Crafting an Elegant Essay Documentary

Karen Everett May 4, 2009

The essay or topic-based documentary is the second most popular art form dominating today’s independent documentary landscape. Although it shares in the festival accolades and box office commercial success of the character-driven documentary, structurally the essay doc is a different beast entirely, usually organized around a central idea rather than a protagonist on a quest. It looks different too, often employing talking heads, text, statistics, man-on-the-street interviews, educational graphics and slide shows to make its points. Popular examples include An Inconvenient Truth, Religulous, Bowling for Columbine, and The Corporation. Other essay films, such as Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World and Jean Marie Teno’s currently released (and recently playing the SF International Film Festival) Sacred Places (edited by Christiane Badgley), are more introspective tomes or poetic profiles than quantitative or data-heavy docs.

All of these skillfully crafted essays belie the chief difficulty that sinks many topic-based films: how do you keep your audience engaged rather than putting them to sleep? We are, after all, dealing with an essay (yawn). And yet most first-time filmmakers instinctually gravitate toward topic-based films because they are excited about exploring an idea. Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin said that "at the core of all essay is an interest so intense that it precludes filming it in a straight line. The essay is rumination in Nietzsche’s sense of the word, the meandering of an intelligence." This column offers editors and directors three specific strategies you can use in the edit room which I believe are in line with the contemporary trend in essay films—to reign in excessive "meandering" and keep your viewers glued to the topic until the credits roll.

1) Hybrid Strategy

One way to make an idea-based film as gripping as a character-driven doc is to meld the two forms. But let me first distinguish what I am calling the "hybrid documentary" from the term "hybrid narrative film." The latter refers to a film that is part narrative (fictional) and part documentary (real life), which is not what I’m talking about in this article. A so-called hybrid documentary weaves together two structural models. As structural experts like Fernanda Rossi, Sheila Bernard Curran and (in the narrative world) Robert McKee have outlined, the character-driven aspect will follow a protagonist (or several) on a quest to achieve or gain something in the face of great difficulty. The essay or idea-based aspect will present arguments that support a central idea (see "Structural Strategy" below). Structuring the hybrid doc is not an easy feat, so I recommend that editors create an initial assembly cut of each model before combining the two. A great example of a commercially successful hybrid doc is Supersize Me, ranked the 9th highest grossing theatrical documentary release with more than $9 million in revenues. Director Morgan Spurlock attempts to stay in good health while eating only McDonalds’s food for an entire month. In the course of his various difficulties (vomiting, high blood pressure, impotency), Spurlock presents stunning evidence of the dangers of America’s fast food diet in the form of experts, lawsuits, anecdotes, research and other data.

The beauty of the hybrid approach is that you can construct an elegant, complex documentary that demands both left-brained analytical engagement and right-brained emotional immersion. Done right, your viewer is held rapt. Other successful examples of hybrid docs include Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, No Impact Man, and King Corn. Note that the last two are personal documentaries in which, like Supersize Me, the director/protagonist has the advantage of contriving a narrative arc (living for one year without leaving a carbon footprint, growing an acre of corn) upon which he can hang his intellectual arguments. Plot points pave openings for cerebral proof.

2) Stylistic Strategy

Traditionally, PBS essay-style documentaries were characterized by talking heads, narration and occasional b-roll used as "wallpaper." Not very cinematically appealing materials, to say the least. Then along came Ken Burns who put his imprint on landscape beauty shots, reenactments, actor’s voiceovers and rotating zooms on photographs. Today we may yawn at these once-engaging tactics. In the last few years, creative directors have racked their filmic sensibilities to come up with fresh stylistic approaches.

On the visual side, essay films are now employing animation (Bowling for Columbine), humorous verite scenes structured as character vignettes (Religulous and Sicko), and most refreshingly, spectacular graphic gimmicks. I recommend studying such fine examples as the psychological profiles in The Corporation, the clever timelines in I.O.U.S.A., and the guilty/innocent verdict "stamp" in Who Killed the Electric Car? The other chief reason to use graphical representations in your editing repertoire, in addition to adding visual verve, is to convey complicated information. Witness the funny ballooning timeline in I.O.U.S.A., which helps us wrap our heads around economic theory and all those zeros in a trillion dollars. If you can afford it, develop both animation and graphic treatments for your more knotty concepts. If your budget is tight, then aim to convey ideas through simple reenactments, verite scenes in which some genuine action unfolds, or spectacular landscapes heightened with simple Motion filters such as the "lens flare." The bottom line: give viewers a reason to watch your film, rather than read a magazine essay on the same topic.

What about the sonic landscape? Definitely hire a composer. Essay films are notoriously talking-head heavy, so the idea of introducing what filmmaker Jon Else calls more "yackety-yack" seems counterintuitive. For a period, narration fell out of favor, as a generation of filmmakers eschewed the booming, omniscient voice of father god. These days, narration as text has become quite popular and effective. In the future, perhaps the unseen, third-person human voice will make a comeback as storyteller extraordinaire. I happen to favor narration. From an editing standpoint, it keeps your cuts spare (rather than wrestling with jump cuts and long-winded interviewees to make a point). From the audience’s vantage point, narration clarifies, a welcome tactic when ideas get dense.

3) Structural Strategy

While there are plenty exceptions, most idea-based films can be divided into three parts. I use the word "parts," rather than "acts" intentionally, to distinguish the powerful essay we are crafting from the classic three-act narrative structure first articulated by Aristotle. (For an excellent primer on how to construct a fundraising trailer for each of these two types of films, see Fernanda Rossi’s innovative book Trailer Mechanics.)

In Part One, which runs no more than one-quarter of the film’s length, you introduce your viewer to the film’s topic and ethos, or intellectual sensibility. What is the film about? Is your approach critical, affirming, investigative? Most importantly in Part One, you present your hypothesis, or central idea. Let me stress that your film’s premise should be a remarkably simple idea, i.e., "global warming is real," to really grab your viewer. Filmmakers with multiple dissertations and agendas make the mistake of diluting their vision and diverting their viewers’ attention. Another way of presenting your essay film’s single thesis is by asking a central question. For example, in Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore asks, "Why does America have the highest homocide rate from handguns?" All the other questions he poses in the film lead to that central question. For a great scene-by-scene case study of Bowling for Columbine’s essay structure, check out Sheila Bernard Curran’s excellent book, Documentary Storytelling. In Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog poses this question: Why did Timothy Treadwell get so close those big bears (that they ate him)? The documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? poses its central question in the title.

In Part Two, the bulk of the essay film, you craft arguments in support of your thesis and then organize these claims in a way that keeps momentum building. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore (and by extension, director Davis Guggenheim) puts forth several contentions to support his now rarely contested thesis—that global warming is an impending crisis. First, he debunks the naysayers’s research. Then he presents scientific evidence that temperatures and sea levels are rising, species are drowning, water shortages are creating arid farmland, food shortages are becoming epidemic, etc.

If your central idea is posed as a question, then Part Two explores different answers to that single question. Why did the Grizzly Man get so close to the Alaskan bears? Was he it because he was a fearless advocate for four-legged endangered species? A showman? Was he a man with an intuitive, non-verbal, bear-whispering talent? An egomaniac? Was he insane? Likewise, in Who Killed the Electric Car?, director Chris Payne cross-examines one suspect after another to find who should answer for this crime against the environment. Was it the car company CEO’s? The marketing executives? The American consumer? Technology?

How do you order your arguments or answers into an escalating format? Generally, you save the most intellectually powerful and damning evidence for last, although this will depend on whether you have the footage to illustrate it. Sometimes spectacular cinematography trumps the power of points made by talking heads. In other words, you may decide that great visuals accompanying a less powerful argument merit placing it toward the end. Or, your organizational strategy may be chronological, if your timeline naturally builds suspense. Or, you may hold for last the arguments that are best illustrated through moving character vignettes. I say "vignettes" because essay films are more likely to feature character snapshots rather than full-blown character arcs. Michael Moore excels at this strategy in Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko.

Part Three of an essay film raises the stakes even higher, perhaps by expanding the geographic realm of the topic, looking into the future at the implications of your case, or presenting solutions. Now that you’ve made your argument, it’s time to turn a structural corner and spend a little time (not much) speculating on what it all means. OK, the earth is heating up. What are the consequences? What can we do about it? In a similar vein, now that we’ve pointed the finger at all the suspects who could have sent the twentieth century electric car to a premature tragic death, where do we go from here?

In Part Three, you need to decide on how you want to end your film in terms of tone. Do you want your audience to leave feeling hopeful? Outraged? Troubled? My instincts tend toward the hopeful, particularly if you’ve spent most of your viewer’s attention span in a critical analysis of the status quo, as many social issue documentaries do. The Celluloid Closet, a terrific essay film that indicts Hollywood for its homophobic erasing and vilifying of gay people, ends with a flurry of hopeful signs: gay characters appearing in television sitcoms and dramas, straight actors playing gay characters, gay actors coming out. Give your attentive audience a dessert for their denouement—such as a sweet montage of success stories—and they just might honor your film, as evidenced by Fields of Fuel, an ultimately buoyant documentary about bio-fuels that won the 2008 Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Editor Karen Everett, owner of New Doc Editing, is writing a book entitled
Documentary Editing and teaches editing at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She directed and produced five documentaries, including an award-winning PBS biography of the late Marlon Riggs. To inquire about a free editing or story consultation, contact her at

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