recognition and TV), Alexander Graham Bell (the first call was from MIT), Ricky Leacock, Ed Pincus,(and students:  D.A.Pennebaker, Ross MacElwee, Rob Moss – all involved with documentary), Joan Jonas* (video art pioneer), Vannevar Bush (Memex -- the original desk top interface idea), J.C.R. Licklider (ARPANET), Richard Stallman* (GNU Manifesto; open source movement), Hal Abelson* (Creative Commons), Glorianna Davenport* (interactive film), Nicholas Negroponte*, Tim Berners Lee* (WWW), Ray Kurzweil, Brewster Kahle  (Internet Archive), Sherri Turkle* (critic/theorist), Henry Jenkins (critic/theorist), Noam Chomsky* (critic/theorist), Ithiel de Sola Pool (critic/theorist), Doc Edgerton (stroboscope photography), Norbert Weiner (cybernetics), Claude Shannon (information theory), Bose (accuracy in acoustics), Edwin Land (polarized lenses, polaroid camera), Russel / Kotok / Graetz (Spacewar! -- early videogame), and many more fundamentally transformed media through their work. One could also imagine moving beyond individuals and approaching technologies (holography, the touch screen), critical and ethical stances (‘open’ source software, creative commons), and issues relating to institutional setting (the ‘Radlab’).

More information…

The study of documentary can take many directions, and if you’d like more background, readings or suggested screenings for any aspect of the course, don’t hesitate to ask!

Themes/Screenings/Readings (subject to change)
February 13 introduction

February 21 documentary basics: theorizing the form
On of the most contested aspects of documentary regards its claims for a ‘special’ relationship to reality. Both the nature of that relationship and the definition of ‘reality’ are slippery, and the situation is only compounded by academic discourse. In this session, we will try to pin down some key theoretical issues around which the academy – and filmmakers – danced.
Screening: Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada.  The interface offers many different ways of accessing interviews with some 30 prominent international documentarists. There are several specific things you should see. Using the 'grid view' (a mosaic of thumbnail portraits), click "topics" and be sure to see the interviews labeled:

* getting started

* exploring the genre

* truth, perspective & ethics

* final thoughts & anecdotes
In class, we will screen excerpts from Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922); Berlin – Symphony of a Great City (Ruttmann, 1927); Primary (Drew, 1960)
Dave Saunders, "The 'D' word: definitions, 'obligations' and functions".   Documentary (New York: Routledge, 2010): 11-32

John Corner, "Documentary Theory".  The Art of Record: A critical introduction to documentary (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996): 9-30

Recommended: "How can we define documentary film?".  Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010): 1-41

February 27 documentary basics 2: forms in practice
In contrast to the previous session, this one will work from the films themselves to explore key moments of transition in documentary practice.  Above all, issues of form, style and technology will concern us in this session.  Vertov's "The Man With a Movie Camera" -- an influential film for the present documentary scene -- will be our starting point.  Look at for "The Man With A Movie Camera: Global Remix Project", and get a sense of how the project is organized. [you'll see both Vertov's film and a crowd-sourced counterpart]  In what ways is it 'true' to Vertov's ideas? in what ways does it depart? How would you critique this film (think along different lines: intention? form? process? etc.). What are the strengths and weaknesses of this particular collaboration? Can you think of other ways to capture Vertov's radical ideas in a contemporary 'participatory' work?   Vertov's work and writings -- and particularly his aspirations -- are particularly relevant for the current generation of documentary.  His readings are highly polemical and evocative (another reason for his influence) -- curious to see what you make of them!

Screening: Perry Bard, The Man With A Movie Camera: Global Remix Project,

In class we will also look at sequences from Vertov’s film.

Dziga Vertov, excerpts, Annette Michelson, ed., Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

Dai Vaughan, “The Man With the Movie Camera,” Films and Filming (November 1960)

Dave Saunders, “Major Trends, Movements and Voices,” Documentary (New York: Routledge, 2010): 33-83

March 5 documentary basics 3: compilation, curation, collecting
People have long constructed meaning through artifacts and their traces – think of hunters and detectives. Such meaning-making raises questions: are certain objects more prone than others to trigger meaning? What range of meaningful structures can we think of that stand outside of traditional narrative (chronicles, arguments, collections…), and how do these relate to issues of linear and non-linear structure, and in particular to documentary? Can anything of value be learned from the history of compilation film for today’s media makers? How do selection, choice and curation fit into the ‘act of viewing’ and meaning-making?
Screening: Atomic Café (Loader & Rafferty, 1982)

Jay Leyda, “Smaller Screen- Larger Audience”, Films Beget Films (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964): 97-112

Keith Beattie, “Found Footage Film and History: seeing double,” in his Documentary Display. Re-viewing Nonfiction Film and Video (London: Wallflower Press, 2008): 82-108
Ingrid Erickson, Documentary With Ephemeral Media: Curation Practices in Online Social Spaces, Bulletin of Science Technology & Society (2010 30): 387
Eleanor Dare and Lee Weinberg, “Algorithms for Social Curation: Designing and evaluating an embodied and subjectively situated visual art Interpretation and navigation system (VAINS),” Body, Space and Technology Journal (September 2010)

Patricia Allmer, Relating the Story of Things [from the conference of the same name; London 2010]

March 12 testimony & stories

[ideas for final project due]

Storytelling is a fundamental human endeavor ... but is it essential to documentary? We first need to pin down various positions in the debate over narrative: is narrative a textual structure or structure of experience or both or more? How do non-linearity and choice relate to story; how do they relate to storytelling technologies? What other organizational models have proven themselves in our culture (spatial logics, etc.)? What other models of storytelling can we invoke better to understand current developments in interactive narrative and documentary?

Screenings: One Day on Earth (Kyle Ruddick, 2010)

24h Berlin: A Day in the Life (Volker Heise, 2009)
6 Billion Others (Arthus-Bertrand, D’Orgeval, Rouget-Luchaire, 2003-2009)

Mary Fuller and Henry Jenkins, “Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue,” in Steven Jones, ed., Cybersociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, ed., (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995): 57-72.

Marie-Laure Ryan, “Will New Media Produce New Narratives?” in M.L. Ryan, ed., Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 2004): 337-359.

Glorianna Davenport, “Your Own Virtual Storyworld,” Scientific American (November 2000): 79-82.

Recommended: Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden Forking Paths [you may also be interested in Lev Manovitch’s “New Media from Borges to HTML” and Nick Montfort’s introduction to the Borges Story, all from Montfort’s The New Media Reader.
Recommended: Peter Lunenfeld, “The Myth of Interactive Cinema,” in M.L. Ryan, ed., Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 2004): 377-390.

March 19 making and showing

Contemporary documentary makers use the technologies that surround them, whether enabling principles such as geo-location, software such as augmented reality, or hardware such as iPads. Given their many different starting points, documentary makers reference the worlds – and tools -- of media art, community activism, video, and creative computation. This plurality of approaches is further complicated by the relationship to technology (which, for example, can enable prototyping, but preclude audience access). In this session, we will explore the challenges of making and showing new forms for makers, publics, distributors and festival organizers. We will look at some of MIT’s Media Fabrics’ group’s archived work as well as the contemporary work of photographer/ filmmaker Chris Johnson and Sundance curator Shari Frilot, both of whom will join us for a discussion.

MIT Media Fabrics – Interactive Cinema
Shari Frilot: Filmography/bio
Speaking about the New Frontier Program that she curates at Sundance

Sundance New Frontier

Chris Johnson (Question Bridge)

Question Bridge excerpts

March 20 (recommended!!) Communications Forum

5:00-7:00 PM | Bartos Theater

Documentary Film and New Technologies with Gerry Flahive, Shari Frilot, and Patricia R. Zimmermann

Emerging digital technologies are opening powerful new ways to create and even to reconceptualize the documentary film. How will handheld video cameras and ubiquitous open-source computing change the nature of documentaries? What are the implications for makers and viewers of documentaries of today’s unprecedented access to online editing and distribution tools, to an ocean of data never before available to the general public? These and related questions will be central to our discussion. Panelists will include a scholar of digital culture, a director who has begun to exploit emerging technologies, and a representative of a newly-important specialty of the digital age – a curator of digital artifacts.

Gerry Flahive is a producer for the National Film Board of Canada. He has produced more than 50 films and new media projects including Project Grizzly, Waterlife and Highrise.

Shari Frilot is senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival and curator of the New Frontier section of the event.

Patricia R. Zimmermann is professor in the Department of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival. She has curated the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar several times, including a retrospective on American documentary history and a documentary summit between Glasnost and American documentarians.

March 22 (recommended!!) CMS Colloquium

5:00-7:00 PM | E14-633

Mapping the Urban Database Documentary

Jesse Shapins

The urban database documentary is a mode of media art practice that uses structural systems as generative processes and organizational frameworks to explore the lived experience of place. The genre emerges in the early 20th century, and can be read as symptomatic of panoramic perception, sensory estrangement and networked participation, cultural utopias that respond to modernity’s underlying paradoxes. As such, the invention of the computer did not give rise to the urban database documentary, it only enabled new forms of its realization. The hope is to shift the conversation from a fetishization of ever-­new technological possibilities to a discussion of the underlying cultural aims/assumptions of media art practice and the specific forms through which works address modernity’s cultural tensions.

Jesse Shapins is a media theorist, documentary artist, and social entrepreneur whose work has been featured in The New York Times, Metropolis, PRAXIS and Wired, cited in books such as The Sentient City and Networked Locality, and been exhibited at MoMA, Deutsches Architektur Zentrum and the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, among other venues. He is Co-Founder/Chief Strategy Architect of Zeega, Co-Founder/Associate Director of metaLAB (at) Harvard, and on the faculty of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he has invented courses such as The Mixed-Reality City and Media Archaeology of Place.

March 26 [no class – spring vacation]

April 2 expanded data

The documentary tradition began with the image, added the printed word, and finally included sound. Although styles shifted over the years, these three components remained constant. The digital era has encouraged a new conception of information, both unifying its underlying structure (bits and bytes) and radically expanding it. Various data layers can now be added – geo data (which will be considered on its own next week), temporal data, user data, data regarding the camera, links to related information, as well as various visualization strategies…. This session will consider the implications of expanded data for the documentary effort, as well as its bearing upon some of the narrative and interaction strategies discussed in the course up to this point.

Screening: Bear 71
Trendsmap (Stateless Systems)

Lev Manovitch, “Database as Symbolic Form,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies (1999, 5: 80)

Yoram Schaffer, Data Visualization and Documentary Filmmaking, DocMovies (23 April 2010)

April 9 location and cartography

Spatial metaphors have been central to our thinking about media from the memory palaces of antiquity to contemporary cloud storage systems. Today’s technologies enable far more than ‘armchair travel’, including location-based exhibition and visual overlays (AR), spatial navigation and narrative logics, and geographical data layers. Space, particularly as performed, experienced and charted (cartography), has been the topic of some exciting theoretical work lately – and this has infused the practice of documentary.

Screenings: Highrise (Katerina Cizek, 2011)

Planet Galata – A Bridge in Istanbul (Florian Thalhofer and Berke Bas, 2010)
Les Communes de Paris (Simon Bouisson, 2010)
Michel De Certeau, excerpt (Part III Spatial Practices), The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984)
Denis Wood & J. Krygler, “Critical Cartography” in Kitchin, R. Thrift, N. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Vol 1 (Oxford: Elsevier, 2009): 340-344

Catherine D’Ignazio, “Art and Cartography,” in Kitchin, R. Thrift, N. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Vol 1 (Oxford: Elsevier, 2009): 190-20

Recommended: Walter Banjamin, “[Flâneur]” from his The Arcades Project, Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (New York: Belknap Press, 2002) See a useful commentary on Benjamin’s ideas at by Heather Crickenberger

April 16 [no class – Patriots’ Day]

April 23 transmedia documentaries

Transmedia storytelling – the construction of a narrative experience through the strategic positioning of related media artifacts and story elements across different platforms – requires that viewers/readers explore their way to coherence. The world of ‘reality’ would seem even more relevant to transmedia strategies than the diegetic construction of fiction, since reality is far more pervasive ... and that’s the way we deal with the world on a daily basis. Particularly at a moment of fragmented media channels, transmedia has also emerged as a strategy to lead viewers from various points of contact to a fuller engagement with a textual universe. This session will explore transmedia in the documentary, its implications, strategies, potentials and limits. In addition, this session will address visualization with guest speaker, Professor Joanna Drucker.

Screenings: Welcome to Pine Point (Shoebridge and Simons, 2011)
Collapsus (Tommy Pallotta, 2010)
Lynn Hughes, Transmedia Is the New Black: "Media That Matters" Conference Explores the Future of Storytelling / International Documentary Association (posted March 2011)
Edward Delaney, Exploring transmedia in documentaries, DocumentaryTech (posted May 17, 2011)
Chuck Tryon, Digital distribution, participatory culture, and the transmedia documentary, Jumpcut: A Review of Contemporary Media, No. 53 (summer 2011)

Henry Jenkins, excerpts. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

April 30 stakes – implications -- looking ahead….

What’s it all mean? The breakdown of master narratives and coherence … signs of the times? A technologically-driven attempt to make documentary trendy? A broadening of those who make documentaries to include the people once known as the audience? The goal of this session is to consider various visions of the documentary’s future, both as articulated by its theorists and by our peers. And we will consider its implications for audience engagement, not just in the text, but in the issues of the world.

Jessica Clark, Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics

Keith Beattie, “The Burning Question: The Future of Documentary,” Documentary Screens: Non-Fiction Film and Television (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004): 204- 216

John Corner, “Documentary Futures,” The Art of Record: A Critical Introduction to Documentary (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996): 181-190

May 7 Presentation and discussion: final projects

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