POV (Perspective)
How Directors Should Think About Motion Graphics in Their Documentaries
  • Monday, Jul. 19, 2021
Shawna Schultz

Graphics can play a vital, often game-changing role in a project’s ultimate success. When executed well, they underscore emotion while progressing the story. After 10 years of producing motion graphics for documentary projects, I’ve learned some nuances to the creative approach. Here's how I believe directors can benefit by thinking a little differently about the four most common graphic elements they use in storytelling: 

Lower thirds, the credentials used to identify a film’s subjects, locations and dates, are often overlooked as essential, but I like to refer to them as the graphical equivalent to a cruise director for your film. They help viewers connect the dots... Shot-for-shot, lower thirds and IDs often outnumber other motion graphics in a feature doc. They’re the most repetitive design and tone influence on your film’s graphics style.

As you approach lower thirds, think of them not as “who is this person,” but rather “who is this person to my story.” Keep them concise and relevant to that moment of your film. 

In “The Social Dilemma,” which discussed the effects of social media on society, we designed the lower thirds to draw the eye immediately to the company where each interviewee worked. That way, if people got nothing else from the lower thirds, they knew they were hearing from a group of insiders telling this story, helping build credibility.

Maps give your audience their bearings, and they may seem obvious in their approach, but making them effective graphically can be challenging.

First, determine what story question you’re answering with a map. If your audience needs to understand how long a journey is, too much detail may be distracting for viewers. Keep the map simple and show the route boldly.

For HBO’s “Q: Into the Storm,” the director wanted to show viewers a piece of evidence and a map was the best way to do it. It was important that viewers knew that a home was within driving distance of an office, so we set up a map with a satellite image mimicking a Google Maps search, and a simple, as-the-crow-flies line was enough to make our point. We didn’t need to start wide to show the context of the house within California nor did we need to show turn-for-turn directions..

Clue into your audience’s familiarity when you decide how much of the map to reveal. You might not need to start wide enough to reveal all of the U.S. when you’re showing a well-known city within the country. Additionally, don’t be afraid to get clever with maps, using them to reveal new information as you go.

In documentary filmmaking, data visualization – often dressed in graphs, charts or infographics – should quickly communicate information in your story. One of the biggest challenges (and our favorite!) is how to inject a tangible, memorable and human story into statistics. The first question to ask: what story does the data tell?

In early cuts of “The Social Dilemma,” audiences weren’t understanding the seriousness of the correlation between adolescent female self-harm and suicide with the introduction of social media on mobile devices. Seeing a line graph simply go up a few notches didn’t strike the emotional gravity the stat truly deserved.

These numbers represent our daughters, after all, and losing them is a serious issue worth investigating. As our team thought about that loss, we asked ourselves what was left behind. If you can imagine the grieving mother who finds her daughter’s shoes at the front door after her daughter is gone, it hits you in the gut. Girls’ shoes became the visual for our data reminding viewers that these were not just dots on a graph; they were girls that didn’t need to die.

Explainer animations can add more meaning where simple interviews or standard B-roll cannot, provided the animation matches the tone of your film and doesn’t catch your audience off-guard.

If you’re telling a hard story about familial abuse, and it just wouldn’t be appropriate to go film a reenactment, an animation with earthy tones and abstract visuals hinting at what happened could be powerful to help communicate a rougher part of your story.

Need to recount history? Rather than embarking on a narrative-style period shoot, use animation to tell the story with illustrated imagery. Think about animations like these in the same way you would shoot a recreation. For subtle emotive moments without needing to focus on an actor, think about what you can do with more suggestive cutaways and details you wouldn’t be able to get if you filmed it.

In the short documentary “The Love Bugs,” the main characters were two entomologists sharing their life stories of bug hunting together. The director wanted us to use animation to convey what happened 50 years ago. Since we had access to the scientists’ field journals, we were inspired to tell the backstories as if you opened the journal and it came to life. Using bug sketches, text, pieces of tape and coffee stains, we built a world that could live within the pages and used animation to bring the audience into the memory by telling just enough of the story.

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Shawna Schultz is co-founder of Mass FX Media, the motion design and visual effects company behind “The Social Dilemma,” “Friends: The Reunion” and “Q: Into the Storm,” among other high-profile projects. 

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