Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville is interviewed by Matt Bretz, vice president and creative director, Ayzenberg. In this keynote interview, Neville will discuss branded documentary content and how it differs from traditional documentary films — and how it is the same. In a landscape of ever more abbreviated platforms for communication, marketing docs are unabashedly rich, cinematic and traditionally narrative. Where does his work fit into a big brand’s communication portfolio
Bretz led off by explaining he’d like to explore the nature of documentary filmmaking and how it relates to marketing content. What makes a great documentary “Same thing that makes a great film : Story and character,” said Neville. “It’s a completely different process, though — when you make a movie, you write a script and then shoot a movie. When you make a documentary, you shoot a movie and then you write a script.”
“I prefer as an interviewer to ask questions I don’t know the answer to,” Neville said. “I want to learn.” He described more about the process and how you have no real control over it, you need to “throw away the map” and follow where the story takes you. Neville quoted Hitchock: “In movies the director is God; in documentaries the movie is God.”
Neville talked about the importance of following the story and not being afraid to go off on tangents. “To me the key to being a good interviewer is being genuinely curious,” said Neville. “If you’re less worried about where it’s going and just want to have a good conversation, it’s better. Being curious is the number one attribute you need to have to be a documentary filmmaker.”
“How do you get excited about bleach ” Bretz asked, posing a hypothetical case where Clorox wants a documentary making you feel like bleach is part of the family. “I think you can get excited about anything,” said Neville. “There are stories everywhere, it’s just figuring out the angle. As a documentary filmmaker you get a really marvelous sandbox to play in. If I hadn’t done some commercial work I don’t think I would have gotten to do the Keith Richards documentary.”
Bretz noted Microsoft’s use of Neville to make short pieces about HoloLens. “Microsoft is obviously being very careful about how they are rolling this product out to the world, but Morgan is the tip of the spear,” Bretz said. “We came onto HoloLens about 9 months ago, and it was a product that most people in Microsoft knew nothing about,” said Neville. “I spoke with the inventor Alex Kipman and afterwards I said ‘I could do a whole movie on this guy.'”
“The HoloLens story is the story of these brilliant people from the gaming department who came up from under the radar. I found it fascinating,” Neville said. He’s been commissioned by Microsoft to do a long-form documentary about HoloLens as well as all the short pieces he’s creating. More significantly, Microsoft told Neville to tell the story he wanted to tell “with no interference from marketing.”
Neville’s insights into the nature of documentaries and how that connects with brand marketing are fascinating, and of great value to marketers planning content marketing.
Over the years, Morgan Neville has focused on a number of significant artists for his documentaries, including a forthcoming piece that focuses on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. Before his presentation at the [a]list summit today, we managed to sit down with him to discuss virtual reality, as well as the key differences with a branded documentary.
What kind of role will virtual reality play in filmmaking?
One of the problems with virtual reality is that it’s troublesome from a storytelling point, because you have to direct people, whether it’s narrative or documentary. People are going to be telling stories with it, but I don’t think that’s the primary purpose. If you’ve seen the videos, it’s really like, you could be at home and instead of putting Post-Its up or having a TV screen on instead of having your laptop open, instead of a cookbook, all that stuff. With this, you can move it, you can size it, and you can share that information with other people with the devices. So a lot of it is very practical, useful stuff. This is just stage one — I’m interested to see stuff that’s not that far away. We’re going to get to the day when we’re watching an NBA basketball game on this table.
So like a hologram, essentially.
How cool would that be to watch?
Does virtual reality pertain to you as a documentary filmmaker?
I’ve met with companies that are doing it and I think there’s going to be kind of a gold rush of content providers for virtual reality settings. I mean, there are so many different types of devices and formats , platforms coming for virtual reality that I think there’s a dearth of content and technologies. And so, I know because I’ve been hearing about it, filmmakers have been meeting with people doing full virtual reality narrative, constructs, people doing things.
What do you think will be the toughest part to adapting to such technology?
Virtual reality is so difficult because shooting it is one thing, you need the special multi-camera to get that. You can’t edit really in the same way. Typically, in virtual reality, you don’t edit. Maybe you can come up with ways of dissolving occasionally, but it’s essentially kind of an unmediated experience. So, in that way, storytelling is very, very different. And a lot of times now, most of what people are doing with virtual reality narrative is done mainly with CGI. Very little is being done with actual camera work. This is all gonna change very quickly, so it’ll be interesting to see when people start screwing with it, and saying, “Well, yeah, maybe we can do jump cuts and maybe we can do…,” you know, just get more into it. It’s an expensive sandbox right now to play in, and so we’re not quite at the experimental stage, but I think it’s gonna happen very quickly.
Some people may be confused by the term “branded documentary.” Usually they’re used to watching just a regular documentary. How would you define differences between the two?
Branded, it’s all kind of made up. I think the thing as a documentarian is if it’s sponsored by somebody or branded, just kind of up front about that. There are those documentaries that are sponsored at the beginning, but the content of the film has nothing to directly do with that product. And those are great as a documentarian to feel like you can tell a great story that resonates somehow with that product and they get great content for that product and you get the story, so it’s like a win-win of a situation. I’ve seen a lot of documentaries — just at Tribeca this year there were a couple of documentaries that were paid for by corporations — but I think as long as there’s… well, getting funding for documentaries is always difficult, so you’ve got your “brought to you by Ford” or whatever. I think that’s fine, as long as there’s nothing disingenuous about it, it’s a win-win for everybody.
What would you say is the toughest part about being a documentary filmmaker?
Raising money. (laughs) It’s gotten a lot easier and a lot — I mean, documentary used to be a “bad word” and now the way that audiences have completely accepted the documentary — and Netflix is a big part of that — people always say to me now, “I was a fan of documentaries, I just didn’t know where to find them.” And now that people have access to them, they’re realizing, “Oh, these are great stories, they’re telling better stories, more cinematically.” So it’s kind of a great to documentary filmmaking.