A swirling pinkish orb, emerging out of the void.
Voiceover: “Hundreds of years down the line, who’s going to know who was the president of the United States, or something?”
Solar rays over a vast planetary surface.
Closeup of Ryan: glasses, nerdy, but with a self-aware glint in his eyes: “But everyone will remember who was those first four people who stepped on Mars.”
The documentary “If I Die on Mars” sets up an irresistible premise in its first 15 seconds. Over the next 45, it seals the deal, with stock footage of colorful dust clouds swirling on the surface of the Red Planet cut with flashes of three unlikely candidates to be its first colonists: Ryan, a central-casting Oxbridge astrophysicist; Dina, a confident and athletic refugee from Iraq; and Jeremias, an earnest young man from Mozambique.
In a series of titles that accelerate like a countdown, the film explains that a nonprofit called Mars One plans to colonize Mars by 2024, that more than 200,000 people applied—and that those who are chosen will never return to Earth. Then the kicker, in a voiceover from Jeremias, shown staring out at the African sea: “If I die on Mars, that would be great.”
The documentary wasn’t a feature-length film, and didn’t air on the big screen. It was just 11 minutes long, and debuted in 2015 on the website of the British newspaper, The Guardian. Yet it earned an audience vaster than the number who would have seen it at any film festival, garnering more than a million views in its first week alone.
Part of the appeal of the film is the way that it immediately subverts expectations. Within minutes, the filmmakers are asking intimate questions about sex, masturbation, love and loneliness. “Our approach was very much to find emotional shortcuts to get to the nub of the human side of this,” says Ed Perkins, the film’s London-based director. “We don’t have time for long exposition, so we asked, ‘How can we really get to the point where there is some real depth and poignancy?’”
The answer was to focus on the emotional decisions to leave one’s family—and planet—behind in search of an uncertain future. As Ryan talks about being abandoned by his father at age 2, and Dina admits she’s never felt love, it becomes clear that all three of them want to go to Mars because they are unhappy on Earth. “Once you realize that, you get this mountain of melancholy that is counterintuitive,” says Charlie Phillips, The Guardian’s head of documentaries. “It’s not the film you expect.”
Short nonfiction films connect human beings with true stories from around the world
Rather than being a downer, however, the twist makes the film a powerful reminder of what it means to be human in a vast universe we are only just starting to explore. “One of the things we’ve learned from making movies is that people don’t so much want analysis or news or argument, they want to feel something strongly,” says Peter Savodnik, founder of Stateless Media, which produced the film. “They want so much to connect with other human beings.”
The film is one in an explosion of short nonfiction films that have increasingly populated the channels of mainstream news sites, connecting human beings with true stories from around the world. Call them mini-documentaries. From three to 12 minutes in length, they have all of the quality and production values of a Hollywood film, contained within a bite-sized narrative watchable on a phone during a bus commute. Since The New York Times started focusing on the form in 2011, other media companies have quickly piled on, including The Atlantic, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Vice, Al Jazeera and Vox.
They are capitalizing on the changing ways that consumers, particularly younger ones, take in the news, shifting from print and television to online and mobile. Facebook recently reported it has 4 billion video views a day—more than 75% of them on mobile platforms.
In response, the company has begun prioritizing video in News Feeds and launched Facebook Live, competing with the likes of Meerkat, Snapchat and Twitter’s Periscope to stream video 24/7. The ubiquity of video in our culture has played a major part in creating news, with the recent live transmissions of police shootings bringing an urgency to that issue it might not otherwise have had. Mini-documentaries offer audiences deeper, more emotional storytelling that is consumable on the go.
“We consume so much news and information in short snippets, there is a desire to spend more time and really get in-depth,” says Stacey Woelfel, associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and director of the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism. “But you can’t consume a 90-minute documentary on your phone. So we get the best of both worlds in these five-, seven-, 10-minute videos that are more in-depth than what we’d read on a Facebook newsfeed, but don’t require committing to a sofa at home.”
Media outlets are responding by hiring staff and expending significant resources both to create documentary films in-house and contract with filmmakers to show their work as a way to attract new audiences and—possibly—create new revenue streams. Web video advertising is projected to be $9.6 billion this year, a 29% increase over last year, and nearly seven times the $1.4 billion in 2010, according to industry analyst eMarketer, which predicts it will continue to rise by double digits annually throughout the decade. It now represents 14.3% of spending online, up from 12.8% last year. At the same time, news organizations are struggling to translate the documentary form, which lends itself to slow, nuanced storytelling, for platforms and audiences largely focused on quick hits.
The New York Times led the way in 2011 with Op-Docs, which took the model of the Op-Ed page as a way to distinguish documentaries by outside filmmakers from its regular video news content. Traditional news stories on the site range from 30 seconds to just a few minutes in length, offering fast-paced information on breaking news stories. Op-Docs, by contrast, provide context, opinion and color on issues of the day.
“In the same way we have outside writers submitting opinion pieces on diverse topics, we have outside filmmakers submitting videos with a strong point of view,” says Op-Docs executive producer Kathleen Lingo. The site runs the gamut of topics, with videos on surveillance, immigration, and being 35 and single in the city.
For news organizations, there’s a natural give-and-take in working with documentary filmmakers, who come from a different tradition of storytelling with its own rules. “The ethics that would kick in are about not staging things or manipulating the editing. Nonfiction filmmakers play around with that a bit,” says three-time Emmy-award winning documentary producer Marcia Rock, who directs the News and Documentary program at New York University. “Being on a site like The New York Times, you don’t want any confusion about the truth.”
While there haven’t been any recent controversies over short online documentaries, there have been plenty of charges of deceptive editing on feature documentaries, including Netflix’s series “Making a Murderer,” which has been accused of leaving out incriminating evidence, and executive producer Katie Couric’s documentary on gun control, “Under the Gun,” which edited an interview to appear as though gun advocates lacked a response to a key question.
The short attention spans of online viewers, who at any moment can open another tab, create unique challenges
For that reason, documentaries accepted by Op-Docs go through the Times’ regular fact-checking process, and producers are not afraid to suggest edits and changes if the films don’t adhere to their standards. While that kind of back and forth may be expected with a print journalist, producers tread lightly with directors who may not be used to that kind of scrutiny. “It’s not dictatorial, it’s a democracy,” says Lingo. “It’s more about a collaborative process.” That’s not to say that the films need to be completely unbiased; by labeling them as opinion pieces rather than straight news, the publication allows the films to express a strong point of view in advocating on an issue.
“The thing that unites all of our films is that they are provocative and can start a conversation,” according to Lingo, who judges success of videos by how many comments they get. “The point isn’t to change people’s mind, it is to cause a reaction.”
One good example of that kind of reaction is a video aired last June, titled “Transgender, At War and In Love,” which tells the story of a transgender couple serving in the Army and Air Force. The couple risked expulsion for openly revealing their status; transgender people were prohibited from serving by the Pentagon at the time. Instead, after an outpouring of positive public reaction to the video, including over 100 comments, President Obama invited the couple to the White House. Six weeks after the film aired, the Pentagon officially moved to change its policy on allowing transgender individuals to serve openly, telling the Times editorial board that the video played a part in its decision. “The personal stories,” said one senior defense official publicly, “helped shape what is otherwise an abstract concept.”
The keys to producing a successful mini-documentary for the web are in some ways the same as a full-length documentary: having unique access to a subject and telling his or her story in a strong narrative style. In other ways, however, the short attention spans of online viewers, who at any moment can open another tab, create unique challenges. “It’s not like in the first five seconds someone has to bleed or die, but in the first five seconds something visually or informationally has to bring someone in,” says Lingo. The transgender video, for example, opens with Logan Ireland, a baby-faced American airman in Kandahar, Afghanistan, flubbing his introduction with a loud bleep as he curses the camera, then flashes a disarming grin. Mission accomplished: You want to know more about him.
Having strong, fully-drawn characters—whether a transgender military couple or a surprising cadre of would-be astronauts—is key to drawing viewers into the documentaries, says NYU’s Rock. “It’s more character-driven than information-driven,” she says.
Equally important are strong visuals that can grab a viewer’s attention in the first place. Editors think long and hard about choosing a visually arresting thumbnail image that will cause potential viewers to click on a piece.
Much of the initial appeal of “Angola For Life,” a film released by The Atlantic last September, comes from the arresting opening shots, which resemble a plantation from more than 150 years ago: Black inmates standing waist-deep in the fields, while overseers with guns watch them from horseback. “Before the Civil War, Angola was a plantation,” narrates Atlantic contributor Jeffrey Goldberg. “Today, there’s a reasonable chance that some of the men working this farm are descendents of the slaves who once picked cotton here.”
The Atlantic released the video along with a magazine exposé Goldberg wrote about Angola, in Louisiana, where 75% of its 6,000 prisoners are serving life sentences. As the video unfolds, it focuses on the efforts of the warden who has transformed the prison, focusing on rehabilitation, even though most of the inmates will never leave the prison. As Goldberg narrates the story and interviews the warden and the inmates, the hopeful message contrasts with the bleak visuals—the punishing Louisiana sun, inmates struggling in the fields, barbed wire and prison bars—emphasizing the full extent of the challenges that face the prison.
“When I look at investing our time and effort and resources for documentaries, I am always asking what is the bigger story, and how does the visual medium help tell it?” says video producer Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, whom The Atlantic hired in 2011 to create a video channel for documentary content. “The catch was, there was no budget,” she says. Over the next two years, she and her colleagues licensed some 1,000 short videos from around the web, and posted them to the site. The magazine saw the videos as a way to drive traffic—and advertisers—to its website and give its writers and editors another platform to get themselves and their stories in front of audiences.
In 2013, the magazine doubled down with a new in-house department to make films; it now has a staff of 12 who often collaborate with The Atlantic’s print writers. “It’s really exciting for us as a magazine with more than 150 years of history to see that we can bring our journalists to a new platform,” says Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg. In fact, she says, the video “Angola for Life” reached a larger audience than the accompanying magazine piece by Goldberg.
For news orgs, there’s a natural give-and-take in working with documentary filmmakers, who come from a different tradition of storytelling with its own rules
Mini-docs are becoming a major part of news sites’ online strategy. The Atlantic’s viewership has risen 78% in the past year; The Guardian’s has more than doubled over the past two years. “There is an increasing demand from advertisers and readers for quality video content as people’s news habits become ever more fragmented and increasingly mobile,” says Guardian News and Media commercial director Nick Hewat. Across the industry, demand for video advertising is currently outstripping content supply. In the New York Times Company’s latest earnings call, president and CEO Mark Thompson specifically singled out video and mobile advertising as areas of “very strong” growth, even as digital display advertising has declined. Moreover, these video documentaries give outlets another opportunity to shore up their brands in a visual and highly engaging way, allowing them to differentiate themselves from other publications.
Outside of the common elements of strong characters and visuals, the documentaries produced by each media outlet have their own sensibilities. The Guardian’s videos are often international and political in nature, The New Yorker extends its in-depth, narrative storytelling to video in features such as “The Journey from Syria,” a six-part series of 10-minute videos in which the magazine partnered with The Intercept’s new documentary channel, Field of Vision, to record a refugee’s harrowing trip from Damascus to the Netherlands, at the same time telling the story of the family left behind in Syria. “Everyone is telling a refugee story,” says New Yorker senior video producer Sky Dylan-Robbins. “We wanted to find a great story that was true, and told in a beautiful and cinematic way, but that also had an unexpected angle.” By showing the lives of those left behind as well as those who left, the film humanizes and adds depth to the stories of both groups.
Vox has developed its own style of explainer videos that employ graphics, animations, and news footage to translate a current issue. “There are a lot of 90-minute films that have a cast of 10 talking heads that guide you through a story, and then in the middle there is a three- to five-minute explainer that is hugely critical to explaining the whole thing,” says director Joe Posner. (Think Al Gore’s presentation in his global-warming film “An Inconvenient Truth”.) “What we are doing is liberating that to stand on its own.” A recent popular video, “Syria’s War: Who is Fighting and Why,” explains the conflict in five minutes with color-coded icons representing Assad, ISIS, Hezbollah and other groups moving around a map.
Animation-heavy videos are particularly suited for sharing via social media, platforms that present unique challenges to producers of online mini-documentaries. Recent surveys have found that up to 85 percent of Facebook video is viewed without sound. “We started subtitling our YouTube videos early on as an accessibility tool,” says Posner, “and then it became completely indispensable when Facebook video became a big thing.” Now that Facebook has set videos to play automatically as users scroll through their feeds, it has put even more pressure on documentaries to strongly draw in viewers in the first few seconds. “We used to think about the thumbnail, now with Facebook, we think about what are the first three seconds that will sell it to the audience,” says Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg.
An Atlantic video about the elements that make up the human body begins with a NASA astronomer lifting herself up into the frame in a campy jerk—that’s enough to cause viewers to pause while scrolling through their Facebook feeds, enough at least for Dr. Michelle Thaller, reel them in over the next few seconds of her intro: “So what is human existence? How can we sum it up? It turns out it’s pretty simple: we are dead stars.”
While most producers put the same videos on different platforms, some target content depending on where it appears online. Al Jazeera, which launched AJ+ in September 2014 specifically to produce on-demand content for social media, creates three different video formats: newsy “reaction” videos to quickly respond to current events; 2-3 minute videos it calls “In Context,” which feature interviews and animations for more in-depth analysis; and longer documentaries in the 10-minute range for more character-driven feature stories. While AJ+ shares the first two formats on Facebook, it reserves its documentaries for YouTube and Vimeo.
Executive producer Michael Shagoury defines AJ+’s style as “speaking truth to power,” unabashedly appealing to the 18-34 age group with videos strongly advocating on issues. “Our stories definitely have conflict in them, clearly divided into two sides that are visually represented in the piece,” he says. “Ideally that comes with some sort of confrontation between them.” A good example is “How To Stop a Pipeline,” a tense documentary about an indigenous group in Canada confronting oil and gas companies trying to build across their land.
The video establishes the conflict early, showing the indigenous protesters setting up a blockade at a bridge along a wooded section of road. “We are going to go through all the peaceful avenues we can,” says one leader. “When all those fail, it’s war.” The film builds towards a tense confrontation between activists and industry officials at a community meeting and ends unresolved, with a warning of new pipeline projects and new blockades being planned in the woods.
A second part to the film, released 10 days later, continues the story, with direct confronations between armed police and activists at the blockade, during which the indigenous defenders refuse to back down. The film ends with the news that one of the natural gas companies has chosen a new route that will bypass the activists’ camp. Throughout the film, the point of view stays squarely with the activists, with no attempt to explain the position of the other side. “We are choosing issues our audience cares about,” says Shagoury, “that reflect their own identify, and their own beliefs and political leanings.”
The new challenge for media sites is to retool mini-documentaries for viewing on the small screen of a smartphone. A study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau last year found that 58 percent of users watch short videos of under 5 minutes on their phones, while 36 percent watch longer videos—and the numbers only seem to be increasing. Since AJ+ launched less than two years ago, says Shagoury, there has been a 50% drop in desktop viewing and a corresponding 50% rise in mobile viewing. According to Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, The Atlantic now sees a near even split, with 46% desktop, 45% smartphone and 9% tablet. Sites and filmmakers have been slow to adjust to the switch, with most admitting that they don’t change the way they are making the films for mobile viewing, outside of increasing the size of the subtitles.
The current wave of mini-documentaries is providing new opportunities for filmmakers and media sites
Some feel the switch to the small screen is hurting quality. “There is a real worry [in the film festival community] that content is being dumbed down,” says Jason Sondhi, cofounder of Short of the Week, which has been curating short films online since 2007. Phillips, who himself was previously deputy director at Sheffield International Documentary Festival, understands such concerns but ultimately rejects them. “There is a frustration among non-narrative filmmakers or those making aesthetic documentaries, because we don’t do films like that,” he says. “Any platform has to react to its audience.” At the same time, he’d hardly call online documentaries “dumbed down.” “This is an informed and intelligent audience,” he says. “They are craving information and they are craving story.”
Making films for news sites also provides “instant gratification,” says Joris Debeij, a filmmaker from the Netherlands who has lived the past seven years in Los Angeles. A few years ago, he bought a camera and started making short films of the characters he met in L.A., often tackling themes of social and economic inequality, posting them online on his website I Am Los Angeles. One of them, “The Bull Rider,” was acquired by Op-Docs, an honor he equates with “the same level of prestige as getting into a good festival” without the long wait that can follow submission.
Debeij supplements his creative work with client work, in his case creating commercials for the likes of JetBlue and the Sacramento Kings. Other filmmakers have used the short documentary form as a launching pad to documentary features. An Op-Docs film “Notes on Blindness,” a haunting evocation of the notebooks of a writer gradually losing his vision, won an Emmy in 2015. Afterwards, British filmmakers Peter Middleton and James Spinney expanded the film into a feature documentary of the same name, which recently won awards at Sheffield and the San Francisco International Film Festival, and will be released in theaters in the U.S. this year.
The current wave of mini-documentaries is providing new opportunities for filmmakers and media sites. “We are the forefront of this really amazing moment,” says The New Yorker’s Dylan-Robbins, who started a collective of visual journalists called the Video Consortium last year that has already swelled to more than 1,000 members. “People are realizing that video is an amazing medium to get across important stories in a quick way that matches with the attention span of people in today’s world.”