Ann Shin Talks Docs and Adaptability at DOC Institute Master Class

Filmmaker Ann Shin

By Pat Mullen

Last week’s DOC Institute Master Class with Ann Shin offered a productive guide to filmmakers working in any medium. The event, “Creative Adaptability and Flexibility,” featured Shin in conversation with producer Gerry Flahive (Highrise, Seth’s Dominion) to a full audience at Toronto’s Camera Bar.

Shin previously won three Canadian Screen Awards for her feature doc The Defector: Escape from North Korea and recently scored a News and Documentary Emmy nomination for her short doc My Enemy, My Brother after making the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary (Short Subject) and Canada’s Top Ten last year. The filmmakers talked extensively about working in a variety of mediums as she chronicled the journey of the film from short doc to web series to an upcoming feature. There was even talk of an opera, but that might just have been Flahive’s sense of humour over the endless permutations that documentary form undergoes nowadays.

The possibilities are endless for filmmakers working today and Flahive invited Shin to begin the conversation by drawing upon her experience as a poet. Shin conveyed how filmmaking, like poetry, is all about distilling language and emotion. “You have to get at what is at the heart of the story,” she said. As an example, she cited her previous works like 4 Fridges, which took the central idea of speciality foods like kale and quinoa coming into the home and then explored how the bigger story was ultimately the global impact of such a spike in consumption.

Shin and Flahive both emphasised that the mode of delivery is malleable but depends on both the style and the topic. “An idea is like a liquid that you could pour into a contained,” observed Shin. “Each container shows off a different attribute.”

Shin argued that films and articles are best for approaches that emphasise story and narrative, while interactive docs are more about a problem or question to solve. The filmmaker displayed a diplomatic skepticism of the ever-growing presence of virtual reality (VR) docs, while she and Flahive both spoke more to the benefits, accessibility, and reach of interactive docs, short docs, and features.

The Defector Interactive Trailer from Fathom Film Group – Ann Shin on Vimeo.

Much of the conversation focused on the recent success of My Enemy, My Brother and its interesting cross-platform journey that keeps viewers engaged. Shin noted that the film began as a pitch for a feature documentary, which it will eventually be thanks to the success of the short and the web series, but her story of two men reconnecting years after the Iraq/Ian war faced concerns from commissioning editors, who wanted verité in place of recreations. The director explained that she applied to Bravo! Fact fund on a whim and was surprised to receive support. Making a short doc out of a feature-length idea returned the conversation to the idea of distilling the content down to its essence regardless of the medium.

Shin explained how the short doc of My Enemy, My Brother became both a calling card and a unique sensation. Shorts, she and Flahive observed, were generally seen as calling cards for filmmakers hoping to secure future work, but the short essentially became a pitch for the feature, which would continue where the story began.

My Enemy, My Brother

As the short was accepted into more festivals, like Tribeca and Hot Docs, Shin found potential that she had missed while emphasising the feature. The director described how the short doc evolved into a web-based project by breaking down further material into brief one to two minute videos. The discussion added how short, easily consumable videos cater more to contemporary audiences who have less time to consume and consider content. Moreover, it showed how a filmmaker guides audience retention in a marketplace increasingly saturated with content as users continue with a project as it evolves across mediums.

As proof, both My Enemy, My Brother and Flahive’s Highrise were early projects to appear on the New York Times op-docs channel, which streams video alongside headline-breaking news. Flahive humorously noted that, as Highrise was an earlier project to appear on the site as a collaboration between the New York Times and the NFB, commenters didn’t readily accept videos where they felt articles were supposed to be.

Shin, alternatively, said that the ever-perilous comment section poses a great opportunity to engage with users. She advised taking the time to respond to questions and to offer clarifications, but also to take advantage of comment forums to drive users to the film’s website, complementary interactive docs or web-series, and social media channels.

The talk concluded with Shin offering four questions that filmmakers should ask when considering the viability of a project and the form it should take:

1.) What is the heart of the story?
2.) Who is the audience?
3.) Who will fund and support the project?
4.) How will it be marketable?

Shin elaborated upon how distilling the topic down helps find the essence and argument with which to make an effective pitch, while knowing the interests and habits of viewers/users lets the doc fit the right container. She and Flahive added that funders and supporters are not necessarily the same, since giving a film a cheque and guiding it through completion and release are different beasts. Shin furthered the idea citing the benefits of floating money through crowdfunding. She said that although a campaign is demanding and challenging, it allowed her to keep in touch with her audience and raise a community in addition to a budget by updating her audience frequently on the status of the project.

Audiences, finally, are accessible through branding and brand extension, which Flahive found particular success with in the creation of Highrise, which began as a logo and a trailer before ballooning into an interactive doc comprised of 51 videos. Flahive added that interactive docs offer an expansive opportunity for audience reach, particularly in connecting with international eyeballs. “The dirty secret is that international audiences like Canadian content. They don’t care where it came from so long as it’s good.”

Flahive’s point spoke to the success of My Enemy, My Brother. As the story continues with the feature, Shin’s experience with this particular project within her overall body of work offered inspiration for filmmakers eager to experiment with the new challenges and opportunities in documentary form.

To stay up to date on future classes, please visit the DOC Institute.