Cumulus, Christopher Ian Smith's Imogen Heap documentary was crafted from social media. Here's how he did it.
I just finished post production on a short film about the musician and singer-songwriter Imogen Heap. The project, called Cumulus, was a different approach to the archive documentary as I was going to make it solely from Imogen's social media data and digital content.
Why? Good question. Imogen's not only a serious power user of pretty much every social network (12 were researched for the film), but so are her fans and there is an almost constant dialogue between them. She also uses digital platforms to directly involve her fans in the creation of her music. Examples include the use of Soundcloud to source fan created sounds for her tracks, and asking her fans to write her biography on Twitter. Every track on her latest album Sparks involved collaboration in some way.
So the film became something more than a biog documentary - not just the story of Imogen, her music and her personality, but hopefully an exploration of the positive power of social media and a look at how Imogen's digital personality evolves and changes in the form of her fan's activity and online 'tributes' - from poems and tattoos to hundreds of six second cover versions on Vine.
So, based on my recent and raw experience of making a film this way, here's a five point guide to making a documentary from social media.
1. Pick the right subject
Sounds obvious but make sure your subject is active in the social media and digital space. Imogen was a great subject because she's active on so many platforms, so frequently. This also presents another challenge - how the hell do I research all this content? (see below).
Work with a subject who has something to say and is actually saying it themself. Carefully crafted PR activity does not a great story make. You need insight and emotion to explore a character or a theme, so the subject/s must be using social to express themselves. Who knows if it's true, but it must come from the individual and at least show how they want to represent themself. Of course, it helps if the subject is interesting or relevant - so maybe Miley Cyrus (example Tweet: "Nipples are where titties go wrong") would be a better subject than Leona Lewis (example Tweet: :Off to the studio xx").
Your subject doesn't have to be an individual of course, it could be a theme or trending topic. This will give a much broader range of content that can be searched easily, but makes it tricky to get clearances for content used. Which leads me onto....
2. (Optional) Get your clearances
Following this point depends on how much of a crazy, risk-taking bastard you are, or what you want eventually want to do with your film. If you plan on selling it to a broadcaster, they won't touch it without clearance signed off for every piece of content used. Film festivals will be more lenient and if you want to publish on Vimeo, YouTube or similar then a dispute will only be raised if someone flags a rights issue with the platform.
You can also claim 'Fair Use' or 'Fair Dealing' if the content used fits the legal criteria and advances the argument of the film. See here for more info. This is how broadcasters happily use YouTube and Twitter content for breaking news and pretty much how Michael Moore makes all his films without paying huge footage royalties.
If you're making a film about an individual I highly recommend getting their permission first. Standard rights practice (let's not get into the intricacies of Facebook right here...) for most social media and content platforms is that the user owns the rights to the content they post. So ask nicely and get that clearance form signed.
3. Build a strong team and have a process
Like any archive documentary the research process is critical, and very time consuming.
I was lucky to find a great team of researchers and a talented, patient editor to work with in order to help craft a film from over 12 social networks and content platforms, including 50+ YouTube video blogs, over 5000 tweets, Reddit AMAs, DeviantArt, Vine, Instagram, Tumblr, Soundcloud. Audioboo and more.
That's a lot to get through so you need a process in place to log this - for video you want to log links, time codes, dates and comments, for Tweets dates, content and links. Content on platforms such as Instagram and it was easier and quicker to save and store. Everyone on that research team has to stick to the process, and there should be some serious Google Drive spreadsheet action going on.
On Cumulus, I still ended up reading or watching almost of all of the data researched, but my time was optimised because everything was in one place and logged according to theme and context (see next point).
4. Identify narrative strands early
In documentary the story often evolves and grows in the shoot and the edit. It's a challenge to crack the specifics of the story in the development stage. But if you can identify key narrative and thematic strands at an early stage... then you can brief the research team to identify and flag these.
In the case of CUMULUS these strands included 'Imogen's home life', 'Innovations with technology' and 'Difficult times'. When you get to the edit your trying to craft a story from fragments and different content types is tough - so being able to contextualise these fragments and review within that context helps no end.
5. Tell your story through a narrative framework
Make a framework for your content and stick to it. What's the framework? It's a plan for how you're going to represent and display the different types of content in the film. Posts, tweets, answers, images, video clips, Vines, audio clips etc. There's no right way - and the framework should be directly linked to your story and your subject.
You could take a traditional single screen documentary approach and show every tweet or post as a text quote on screen and every piece of video and still image full screen. Or you could bring tweets to life through dynamic text, or voice over, or mime performers.
Whatever works for the story and tone of your film and the narrative device you are using, make sure you set thath paradigm and work closely with the Editor, and if relevant, Motion designers/VFX artists early to ensure your vision is achievable.
6. CUT, CUT. CUT
Ask yourself what the essence of the film is and tell the story in the most economical way possible. With a huge amount of data and interesting content at your disposal it becomes difficult to can it. But you should. If it's supposed to be a short film then make sure it's short.
I'm stating the obvious now, maybe it should have been a 5-point plan....
Cumulus will be screening at festivals and events throughout 2014-15.