Three Key Elements of Building an Awesome Documentary

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I really enjoyed watching Mega Builders “Episode 23: Floating Bridge” about a bridge in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.  This is a documentary about how engineers had to build a bridge in the most difficult way. They had to build a floating bridge called the “William R. Bennett Bridge” to replace the old “Okanagan Lake Bridge”. There are lots of cool techniques for making documentaries interesting. I liked three elements in this video and they are the introduction, 3D animations and the way they introduce the characters.

I have cut the best two minutes of the documentary here.

Effect 1: The Introduction. A powerful way to feel the problem

The documentary begins by explaining why this bridge was needed. It uses exhilarating music with clips of cars travelling slowly, bumper to bumper, in heavy traffic. The music, the clips of traffic and the statements are powerfully narrated, with statements such as “they had no choice” and “a five lane bridge to replace a three lane choke point, was a no-brainer”. This combination really dramatised the problem.

Figure 1 The clips of bumper to bumper traffic really dramatised the need for a new bridge.

Figure: The clips of bumper to bumper traffic really dramatised the need for a new bridge.

The old bridge only had three lanes.

Figure: The old bridge only had three lanes.

Figure: The new bridge was to be larger and have five lanes.

Figure: The new bridge was to be larger and have five lanes.

Effect 2: Using 3D animations

Next, the documentary explained how this bridge was built across Lake Okanagan. It was way too deep and muddy to dig columns to support a normal bridge and it was too long to build a suspension bridge (such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, USA). The documentary used 3D animation to explain the different options. This was impressive and would have been hard to do, as this is one of the only parts that would have required different software. To build the visual effects with motion graphics like this, different software is needed. If I was to try to make animation like this, I would use software like “Adobe After Effects CS6”.

The documentary uses 3D animation to explain the reason a floating bridge is needed

Figure: The documentary uses 3D animation to explain the reason a floating bridge is needed.

This Canadian bridge was hard to build, as it is a floating bridge. They explain it is a

Figure: This Canadian bridge was hard to build, as it is a floating bridge. They explain it was a “big challenge and a big risk” and that it was to be built right next to the old bridge which transported 50,000 cars daily. Next, they introduce the characters.

Effect 3: A stylish way to introduce the characters

I really liked how they introduced the characters. It was very simple to do and very impressive to watch.

The first character we learn about is the Marine Project Manager, Mr Kevin Giberson. You see him initially just walking around on the pontoon.

Figure 6

Then you hear new powerful music and you feel as if you are spinning around him. Then they zoom up close to him.

Figure 7

Then you hear his voice for the first time. He is talking to others, going about his normal daily work.

figure 8

I love the simplicity of this and it would have been so easy to do. They would have asked the character (Kevin) to stand still and then they took many pictures of him, from lots of different angles.

This effect is repeated for Kevin’s second in command, Kevin Hamakawa.

Engaging Documentary

The video continues and is quite informative, even though there was not really much drama and the ending was known. One other highlight for me was seeing how the large concrete blocks were able to float. 3D graphics were used to explain this as well.

Figure 6 They had to build nine large floating cement blocks.

Figure: They had to build nine large floating cement blocks.

Finally the bridge is finished and opened

Figure: Finally the bridge is finished and opened.

One Oversight

One oversight was that the location of the bridge was not shown on a map. I had to look it up on Google Maps to discover that it was just east of Vancouver. I believe it is very important to tell the viewer where the location is. I have shown the location at the beginning in two of my videos, Black Box and Tunguska.

The bridge was built east of Vancouver, Canada

Figure: The bridge was built east of Vancouver, Canada.

You can watch the whole program on ABC iview:

Summary

In summary, the filming was done well, the music was used appropriately and the story was interesting. The highlight for me was the introduction to each character. It was so simple and clear. They used still shots of the characters, from different angles, switching images without using cross fades.

The narration was done as a “voice over” as you only hear the narrator. The director has chosen to have no “talking head”, when the narrator is on screen. Generally I prefer a mix of these during a documentary since I have been influenced by Louis Theroux. However, now that I’ve watched and analysed this video, I have realised I like this style of not having the narrator on screen a lot. Actually it is like a Charles Ferguson movie I watched about the global financial crisis called “Inside Job”.

Have you seen a great documentary I should see? Please let me know it’s name and what you liked about it.

-Eve

4 Comments

  1. Ku Cheng Yong on 03/04/2013 at 11:49 am

    You like planes, right? I have seen a video of you interviewing QF 32 captain Richard De Crespigny on youtube. I am 12, about the same age as you, and I also like planes! “Takeoff: The A380 Saga” is an interesting documentary on the Airbus A380 made by Discovery channel which you would definitely like. If you don’t know where to watch it, contact me and I will tell you.

  2. evecogan on 14/04/2013 at 7:49 pm

    Hi Ku

    Thank you I would love to see this.
    I cannot find that video and I don’t have Discovery Channel. Is it on youtube?

    -Eve
    http://www.evecogan.wpengine.com

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