A Style All Its Own
By Minsa Cho
The hunter waits. He stalks his prey with a drawn bow, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. A gatherer, on the other hand, nurtures his field. He plans the season’s crop. He tills the soil, plants the seeds, waters the crop and eventually, after much time and care, reaps his harvest.
The same goes for film and television. The documentary filmmaker is a hunter. He waits patiently, camera at his side, for that perfect moment to strike. His prey is the story, which unfolds, in real time, before his eyes. There are no second takes. The hunter has one shot to get the perfect take.
The narrative filmmaker, on the other hand, is a gatherer. He creates his story, preparing its elements during pre-production- tilling the soil, making sure that all the elements (locations, crew, story, talent, etc.) are in place so then when physical production starts, it is as quick and easy as possible.
An interesting hybrid of the two schools of production is the non-fiction market. Non-fiction combines elements of documentary and narrative and creates a wholly new genre that blurs the line between the two. It incorporates elements of the documentary, waiting with drawn bow, until spontaneous moments that were anticipated but not expected appear, while also incorporating certain elements of narrative, allowing for proper execution of certain plot points and logistical consideration.
Non-fiction television benefits from this new style of production in that it enables realistic production schedules. A documentary film generally has the benefit of time, which enables the filmmaker to let their scenes ‘breathe.’ ‘Hoop Dreams,’ the 1994 Academy Award nominated documentary, shot over the course of 5 years. A non-fiction program doesn’t have the time, or resources to cover that amount of shooting time.
Narrative films, on the other hand, have so many moving parts that it is confined by the enormity of its budget. A major Hollywood event film, like ‘The Avengers,’ has such a huge cast, crew and budget that there is little, if any, room to let things ‘play out.’ A non-fiction show, although on a tight budget, still has the wiggle room for a little freedom to see how things play out.
Many can argue about when the first reality show premiered. Some say that it was ‘Candid Camera,’ which aired on NBC in 1949. Others say that it was the PBS 12-episode documentary series ‘An American Family,’ which aired in 1973 (a dramatized making-of feature called ‘Cinema Verite’ was made for HBO in 2011). But it cannot be argued that both of the shows helped usher in the era of non-fiction television.
Whatever its origin, non-fiction television has successfully fused two distinct styles of production and created a new genre of storytelling that incorporates the benefits of documentary and narrative. It allows the spontaneity of real life while simultaneously keeping budgetary and logistical elements of production in play.