Mary Elizabeth Luka was 17 when she held a video recorder for the first time. It was a life-changing moment.

“That was it, I was done,” she says.

Now, roughly 40 years later, Luka is an established Canadian documentary film producer and an academic specialist in art and digital media.

Luka has seen the industry’s evolution firsthand. Her first productions for the Internet were made during the painful days of dialup. She was the executive producer of a decade-long project that began in 1997 for the CBC called ArtSpots. The program was a series of short videos, ranging in length from 30 seconds to six minutes, that showcased work by Canadian artists. Some of the spots were featured solely online.

Technology has advanced immensely since then, and has given documentary filmmakers new opportunities to tell stories. It’s an interesting area to be working in today, Luka says.

Reconstructing tradition

Documentary filmmaking has been an integral part of Canada’s cultural milieu for almost 100 years. But the industry faces hardships as traditional broadcasters provide less airtime and as methods of funding disappear. In 2014, the CBC slashed in-house production budgets for documentary. In 2015, Nova Scotia cut its provincial film tax credit, as Saskatchewan had in 2012. Canadian documentary production volume declined by more than $100 million between 2008 and 2011, according to a 2013 study called “Getting Real 5: An Economic Profile of the Canadian Documentary Production Industry,which was done by the Documentary Organization of Canada, a collective of independent documentarians.

With financing and distribution in turmoil, many filmmakers are concerned about where the documentary industry is headed.

But the industry is far from defeated – it’s adjusting to new realities.

Research shows that Canadians are consuming an increasing amount of video content online. In March 2015, digital research company ComScore reported that the number of people using desktop and mobile devices to watch videos had risen 36 per cent from the beginning of 2014, with 73 per cent of Canadians reporting they often viewed videos on their Internet-enabled devices.

Documentarians are tapping into this growing market by producing content for online platforms.

Shasha Nakhai has been a documentary filmmaker for about six years. She co-owns Compy Films, a production company based in Toronto, and does audience engagement for Storyline Entertainment, a non-fiction programming producer.

Nakhai says the Internet is an effective tool for reaching viewers. But the wealth of documentary material available to viewers online makes it challenging to reach the right audience.

“There’s so much else out there,” says Nakhai.

Producing for the web

In September 2015, the CBC released an open call to what it refers to as “the next generation of Canadian documentary filmmakers” to inspire them to create stories designed for Internet streaming. In Spring 2016, CBC will begin releasing – online – these documentary productions.

Lesley Birchard is an executive in charge of the digital docs project. During the two-month submission window, she says over 200 filmmakers presented their ideas. She says the mountain of pitches was overwhelming, but exciting to see.

As Birchard spoke with the filmmakers who submitted pitches, the question that occupied her was, “What might make a documentary suited to the digital space?”

She says a documentary’s shareability on social media can dictate what kind of content gets produced. This factor pushes documentarians to think about their audience in ways they might not have before. She advises filmmakers to consider whether their film is something they would want to tell their friends about, or repost themselves.

Holding a viewer’s attention is not a new consideration for documentarians, but tailoring content to make it more shareable is. Producer Shasha Nakhai agrees that social media marketing and shareability are important considerations for people who are making films for online audiences.

“That’s the reality,” she says.

Nakhai says a video must hook the viewer in a short amount of time, and engage them adequately enough that they will want to share it.

“I find that every move you make from the inception of the idea has to be strategic with an online doc,” she says.

Nakhai says tapping into niche audiences on social media prior to a production’s release is vital to a project’s success. She films separate content specifically for this purpose – to release exclusive footage in order hype a film. Pushing content out in waves, she says, is the key to gaining a loyal audience.

The social web is also making it easier to unite with audiences. Mary Elizabeth Luka says social media and comments sections allow viewers to be directly involved with a project. This can make documentaries springboards for tangible justice outcomes.

“Television came into our living rooms, versus cinema which we had to go out and see in the theatre,” she says. “The big thing about the Internet is that it kind of gets us back out on the street again.”

Mary Elizabeth Luka at the Halifax Central Library.
caption Mary Elizabeth Luka at the Halifax Central Library.
Ashley Corbett

Beyond the main event

Documentarian Peter Raymont agrees that the Internet is changing the audience’s connection to a film. 

Raymont has been a filmmaker for 44 years. He is the president of White Pine Pictures, a production company in Toronto.

Raymont is not generating documentaries exclusively for the Internet. Despite this, he says several of his productions are “just as much, if not more” digital projects than they are for broadcast.

In the production of a documentary, he says, not all research makes the cut: there is always more footage and information than what goes into the final product.

Raymont says that before the Internet was popular, extra footage and research that didn’t make it into the film was just “put into a basement,” or into an archival library somewhere.

Now, these elements can complement a main piece of work when they are posted online. His website provides a collective forum for ongoing discussion, he says.

“It becomes a kind of clearinghouse of information,” he says. “Films can create this kind of database for people to share and engage in.”

Raymont says the documentary community has started to embrace this approach within the past four to five years.

“I don’t think there are any Neanderthals that still produce a film or a program that think it will be only be seen on television,” says Raymont.

Software and innovation

Luka says there’s another way to involve viewers in digital documentaries – interactivity. She cites the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) as a notable player in the “interactive” subset of Canada’s documentary industry.

The genre is difficult to define, because each project differs immensely, but experimentation characterizes the NFB’s Interactive documentaries. Producer Nicholas Klassen describes the interactivity component as a “lean-in” viewer experience – meaning that the consumer is actively involved in the unfolding of the story. The audience cannot simply “lean back” and watch.

These projects are fairly new. In 2008, the NFB created its English digital studio, with a mandate to focus on the production of interactive non-fiction. The French digital studio was created the following year.

Under the “Interactive” tab on the NFB’s website there are projects that range from videos that allow the viewer to click on different short stories, to augmented reality apps, which resemble video games.

Klassen works as a producer in the NFB’s Vancouver digital studio. He says interactive documentaries allow the audience, or “users,” to have more of what he refers to as “agency” in their experience of a story.

“It’s just a different way of experiencing content,” Klassen says.

“It is a natural progression. It’s really not much more complicated than the fact that these are the tools we have – everyone has a smartphone, lots of people have laptops and tablets,” he says. “These are the tools, so we may as well use them.”

Klassen does not think experimental projects will replace traditional documentary films. But he says modern software has enabled producers to tell stories that wouldn’t work as linear films.

He cites the documentary Bear 71 as an example. The interactive project combines voice-over narration, photography, video and digital elements to immerse the viewer in a point-of-view experience. The user “becomes” a grizzly bear wearing a tracker in Banff, Alta.

When the project started out, filmmaker Leanne Allison had access to thousands of photos from Parks Canada – but that was it. Not exactly a recipe for a film, Klassen notes – at least not in the conventional sense.

Without the ability to experiment with form, Klassen says, that story might not have been told.

Interactive projects are catching on in the documentary community. At Hot Docs 2016 in Toronto, the largest annual documentary film festival in North America, an entire program called DocX will be dedicated to exhibiting immersive and interactive projects.


Producers who are delivering documentaries digitally have a key concern – the discoverability of their content. The Internet is vast, home to an overwhelming library. And options for online audiences are more diverse now than ever.

The Documentary Organization of Canada reports in “Getting Real 5” that potential audiences are having a hard time finding documentaries that are not aggregated on popular providers, such as Netflix and YouTube.

Hot Docs also studied online documentary audiences, reporting similar findings.

Nakhai says she releases her online content on iTunes and on Vimeo’s free platform. She says each offers its own advantages and disadvantages. Vimeo, for example, has allowed Nakhai and her production teams to receive what she calls the “truest form” of feedback – comments from strangers.

iTunes provides significantly fewer viewers than Vimeo, Nakhai says, but at least there is a cheque associated with that platform.

“That’s why it’s best to do a multi platform strategy,” she says. “So you can utilize the film or the project in many (more) ways than just one.”

Technological benefits

In some ways, access to digital technologies has set filmmakers free. For instance, online distribution has eliminated length restrictions that exist within the television model.

Patrick McGuire, director of content at Vice Canada, says digital platforms offer filmmakers the luxury of choosing a runtime.

“It’s really just about how much story there is,” he says.

Vice is an international news organization, created “by and for a connected generation,” according to its website.

Vice uploads much of its documentary content to the web. McGuire says the key to hooking viewers is about targeting the audience.

Vice has 11 different digital channels, all of which are aimed at different audiences. This helps Vice segment its viewership and deliver content to specific interest groups, says McGuire. 

Technological advances have also made the tools of production cheaper and more accessible.

Filmmakers can edit video on their laptops, using inexpensive or free software. They can also shoot with small, high-quality devices.

For example, in early 2015 an American online journalism publication called Ryot produced a five-minute documentary shot entirely on an iPhone 6s, titled “The Painter of Jalouzi.” To the Ryot Films team, this was a “no-brainer,” says Hayley Pappas.

Pappas runs Ryot’s video department, and says technology has converted what was formerly a “news minivan” into something that “fits in your back pocket.” This is helping documentarians get their stories, she says, because the process of filming has become subtler and therefore more organic and authentic.

What Pappas means is that the relationship between journalist and subject is more intimate when they are not surrounded by an intimidating amount of camera gear.

Pappas also says cheaper and better-quality technology is shrinking the “barrier to entry” for filmmakers, and “democratizing the playground.”

In other words, you don’t have to be a professional to make a documentary film today.

Mary Elizabeth Luka says she puts careful thought into her approach to new technology. She points out that it’s important to understand the bigger picture.

She says filmmakers still need to understand what she calls “the business of the business,” and not become fully distracted by technology.

“Whether you’re using a pen and paper, or you’re using a phone,” she says, “you still have to know how to tell a story.”

She pauses, and laughs. “Otherwise, we’d all be rich and famous.”

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    Monique Corbett

    Such a wonderfully written article! After reading, I am pleased that journalists and documentarians can get back to the grass roots of acquiring their story, and that expensive, fancy equipment does not need to be an obstacle for new or travelling journalists capturing that "story".
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