Documentaries can be home-made from now on

Some documentaries present a particular point of view, such as the productions by Michael Moore or Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. According to Stefano Bocconi, the angle selected is always subjective. The dozens of hours of unedited visual material could just as easily present a totally different view of the subject. In order to give viewers access to all the footage and to enable them to make a documentary themselves along a potentially different point of view, Bocconi designed the software system ‘Vox Populi’. Bocconi defends his PhD title on this topic on Thursday 30 November at the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven (TU/e). He conducted his doctoral research with the Centrum voor Wiskunde en Informatica (the national research institute for mathematics and computer science; CWI) in Amsterdam.

On the wrong track
Stefano Bocconi, himself a maker of documentaries, noticed in his own practice that a director’s subjective choice has a strongly guiding influence. He made a documentary that portrays the state of mind of American citizens after the attacks of 9/11. More than ten hours of footage gave him plenty of options to choose from. His five-strong team of editors had difficulty in making a selection from the video material and deciding on a single point of view. Bocconi thinks that a director’s choice often puts viewers on the wrong track, whether consciously or not.

Director’s Cut
The objective in his doctorate research was therefore to design a ‘machine’ that would make viewers independent of the director’s cut. By creating the software system ‘Vox Populi’ he has succeeded in doing so. The system allows viewers to compose their own documentary by making their own selection of subjects, interviewees or viewpoints expressed. Subsequently, the software automatically edits the video fragments to form a coherent sequence. One condition: the maker of the raw footage does need to describe all fragments explicitly in advance.

Cinematographic and rhetorical knowledge
Stefano Bocconi has created a production method that bridges the creative process of the documentary maker and the formal approach needed by a software system. This method requires a classification of the film fragments using general cinematographic knowledge and insights into the rhetorical elements of documentaries. As a result, the system manages to throw contrasts into relief, or, indeed, to cluster similar fragments. So far, he has not succeeded in streamlining the rhetorical aspect for the whole documentary, or in automatically generating an accompanying text or ‘voice-over’. These aspects are potential topics for follow-up research.

Own documentary
Stefano Bocconi has made a demo of Vox Populi based on his documentary ‘Interview with America’ Via users can make their own short documentary from the raw material. The method designed by Bocconi is generally applicable. One condition is that the documentary makers classify the raw footage correctly. In Bocconi’s experience this at the moment entails a huge time investment for many makers of documentaries.