Using a documentary’s theme to inform the filmmaking: Farming for the Future
*A version of this blog post originally appeared on Red Hat's Open Studio blog in February 2020*
The future of farming belongs to us all. At least that’s the message I got from completing Red Hat’s Open Source Stories documentary, Farming for the Future. As a self-proclaimed city boy, I was intrigued by my assignment as director/editor of the short 10 minute documentary, but also felt like the subject matter was worlds away. If it did, in fact, belong to all of us how would we convey this to a general audience? How could we use the film’s theme to inform how we might approach the filmmaking to enhance the storytelling?
Finding the Story’s Theme
First off, what is a story’s theme? A common misconception is that theme is merely a category: good versus evil, class, responsibility,etc. However, that’s not quite the whole picture. A film's theme is the stated point of view of the filmmakers and subjects. It’s a position that can be argued or defended.
Our team spent two months researching open source in agriculture, which led us down many interesting paths. Ultimately, we found the most compelling theme for Red Hat to explore was the role open source is playing in changing the way we define "farm" and "farmer" and how agriculture belongs in the hands of everyone, especially in a changing climate.
For me, that direction freed us to make some unexpected choices about who appeared in our film, where the action takes place, and how we move among settings. Following our theme let us move away from some of the tropes and imagery you might associate with an agricultural documentary.
Our final edit remained remarkably similar to our original story outline, which broke the film into three distinct acts.
Act 1 focused on the traditional farmer and some of the challenges she or he faces in modern agriculture. Act 2 introduced new agricultural concepts, locations, and tools that have roots in open source. Act 3 reinforces an idea expressed by all our sources: that community and data-sharing are essential in the new world of agriculture. The film opens and closes with middle and high-school students describing how participating in open source challenged their ideas about agriculture.
Capturing the Content
Our team wanted the student interviews to feel like testimonials and mimic how the general audience might draw similar conclusions or assumptions about farming. The students’ discoveries in the film would also reflect the learnings of the audience.
The Open Source Stories team originally explored the testimonial approach in Road to A.I., so we felt confident the technique would work. However, we decided to make one major tweak. Instead of looking off to the side during the interviews, students would speak directly into the camera. This would create a two-fold effect. First and foremost, it would lean into the testimonial style where we felt the students would be giving their honest opinions. Secondly, the students could become our strongest advocates in delivering the film’s theme directly to the audience.
To realize this, we used a piece of camera equipment called an EyeDirect. The EyeDirect reflects the interviewer’s face onto the lens, making the conversation with the student much more personal. In looking at the lens, the subject also looks at the interviewer. We previously used this device on Red Hat’s Creating ChRIS series with great success.
During production, we captured 17 interviews, far more than past Open Source Stories. We thought it was necessary to showcase a wide range of voices to drive the theme home.
The final film featured 12 of our interview subjects. That presented a challenge: How could we help the audience keep track of so many people? Jumping between three different schools could potentially be disorienting, and we did not want the audience to get lost. Working with the cinematographer, Jason Arthurs, we crafted a solution to use a unique color palette for each school. Each teacher and their students would have their own major color. That hue would be featured prominently in their interviews and classroom.
In order to make our color choices more organic we drew inspiration from images of the students’ own projects and classrooms. For example, Melanie Shimano and her students have a strong magenta color, which ties back to the grow light in their food computer.
Enhancing the Visuals
We center-framed the student interviews knowing that we would cut them back-to-back in the edit. That allowed us to illustrate their words with graphics that built across interviews. The result was an unbroken, collective picture that pulled together the students’ ideas. We also leaned into a friendlier animation style that portrayed the students’ unique points of view and the film’s message.
Even before production, I knew that location would be its own character in the story. Using a drone’s perspective would allow us to capture and contrast the various landscapes in the film. We could also subvert audience expectations for lush cornfields by showing expansive snowy backdrops and crowded urban city blocks, reinforcing our central theme that agriculture can happen anywhere. At times, the landscapes themselves advance the storyline by becoming a canvas for overlaid geographical information and statistics.
During story exploration, our team talked at length about how our subjects were blurring the lines between the urban and rural worlds in agriculture. That seemed like an interesting idea to try to represent visually in the film. In the edit, I used a "match cut," which is a cut from one shot to another where the two shots are matched by the action or subject and subject matter. The result is a seamless transition that links two different ideas. Stanley Kubrick famously did this in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where he match cuts a bone club and a satellite: two moments separated by thousands of years.
In our film, we used the match cut to bring separate environments together. Our settings―three schools, a museum, a startup workshop, and a farm―are geographically distant, but they’re connected by common goals. In our film, the city and classroom visually become the farm.
A documentary's theme shouldn't solely exist in the content of the interviews. It should permeate through the visuals, graphics, editing, and music. If you're interested in Farming for the Future or other Open Source Stories, visit Red Hat's hub page.