Chris P. Jones of Mason Jar Films presented a seminar at the 4EVER Group’s Video 08 convention in which he likened the new documentary to contemporary independent film, and differentiated the two styles as follows: Epic Cinematic and Indie Cinematic.
As noted practicioners of this new genre (whatever name happens to stick), these videographers, along with Glen Elliott of the eponymous Gm Elliot Videography, Jason Magbanua of Jason Magbanua Wedding Videography in the Philipines, and Maurice O’Carroll of Ireland’s Velvetine Productions, shared their takes on the new documentary-style wedding video with EventDV.
This article will first look at two recognized breeds of wedding video—the classic documentary and the cinematic—and examine ways they may have helped to shape the new documentary-style wedding video.
We’ll classify the classic wedding documentary as a long-form, cleaned-up archive edit—a wedding video on Ritalin. It is thorough and, to some, as dull as watching water boil. "Effects" other than dissolves, titles, and background music are minimal, if included at all. "Often the running time is as long as the actual events themselves. Hardly anything is left out—full readings, full homilies, uncut speeches, etc.," Magbanua says. As a result, this literal style "has had an unfortunate reputation of being dull and boring."
It’s true, says O’Carroll (left): "They are boring because we as television experts expect to see a story when we sit in front of our TV screens."
Boring or not, brides won’t stop buying them. Watson believes that "there will always be a market for no-frills, as-it-happened wedding videos. As boring as it may be for a stranger to watch, to the couple, every second of wedding footage is precious. I know whenever I become a parent, I’ll be all about my son or daughter’s classic documentary-style video." True that.
In fact, Gaff goes so far as to recommend that people "document their wedding day on video even if it is not edited." O’Carroll is even thinking about getting in on the market because the old-style longform approach makes sense from a high-volume standpoint.
The classic wedding documentary, he says, "most definitely has its place if it’s produced to a high standard; I’ve had the pleasure of watching many stunning traditional wedding videos and I intend to enter this market with a new company of my own. It makes practical business sense to produce traditional wedding video because it is less demanding on both a technical and creative basis. It won’t set the world on fire, but it is easy to shoot, promises quick turnaround times, satisfies clients, and its potential for healthy profits means that the ‘old’ will always be with us. This is a good thing, and as long as these productions are crafted on solid filmmaking practice, traditional wedding video can and will be the firm foundation our industry is built upon."
In another camp you have the shortform cinematic style wedding video—more of a right-brained interpretation of a wedding, known for its goal of evoking emotion. To do so, it may tell the story in a disjointed way and employ poetic shooting techniques such as rack focuses, high and low angles, simulated crane shots, floating camera techniques, push-ins and pull-outs, and shooting through objects, as well as slow motion, creative filtering, film or film effects, and black and white for contrast. This red-curtain style cinematic video employs mise-en-scène and dramatic musical scores and prides itself on being heavily stylized.
Glen Elliott’s early work embodied this style, but he’s made a conscious effort to move in a different direction. "While this style often can impress fellow videographers with the shot selection, camera techniques, and editing," he says, "it started to feel cold, almost like a commercial rather than a personalized event production. There’s no differentiation between one bride and groom to the next other than aesthetic things like dresses and locale." He feels his videos gained depth from his move to the documentary approach.
But the cinematic edit isn’t in danger of extinction either. Watson (left), like others, views the emerging style as simply a new aesthetic—an alternative to, but not a replacement for, these other genres. "There will always be a market for the highly romanticized cinematic-style video." Among the new documentarians interviewed for this article, that sentiment is unanimous.
When it Began
Common themes of the new documentary wedding style video include judicious use of time-shifting, fast cuts, ambient audio, L-cuts, and sometimes interviews. Intentionally absent are what Watson calls "self-conscious" techniques that would make the video "outwardly dramatic," such as "jarring, perhaps cheesy black and white images." The result is a naturalistic, yet stylized video, perhaps akin to what a nature documentary directed by Baz Luhrmann would look like.
No one—at least no one we spoke with—is really sure who "invented" the style or when. But all signs point to Loi Banh (left) of Bluecore Media (who couldn’t be reached for this article) as the Larry Page of the new documentary wedding style. Watson estimates he became aware of this style between 2000 and 2002, "when Bluecore Media came on the scene."
"Banh may have not been the first, but he was the first one I saw," agrees Gaff. "He used natural sound, real-time footage, and on-camera dialogue. That part was similar to what other people such as Robert Allen were doing as well"––which is one reason some longtime videographers say the new documentary style is not so much "new" as a return to the style of the first shortform wedding videos that Allen and others pioneered in the 1990s, before the romantic, cinematic approach took hold [see sidebar, "...Same as the Old Doc?"].
But Gaff and others maintain that Banh’s work took documentary video beyond what the documentarians of the ’90s were doing, and thus initiated a new documentary style. "Loi took it a step further by enhancing the storytelling aspect of the films," Gaff says. "He would use film music, exposition shots, dramatic structure, and many other film techniques. The big thing for me was the way in which he structured the films for dramatic impact even if it meant shifting things around chronologically"—a technique that has been used in feature films for decades, Gaff points out.
And presumably, even if it meant not getting industry recognition. Jones warns that "you are not likely to win any international awards among your peers quite yet while employing this method. It’s a paradigm shift of what wedding videography is" for brides as well, Jones adds. Because the style is in its infancy, not many brides are aware it exists.
SIDEBAR: ...SAME AS THE OLD DOC?
Inevitably, when videographers introduce an approach to video that they tout as a new style, the same questionarises: Is it really new? Or is it merely a variation on a theme or a calculated attempt to promote a familiar product under a new banner to differentiate it in a crowded marketplace? Former 4EVER Group director of education Tim Ryan, who’s been documenting weddings and social events with his video company, Treasured Memories, since the mid-’80s, sees the emerging documentary style as more of a synthesis than a new invention, a corrective for the epic cinematic style that has taken videography too far in one direction, and a pendulum swing back toward the approach that preceded the cinematic era. "What we did in the past was just shoot the wedding," Ryan says. "If you were really good, you told some part of the story. Some of it wasn’t that good. Entertaining, but not cinematic. Bring in the NLE, the possibilities were incredible," he continues. But in the attempt to take advantage of all the opportunities available to create something that wasn’t possible before, he says, videographers going for that cinematic artistry "lost the storytelling of the day. They went for heightened reality, trying to make it look better than it was. It went from ‘We make a movie about you’ to ‘We make a movie, and you happen to be in it.’" New documentary, he says, is an effort to go back to the story as it really happened. "If what happened was mayhem, that’s the story you tell. It’s bringing us back down from the heightened reality."
So it is, in one sense, according to Ryan, a circling back to the older documentary approach. The big difference, he contends, between the new documentary and old-school attempts to document the wedding is not in the concept but in the tools, the talent of the videographers, and the inherited techniques of the last 20 years. "You wouldn’t be impresed if they didn’t have the talent," Ryan says. "If you take them and put them back in ‘88, without an NLE, without seminars, without training videos, you’d get the same old crap."
With the ascension of the cinematic style, he says, "We swayed too far in one direction, and for a while we all loved it. New documentary is just pulling in the reins. They don’t know that that’s what we were doing 15 years ago; we just didn’t have the tools and talent." Robert Allen, another industry veteran who introduced shortform wedding video to the industry as "The 30-Minute Edit" in 1996, says new documentary "is just a new face on what we’ve known was there all the time. There’s a continuum of trends that come around," he says. "Twenty years later, it’s coming around again. It’s time. I just wonder why it’s taken so long."
‘Connected Generation’ Genre?
As for why this new documentary approach became a style, one hypothesis is the "everyman" accessibility and affordability of equipment that opened doors for younger videographers more attuned to pop culture. "I can only speak for the Irish market on this, but I firmly believe that wedding video was pioneered by fifty-year-old, gadget-loving geeks who could afford video cameras," says O’Carroll. "In 1985, I could barely afford a pack of cigarettes, but today, equipment and training are far more accessible to young, aspiring filmmakers."
It’s also a matter of how work and ideas are being shared and the technology that makes this possible on a global scale, he says. "The internet has become a fertile learning ground and online forums and broadband technology have forced many of us to hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask, ‘What can I do to make better wedding videos for my customer?’"
Magbanua (left) agrees: "I hate to turn this into a ‘young versus old’ debate, but the generational difference may be a good explanation for why the ‘new breed’ are open to newer techniques to produce better videos." In addition, he says, "the ease of use of software programs has enabled editors to play around the timeline. Videonics and Pana ASG1980 editors could only dream about the stuff an editor can do now."
"Technology opened the door to a huge wave of character-driven documentary films. Mostly, this was brought on by people using small and inexpensive cameras and editing solutions," Gaff says. "I think more people have been raised with film and television so our collective storytelling vocabulary has changed over the past couple of decades."
Others like Watson and Jones see documentary’s emergence primarily as a way to grow professionally and fill a gap in the industry. "Brides who aren’t served by the classic documentary or cinematic styles, and who are looking for a fresh, nontraditional video are gravitating towards this newer style," Watson says, recalling how the traditional styles didn’t satisfy him professionally either. "In 2005, I was getting a little restless. For years I was editing in a style many would call ‘cinematic.’ I was good at it but I felt I came as far as I could in that aesthetic. I was stagnated and feared that I would drift to the middle of the pack. It was a time for a change."
Differentiation was key, he explains: "There was also the business consideration as well. I felt like my style was blending too much with what others in my market were providing."
Jones, too, believes that "the change has occurred because, as filmmakers, we want to continually challenge ourselves in the ways in which we tell a compelling story."
Less Frontline, More Thin Blue Line
With such a new style, videographers are bound to name each other as inspirations, but some mainstream filmmakers come up in the list of influences: Robert Altman, Errol Morris, Sam Mendes, and Wes Anderson, to name a few. According to Bill Gaff (left), the style "makes me think of a Robert Altman film with all of its different characters and stories woven together. The scenes don’t necessarily have a specific beginning or ending; we are just kind of dropped somewhere in the middle of a story."
But it’s not just feature films that are filtering into new developments in videography style, Gaff says. "The recent popularity of documentaries and reality television is changing our collective media vocabulary, so it makes sense that wedding films would be a part of that change."
"The genre ‘borrows ‘rules’ from mainstream media," O’Carroll says. "A multimedia explosion is going off all around us and we are being bombarded with inspiration; corporate advert campaigns, music videos on our iPods, film and TV, the internet. Today’s filmmaker lives in exciting times where even wedding video has become sexy!"
And even if everyone might not concur on "sexy," it’s at least become stylish. New documentary-style wedding videos are "as stylized as music videos," Magbanua believes, and resemble "reality TV shows on MTV and VH1," according to Jones. "The Real World comes to mind." Gaff adds, "I just hope when people start to get sick of reality TV that they don’t throw out the baby with the bath water."
Chris Watson, by contrast, says he takes his cues from "chick flicks. Not so much in pithy dialogue and cute situations but rather in the light effervescent tone and ‘warm fuzzies’ they produce. Just like a chick flick, you have moments of hilarity, drama, and emotion at a wedding. I really try to bring that to my videos."
No ‘Money Shot Galleries’
But unlike the cinematic wedding video, some would argue, style in the new documentary wedding video doesn’t equal a "money shot gallery," says Glen Elliott (left), referring in part to the overuse of effects and the tendency to build a "story" on the accumulation of a few heartstring-tugging shots built up slowly.
While he will "occasionally use slow motion in a shot I feel can benefit from emphasis," says Elliott, he feels that often "slow motion and dissolves are used as an editing crutch and tend to turn pieces into money shot galleries missing the mark in regards to solid storytelling and accurately conveying the personalities and emotions of the subjects involved."
To build upon the warmth, rather than re-create it, Watson does use "a few effects to really pull out those special moments such as the bride’s entrance, the first dance, etc."
Likewise, Maurice O’Carroll reserves filters and transitions for enhancing the documentary’s "visual identity" and to "help move the story forward. Too many wedding videos rely on clumsy dissolves to carry the viewer from shot to shot, or they use slow motion to fill timeline space and cover up poor shooting," he says. "Final Cut Pro and an HD camera won’t make an engaging wedding video if the filmmaker believes that cinematic language is simply achieved through laying slow-motion footage over a Hans Zimmer track."
Less is also more when it comes to emulating the vintage look through the incorporation of film or black and white filters. While Gaff likes the look of film, he doesn’t anticipate ever using it. O’Carroll says that "film is a whole new baby that I doubt I’ll ever explore." And while black and white isn’t off-limits for the new documentary crowd, you’re not likely to see any "Take My Breath Away"-type love story montages. Jason Magbanua stresses that he uses black and white "sparingly for maximum effect." Jones (an 8mm aficionado, though he shoots color film) adds that the use of black and white is "intentional, never for effects’ sake."
In Praise of Ambient Sound
The same is true of the soundtrack in the new documentary-style wedding video. They are not blanketed by the crooning of Josh Groban or Celine Dion; music serves a supporting role. [EventDV does not endorse the use of copyright-protected music in wedding and event video but will mention it where relevant until the pertinent issues are resolved. —Ed]
Watson says, "For the most part the music serves the same function as it does in a feature presentation. It’s there to set a tone and subtly influence the pace of the piece." This leaves room for ambient noise, including natural dialogue, "to give the bride and groom character," he says.
Gaff’s couples by and large welcome the camera unobtrusively capturing intimate moments such as a quiet conversation between the groom and his father before the ceremony or the bride before she goes through the church doors, and Gaff regularly uses audio he captures in these scenarios.
Elliott, on the other hand, says that he will at times allow the music track to dictate his editing—"particularly if a song has a crescendo, at which time I’ll try to use a really strong and/or emotionally poignant shot." But for the most part, Elliott says, "I’ll specifically try to stick with music that naturally lends itself to be in the background rather than forefront. Music that is relatively soft and flat which would not offer as much dramatic emphasis when used in a cinematic edit but would complement the natural audio and not be distracting. I feel when audio is used correctly in this way, it is invisible the same way a cut used correctly is not ‘noticed’—placing the viewers’ primary focus on the subjects’ story rather than fancy effects or epic music."
What’s the Story?
So if the soundtrack doesn’t dictate the editing, what does? Unanimously, it’s the story and the skillful way it is told, often incorporating timeshifting and interviews. Practitioners of this genre, O’Carroll says, overwhelmingly have a strong command of filmmaking principles, which elevate their stories beyond the "seen-it-before wedding video" by allowing them to unfold the story and reach its core. Their kind of storytelling is "structured around a theme like ‘the groom is more nervous than the bride’ or ‘the groom misses his dead father and this makes the bride appreciate hers more than ever!’ This kind of storytelling bares a truth that not only resonates with the couple but it can also be appreciated and enjoyed by the casual viewer."
An integral part of the story is a sense of place, Jones (left) points out. "The wedding is held in a church, but where is the church? Is it in a city, or in the country? What was the weather like that day? What else was happening in the town besides the wedding?"
To tell his stories, O’Carroll makes use of timeshifting in most of his productions. So does Magbanua—"if the edit calls for it and not for the sake of it," that is. "If a video or audio clip which happened later on the wedding will augment the emotions, impact or humor of an event which happened earlier, I will juxtapose the two," Magbanua says.
Watson takes it on a "case-by-case basis" as well. "It really depends on the couple and if the events of the day lend themselves to that kind of treatment. Sometimes there’s timeshifting in the mix either through speeches, scripture passages, or retrospective interviews to offer the audio backbone."
Interviews with the bridal party and family members bring an archival quality to Elliott’s videos. "Not only do you get to see Mom or Grandma in her dress, but you hear what she was feeling when she was walking down the aisle," he says. "To hear how Dad or Grandpa was feeling when he first saw her, in his own words—this makes the product so much more valuable."
"Interviews are the single most important storytelling tool that I have," Gaff says, because they are "portraits of who these people were at this moment in time." He continues, "Interview-driven docs are very powerful more so with character-driven stories like wedding films. Even historical documentaries like The Civil War use powerful and emotional interview-driven storytelling. Nothing enhances a story better than being able to look into people’s eyes as they tell it. Ordinary people have this eloquence and rhythm when they talk about the people they love. For example, when a father sees his daughter in her dress for the first time, it can be an emotional moment. But when you cut between that and the bride talking about how her father had to work 14-hour days to pay for her ballet lessons when she was 6, it can really be beautiful."
But others are a bit cooler on the idea, interviewing sometimes but not always, letting subjects "speak for themselves but not for too long," in Jones’s words. O’Carroll prefers not to use interviews at all because they "tend to jar my viewers out of the dreamy documentary I try to create."
The Doc is In
Other than the knitting together of a story through ambient audio, a subtle soundtrack, L-cuts, and timeshifting, there’s another common thread linking different practitioners of the genre: The fact that new documentary-style wedding videographers produce this and only this type of video. "This style is my voice, and I searched for a long while before finding it," Jones says. "I had a brief romance with cinematic edits, but wanted to make something that could be extended to longer than 5-10 minutes while retaining the viewer interest that cinematic edits command."
Gaff echoes Jones’s sentiment: "It’s what I like to watch and what I like to create." And it’s why his clients hire him, he says. Slowly but surely, the demand is increasing as the style becomes more prominent. Elliott predicts that the line between cinematic and documentary will continue to blur. Jones, likewise, says, "With wedding videography only penetrating about one-quarter of the bridal market, there is plenty of room for this style to grow—it may be what countless brides wished they could have, but won’t know they can have until they see an example."
"What this new style has the opportunity to do is open up a whole new market segment that the classic doc and cinematic style aren’t quite hitting," Watson says. "With three major styles to choose from, prospective brides have more of a chance to find a videographer whose work speaks to them, which in turn can result in greater market penetration for wedding video in the wedding industry Good news for us all."
Seeing is Believing
After a certain point, talking (and writing) about video is about as effective as singing about algebra (Tom Lehrer notwithstanding)—particularly when you’re discussing the differences in video styles, and even more so when one key differentiating factor is audio. And we all know how ineffective still images are at conveying sound.
So rather than try to illustrate the new documentary style with screenshots in the magazine, we asked each of our six interviewees to provide a page within his website where EventDV readers can watch some new documentary videos that exemplify the style. Here are the links they provided:
Chris P. Jones: www.masonjarfilms.com/eventdv
Bill Gaff: www.humanstoryfilms.com/eventdv
Chris Watson: http://dallasweddingfilms.net/?p=100 (password: March08)
Maurice O’Carroll: http://velvetineproductions.com/portfolio/weddingstory.html
Jason Magbanua: http://tinyurl.com/2k54zq
Elizabeth Welsh (elizwelsh at gmail.com) is a freelance writer and editor based in Madison, Wisconsin.