A web series. A documentary web series. “It doesn’t sound good,” I remember thinking to myself.
It was the summer of 2015 and I was on the phone with Christina Jennings, the unstoppable CEO of Shaftesbury, which produces Murdoch Mysteries and a host of other TV hits. She had been approached by the Daniels Corporation, one of the biggest and most prominent real estate developers in the country, to consider a TV project that would focus on the dramatic and radical revitalisation of Toronto’s Regent Park, the inner city community that had been hard hit by social and housing issues for decades.
“I think it might work as a web series,” Christina was impressing upon me, “and I think you should look into it.” Daniels had also offered to put up the entire financing with an understanding that they would stay out of the kitchen and let me do the work that needed to be done. That would include talking critically about the redevelopment of the community and allowing the voices already questioning the how, what and why of the reconstruction process to be heard.
I was intrigued by the subject matter, but a web series? Is that even a good thing? After years of making feature and hour-long TV docs and specials, the move to a web series seemed like changing from Air Canada to Rouge.
I should’ve known better: At the time I had no idea of the burgeoning world of web series and the incredible and groundbreaking work that is being created for online consumption. Little did I know that some of the most inventive approaches to documentary filmmaking, including innovations in cinematography, editing and sound design, are being carried out in web-based projects. These realities made themselves quite evident as I set out to study and learn what other producers were doing and how they were going about it in preparation for our own series. And if these discoveries weren’t enough, then the realisation that my own work as a director could be given a wider dimension was more reason to dive deeper into the project. Better yet, by making a web series, I had officially obtained some street cred with my millennial nieces and nephews.
So, through the looking glass we went. For our own series, titled The Journey, I decided upon centering the six episodes on six talented youths from the Regent Park community. Each episode would present a snapshot of one of these youths and their intersection with the huge changes affecting their lives as the old apartment buildings come tumbling down with new ones rising in their place. The connecting tissue would be an annual neighborhood show they take part in titled, appropriately enough, “The Journey,” which recounts their community’s experiences, both good and bad. Using rap, hip hop, spoken word, R&B and funk, the series would blend documentary and music in evoking a sense of the ongoing realities of racism, media bias and social upheavals happening in Regent Park.
But a wee bit of background first: The Daniels Corporation, under the direction of Mitchell Cohen, had developed strong relationships with the Regent Park community and its leaders in the design, planning and rebuilding of the neighbourhood. This gave me a huge starting advantage where I got to know most of the youths who were subsequently invited to take part in this series. I spent a great deal of time hanging out at their rehearsals, getting to know them personally and learning about their individual lives and stories. For these early sessions, I deliberately avoided any recording equipment, including the camera on my iPhone, so as to allow us to get to know each other without distraction. Once we established a connection, I started taking a few photographs—at work, play or rest—so that by the time the actual cameras rolled on the first day, they trusted me enough to open up about their lives. If I was a fly, I could’ve stuck to the walls quite nicely.
As I write this, we are still in the middle of shooting, but over the past six months, a day has not gone by without thinking about what makes a documentary a “digital documentary” and what makes a series a “digital” or “web” series. I’ve come up with a few answers of my own while reaching out to a number of talented filmmakers who are creating exciting and innovative digital doc series.
One of those people is Peter Savodnik, a documentary producer with a glittering array of writing credits that include The Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, GQ, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. He is also the author of the well-received book, The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union. With the backing of Condé Nast Entertainment (producer of fine digital docs like The Grind), Savodnik created Becoming Belle Knox, featuring one of the most intriguing subjects this side of Linda Lovelace. The main character, an 18-year-old Duke University student by the name of Miriam Weeks, started working as a porn actress in 2013 to pay for her $60,000 annual tuition costs using the name Belle Knox.
In five short four-and-a-half-minute episodes, Savodnik took us deeply into Belle’s professional and private world with its mix of porn stars, shoots and trade shows where there are endless men aching to take selfies with their idol. Belle was then a strange mix of feminist and victim, plying an image of an innocent, underage girl with come-hither looks. She tried to keep her porn and university worlds apart until she was discovered and outed by another student and things took a turn for the not-so-great. Belle thought she was using the system to her advantage, making good money and being her own boss. But there lurked at the outer edges of the frame a more uncertain view that gave the series a palpable tension.
“I was looking for ways to reach a new audience,” Savodnik explains. “We didn’t want to make a big television series but to connect to viewers everywhere, as opposed to a regular TV audience which is not as easily accessible [as an online audience], if you think about it. And I wanted an immersive, cinematic style of storytelling where you could parachute viewers directly into someone’s life at any given time—something you couldn’t do with another medium. Each episode is separate and shareable but each can fit snugly into an overall story.” Indeed, it is this immersive factor that gives web series a unique advantage over regular TV. A four-minute story can be easily digested on your smartphone as you wait out another delay on the subway or, more likely, look for a welcome diversion from Trump and his infuriating antics.
“This is a huge market waiting to be discovered,” Savodnik continues. “It is the future of storytelling. People have limited time on their hands but still love hearing about interesting stories. But as much as you have to quickly reach a high level of velocity and momentum in each episode—you usually have anywhere between four and 11 minutes—you still need to create nuance and complexity. It’s very difficult to do both, but the ones that do make a strong connection with viewers.”
Savodnik shared specific production details with me, which proved to be quite typical of digital doc series. With the director doubling as cinematographer, joined by a sound person and a producer troubleshooting everything else, the prep for Belle Knox took place over two weeks, before the production hit the road for a total of seven shoot days. The material was then edited and mastered within seven weeks and released by Condé Nast Entertainment in five “chapters” on their website in September 2014. When it went live, the series struck a big chord with audiences gaining extensive media coverage; the comments section filled to capacity with discussions on porn, sex workers, feminism and, best of all, tuition costs.
“I love making them,” Savodnik offers, “because they [digital docs] plunge people right into other people’s lives in a way that’s unique and intimate. You can understand a situation the way your character understands that situation. In Belle, the arc of the series was the transformation of the lead character, and the critical thing was to allow her to evolve by asking questions and getting answers. And as any complicated, intelligent person, she has difficulties and issues which are utterly relatable.”
After interviewing Savodnik, the notion of “asking questions and getting answers” stays with me, as that is arguably the crux of any documentary. On The Journey, I had to think long and hard about how I was going to come into this most complicated entity called the rebirth of Regent Park, with all of its challenges, struggles and difficulties. The answer lay in my own past, when I had to create a new life and identity when my family immigrated to Canada. What that ten-year-old version of myself shares with the youths in The Journey is optimism for the future. For me, it all worked out, but the heavier burden the youths in our digital series bear is the legacy they’ve inherited from Regent Park. How do they shape their destiny or respond to a world that believes where they live is “the hellhole of the city,” filled with crime, violence and gang warfare? This is the one of the main questions at the centre of our series, a tall order for a medium where each episode is about four to six minutes. Can it really be done?
“If you can tell a story in three or four minutes, you can do it in 60,” Nick Fitzhugh assures me. “But not the reverse.” Fitzhugh is one of the bright talents behind Redfitz, a “cinematic documentary and narrative film production” company based in Brooklyn, NY. He created, produced and directed Conflict, a riveting digital miniseries presenting a number of renowned photojournalists covering some of the most troubled areas around the world, including the Congo, Afghanistan, Mexico, South Africa, as well as places of domestic violence in our own backyards. Like Savodnik’s Belle Knox digital series, it manages to distill the material into bite-sized portraits without compromising any of the complexity of its central figures. But one of the additional ways Fitzhugh achieves such potent effects in such limited time frames is the strong use of design elements in each of the episodes. These include a feature-style approach to cinematography (think Errol Morris) and a robust utilisation of sound design that builds on atmosphere, tone and characterisation to tell each story swiftly.
“I’ve always felt that an important part of the story in docs is held in the audio but it’s usually an after-thought,” Fitzhugh explains. “Most of us don’t think about sound until after the film is assembled, at which point you are trying to highlight or smooth things over. But in a [digital series], when you’ve got to get from Point A to Point B in a very short period of time, the sound has to come into play much more effectively. So, we built an extensive sound library for the series and used it to not only assist in transitions but to also create a strong identity for each episode.”
The same thinking went into the cinematography for Conflict. “I looked at the visual style of each of the photojournalists very carefully because I wanted to emulate the feeling in their images for each episode. It’s a homage to their work, certainly, but it was also a way for me to get important ideas across quickly and effectively.”
Getting Conflict seen, despite the strength of the topic, was not easy. “It took one year to make but two and a half years to shop it around,” Fitzhugh sighs. “Everyone loved it but passed.” Eventually National Geographic came forward, but when Fox took control of the publication the series was put on hold. With the writing on the wall, Fitzhugh and his company, Redfitz, took back their project and decided to release it independently on Vimeo where it got designated as a “staff pick”; from there it built an appreciative audience. Those numbers were tantalising bait to lure big sharks like Netflix, which liked what it saw and took a bite. There are now talks about taking the digital series to a longer 30 or 60-minute format, where it will hopefully attract even bigger audiences.
“I believe in doc web series as an important storytelling form,” Fitzhugh continues. “But in all honesty getting enough money to do it right is still the problem from a commercial standpoint. (The budget for the five episodes in “Conflict” came in around the $200K mark.) “But I think the key is to include digital work as a part of your overall business plan. Sure, do a feature but also do a web series or a digital short. And if you’re doing a standalone web series, it’s better to get them attached to a larger world.” This larger world included The Atlantic, one of the most venerable of all periodicals, where Conflict is currently living on their highly regarded digital platform. “Understand that it will take a long time to develop and create these works. It will happen. Not quickly, but it will happen.”
Fitzhugh’s sober confidence is encouraging, and I’m beginning to see a deeper compatibility between docs and the digital world, much like an arranged marriage that ends up succeeding. For starters, the costs of making docs for digital platforms (smartphones, tablets, etc.)—including insurance (both production and errors and omission), as well as usage fees for archival images or footage are much lower than traditional TV or feature production. For a medium exasperatingly undernourished by the scarcity of funds, these savings can actually make it easier to push the record button on a camera. And online distribution, either through streaming services or online sharing websites such as YouTube, Vimeo or Koldcast, makes it possible to release a doc in a far more timely manner, an important advantage if the work follows or investigates an event in the headlines. But above all, a director or producer can retain much more creative control over a project than in traditional TV, a fact that certainly makes itself evident in the bold and highly personal approaches embodied by the web docs and series I came across.
One of the boldest and most personal of these digital docs is undoubtedly Welcome to Pine Point, created by Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge, collectively known as The Goggles, a Vancouver-based production company. Their project is based on Richard Cloutier’s website, Pine Point Revisited, and it’s a triumph of innovation and imagination, and a true evocation of what is creatively possible when the kids are left alone to figure things out. On that level, it makes perfect sense that it found life in digital form. With music by The Barenaked Ladies, the project tells the haunting story of the mining community once known as Pine Point on the south shore of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. Formerly a thriving outpost, it was home to about 2,000 people before the mine closed in 1988. The community was abandoned and all the buildings were demolished, leaving only a trace of the street layout. But how can the lives of so many people simply disappear or vanish? What happens to those memories? Where do such things go if there’s nothing to remind anyone that such a place ever existed? This digital enterprise, which has the unusual distinction of passing as both a series and a one-off, is pulled together by a truly clever amalgam of video, text, graphics, animation and sound galore. As you click through, it feels as if you’re turning the pages of a photo album or scrapbook, complete with cutouts, clipped samples and arrows that try to connect the pieces together. “We wanted to tell this story but in a digital language that would be emotional and meaningful,” Simons says. “We weren’t sure it was going to work, in all honesty, but it was an important story to tell.”
With the help of the NFB and a trio of their producers—namely Rob McLaughlin (Waterlife), Loc Dao (the NFB’s chief digital officer) and Wil Arndt (interactive designer and digital strategist), Simons and Shoebridge first grappled with the volume of digital technoissues involved in getting the project made: What browser? Flash or no Flash? How big for the type? How much video? How’s it all going to be embedded? “Because as much as we had to master these issues,” Shoebridge adds, “we didn’t want a high gloss patina. We really wanted the viewer to have a sense that there was a human touch here, an organic feel that was detailed, interactive and highly personal.” Indeed, what is commendable about the interactivity in Pine Point is that it’s an almost unconscious act as you’re clicking through the pages. So many interactive elements of some projects are marred by the gadgetry to such an extent that you are yanked out of the story, losing that intimacy that is so vital to connecting with the story.
“We really do believe there’s a future here,” Simons offers. “Pine Point had a big impact for us and opened doors in all sorts of areas.” Shoebridge then reveals that he and Simons are currently working on three other digital projects with funding from the likes of Tribeca Digital Festival, the Ford Foundation, Sundance and Penguin UK. Not a shabby bunch.
As for The Journey, a surprising but welcome piece of news landed in my inbox right after my conversation with Simons and Shoebridge. The Daniels Corporation approved the creation of an hour-long film version in addition to the six-part digital series. This means that we’ll now be able to present the work to film festivals and shop it around to broadcasters with the added benefit of having the accompanying six-part digital component. At the time of this writing, we are still putting together our strategy in approaching broadcasters, but there are now two distinct parts to The Journey. The hour-long doc will focus on the arc of our two-month shoot with the Regent Park kids while the digital series will present individualised portraits of each youth and their world. It feels like a change of sorts, but it doesn’t affect how, what or when we’re going to shoot.
So, I may’ve been wrong after all. Making a web series is not like having to fly on Rouge at all. Far from it. Given all the great things that are happening and my own positive experience to date, it feels more like having your own private plane.