Errol Morris at Telluride, Time-lapses and Visual Effects in Documentary Filmmaking

At the Telluride Film Festival in September I made it my mission to speak with and see the works of the most celebrated documentarians at the festival: Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Ken Burns. And not just for the photo ops. I had questions to be answered.

Last week I wrote of my conversation with Herzog and his current works. As I explained in that post, my question for Herzog was related to access challenges encountered in the development of our current film, Watering the West: The Story of the Cache la Poudre River. I wanted to ask Herzog one more burning question, but glad for the little time I had, simply sought advice on what seems to be one of his strengths: access.

While viewing Errol Morris’ film, The Unknown Known, I knew that Morris was the man to answer the question that’s been dogging me for months, the question that just had to be answered before the long drive home. In The Unknown Known I counted 9 time-lapses before I tired of counting. Motion graphics, animations, and other visual effects of modern documentaries were heavily evident. Herzog is using none of these things. Ken Burns, not so much. But Errol Morris, he’s been making films for almost 35 years and this latest is visually on the cutting edge.

Known for such films as The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, he could probably even sell a film without a single time-lapse. So why bother with visual effects and animations if you’re Errol Morris? Morris referred me to his editor, Steven Hathaway, who was also present. “I’m pretty fortunate that Errol likes to try new things,” said Hathaway. “He likes to stay current.”

If you watch shows like, Breaking Bad (and who doesn’t?) you’ll see time-lapse photography. In the first season of Breaking Bad, not a single time-lapse. Fast forward five seasons to 2013 and count as many as three such sequences in one show. It’s what viewers are now used to–we need movement, and lots of it, to entertain us.

Good stories have always sold, and if it’s a killer story–an exclusive story, a compelling knock-your-socks-off side of life that we can’t see anywhere else–well maybe that story will sell without time-lapse photography and animation. But for most of us visual effects are the new norm in documentary filmmaking.

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