Sundance: Filmmakers Talk Technology's Influence on Nonfiction Stories at THR, CNN Panel

Maria Bello, who debuted her 'The Sun Ladies' VR experience at the festival, was among the panelists for 'Documentary Filmmaking in the Digital Age.'

With technology evolving at warp speed, how will nonfiction storytelling be affected and what opportunities will result? That was the question addressed at the CNN Sundance panel Documentary Filmmaking in the Digital Age.

The Hollywood Reporter's editorial director Matthew Belloni led a discussion with panelists Maria Bello, director Garrett Bradley, Great Big Story executive producer Courtney Coupe, and The Eagle Huntress director-producer Otto Bell on how everything from virtual reality to ubiquitous short-form documentary platforms are enhancing the ability to tell compelling true stories.

Bello, who created The Sun Ladies VR experience, which is making its debut at the festival, says she found the nascent technology was the best way to tell the story of Yazidi female fighters taking action against their ISIS oppressors.

"I immediately went to VR," she said. "I wanted people to experience the power of [the immersion]. ... Some of the headsets can do such high-quality resolution."

Though Bradley didn't work in VR, she also went the nontraditional route with her Sundance 2017 short Alone, which chronicles the struggles of a woman and her incarcerated boyfriend. The short was initially submitted and accepted as a New York Times Op-Doc and went on to win the short-film jury award in nonfiction at Sundance 2017.

"I hate the term ‘short-form content,’" said Bradley, whose directing credits include the TV series Queen Sugar. "I’m making movies that are shorter that you can watch on multiple screens."

She told the audience at the CNN Films Lounge on Main Street that there is a plethora of platforms for similarly minded documentarians. In addition to NYT Op-Docs, she recommended Laura Poitras' Field of Vision, The Guardian, Great Big Story and Vogue, among others. She urged the audience to avoid Vice, which also showcases short-form docs.

"I wouldn’t recommend working with them. I’m going to just put that on the record," she said.

Coupe, who represented the buyer side among the panelists, said Great Big Story, which was founded two years ago by CNN, gravitates toward micro-docs in the 2- to 4-minute range that will travel far on social platforms.

"We try to tell stories that make you feel something. Everyone here is talking about emotional projects. … that’s at the heart of what we do," she said. "Our motto is: 'Tell me something I don’t know. Show me something I haven’t seen.'"

Bell, whose feature documentary The Eagle Huntress became a breakout at Sundance in 2016, explained how millennial technologies are influencing even traditional documentaries. He first learned about his Eagle Huntress protagonist, Aisholpan, who trained to become the first female in 12 generations of her nomad family to become an eagle huntress, when he saw a picture of her in a magazine.

"Talk about digitally. I stalked the photographer on Facebook," he joked of setting into motion his first meeting with Aisholpan's family. "I didn’t know if it would be a short YouTube thing."

But the footage he shot warranted a long-form documentary. He sent a rough cut to Sundance, which accepted it, to his surprise. He sold it to Sony Pictures Classics from a pizza booth on Main Street in Park City, and the film became the highest-grossing documentary of 2016 after it was successfully marketed to young kids and teens.

Given that teenagers increasingly look to short-form content for their entertainment, Bello says artists have two choices: Stay stagnant or go with the new paradigm.

"They're constantly watching YouTube videos. That's what a lot of the kids do now," said Bello, who has a 16-year-old son. "So, do we go with that? I think we have to grow and change with it as opposed to just sitting and saying, 'This is the way I want to tell a story.'"

As for the streamers, which represented the new technology of Hollywood just a few years ago before becoming fully ensconced in the film and TV business, Bello had mixed feelings.

"I think Netflix has been a good platform for artists. Deep pockets. Let’s be honest," she said. "But there’s so much content now. Who knows if your project is going to be seen?"

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