Framing and the Art of Documentary

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I remember taking my first film classes and learning about the different ideas that comprised the art of cinema through the infinite depths of Kristen Thompson and David Bordwell’s (now with a blog) tome-like Film Art and through the exploration of the classic fiction films such as Citizen Kane, Singin’ in the Rain, Casablanca, Rashomon, The Draughtsman’s Contract, everything Robert Altman, and so many others. I also taught these same ideas as part of course titled The Art of the Cinema, even showing some of the same films as my own teachers did (though not The Draughtsman’s Contract).

What strikes me is how these ideas of art in cinema rarely intersect with documentary. Discussions of documentary center on reality, argument, conventions, modes, voices, subjects, truth, and bias, but rarely does the question of art arise. Even in the dozen or so times I taught that cinema course, I dedicated a session to documentary, but I myself didn’t raise those points either.

So why the separation of art and documentary? Some of that might come back to the influences of early documentary photography, which showed the gritty realities of the Civil War and the Great Depression. Photojournalism (which is part of documentary photography, and probably its most visible practice) also places priority on capturing these realities, though the most memorable photographs draw on techniques from art.

Another part of the separation might come back to the documentary commitment to the truth. Art reveals its own truths and comments on them, but art also has the potential to make its own truths, drawn from reality and separate from it. This ability creates a potential conflict in that the art aspects might interfere with the documentary commitment to reality.

A third part comes back to the primary conceptual location for these discussions. As my opening comments show, the ideas of film and art usually address fiction film, not nonfiction film. Arguably, making art is easier when its makers have complete control over process and product. But what happens when you throw the messiness of reality into the mix? Does the reality overtake the art, does the art overtake the reality, or is there a way for the two to coexist?

Despite all these complicated questions, there are some beautifully shot documentaries out there. Take something simple, such as framing, which refers to how the cinematic subject is located within the frame. Framing occurs with people, landscapes, and objects. In terms of people, good framing might avoid cutting parts off, such as their heads or feet. But framing also offers the opportunity for commentary on the subject and even on the idea of documentary interviews.

Surname Viet Given Name Nam


Trinh T. Minh-ha, for example, combines framing with camera movement during the interviews in Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989). Instead of centering the speaker from the waist or chest up within the frame, Trinh migrates the camera around the subject, moving in for extreme close-ups on hands and eyes while the person continues talking. Instead of focusing on the face while a person talks, the camera might remain on a person’s hands. The overall effect is unsettling, but that is part of Trinh’s point with not only this piece, but also some of her other works, particularly Reassemblage (1982).

Lorentz's "The River"

A more traditional example comes from Pare Lorentz’s classic The River (1938) with the simple framing of these two children, with one looking right at the camera and one looking away:


Also consider this silhouette from the same film:

Silhouette from "The River"


Both of these images convey strong emotions through their choices of subject, their forms of framing, and even the choice of lighting, particularly in the second shot.

The River makes for a nice segue to talk about landscapes. The framing of landscapes conveys so many different meanings. In Lorentz’s film, for example, the Mighty Mississippi ignores its banks and wanders where it chooses:

Mississippi River in "The River"


The more recent documentary Sweetgrass (POV 2011) also offers some compelling shots of the Montana mountains alongside the challenges of sheep herding:

Sheep as seen in Sweetgrass


The BBC’s Planet Earth documentary really shows how framing and landscape work together. Granted, those makers had a beautiful subject to start with, but they still emphasized that beauty throughout the entire piece:

Shallow Seas from Planet Earth


Not all landscapes are visually beautiful, but the framing still helps show us what we need to see. Consider this shot from Haskell Wexler’s hybrid drama-vérité film Medium Cool (1969), which uses the car door as a frame within a frame to show the city of Chicago:

Chicago as seen in Medium Cool


The framing reminds us of the urban grittiness of the city, and it also connects to the tensions that underlie Wexler’s complex piece.

Framing further reveals objects. It can reinforce the everyday as the everyday, or it can make the everyday seem extraordinary. A key documentary to consider here (and the one that inspired this post) is Gary Hustwit’s Objectified (2009). Objectified addresses the intersections of the everyday objects with the ideas of design. So much design goes into everyday objects that most of us fail to notice it, such as with a toothbrush, a drain, cookware, dishware, and even a simple chair. We might notice more when the design interferes with function. The documentary frames these objects in such a way as to reveal them in new lights:

Alarm clock from Objectified

This tiny, simple alarm clock is an everyday object that many of us unfortunately need. Yet by placing this white alarm clock against a white field, by situating it off-center in the frame, and by adding the index finger on the button, it becomes something more, something for us to contemplate in ways we might not have before. The documentary’s subject, thesis, and interviews really bring the ideas of design forward, but the attention to framing in these shots provides a powerful visual reinforcement as well.

Framing is just one part of the discussion of art and cinema, and it can become part of the discussion of art and documentary. The form need not be just function. When feasible, careful choices in framing can really make an impact.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.
  • Anonymous

    Heather–nice insight into the art, or too often lack, of docs.  You are right that documentaries are rarely thought of as a part of cinema, from a visual or audio standpoint, and that the standard talking head and B roll is still dominant.  One of our goals at Montrose Pictures is to open the documentary to more imaginative approaches, and make it part of the cinema experience, above and beyond the many messages it can convey.  We are not the only one doing it, but there are too few at present.  Hopefully, that will evolve.