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“Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered:” How to Make a Crime Documentary That’s More Than a Crime Documentary

Through many interviews and a trove of archival materials, the HBO series focuses on these murders, the victims and those they left behind.

From 1979 to 1981, at least 30 African American children and young adults in the Atlanta area were abducted and murdered. Then 23, Wayne Williams was eventually found guilty of murdering two adults and was linked by law enforcement to 10 of the deceased children. He was sentenced to two life terms and almost all the children’s deaths were soon chalked up to Williams, their files closed, leaving open speculation about the possibilities that someone else, or even multiple people, were actually responsible for at least some of the killings that occurred during that two-year reign of terror.

“Cries for justice — for American power systems to make even the most basic concession that Black lives matter — are not in any way new,” writes Jess Joho.

“Over the past couple weeks, however, those cries have rung out with a long-overdue collective ferocity that has rarely been seen in this country. But to truly join the voices who’ve been demanding a safer future for Black Americans, we must also look back and fully reckon with the countless times non-Black Americans failed them.

“That’s why HBO’s Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children, a documentary released this past April about an infamous string of child murders in the ‘80s, feels especially pertinent right now,” Joho continues. “It’s not only a timely reminder of how far back these conversations around race, injustice, and policing go. The documentary highlights exactly how the American law and order system enables and protects those who murder Black people, even when they’re children.” To read the full article, click here.

HBO’s five-episode documentary series, Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children, focuses—through many interviews and a trove of archival material—on these murders, the victims and those they left behind, while also bringing in new perspectives from a wide range of sources about these 40-year-old crimes and the possibility that there’s much more to the story than initially believed.

The series is executive produced and directed by Sam Pollard, Maro Chermayeff, Jeff Dupre and Joshua Bennett. Emmy-award-winning commercial and documentary filmmaker, Robert Hanna shot much of the interviews and other contemporary material using Sony Venice cameras from AbelCine. Here, he discusses his formats of choice, from super 16 to various video camcorders (Beta SP, DigiBeta), back to film and eventually the Venice, shooting in 4K and beyond.  Of his use of the camera for this series, he says, “‘This was the first time I’ve used it and everyone at Show of Force, the production company has been thrilled with the images,” he tells Noah Kadner. “And that’s just with the proxies right out of the camera without any color grading. The image is very filmic, a dramatic change from the classic ‘Sony broadcast’ look.”

Casket containing Michael Cameron McIntosh, 23, the 25th victim in Atlanta’s string of slayings of young black is carried by members of the Guardian Angels and relatives during funeral services in Atlanta, Monday, April 27, 1981. His mother, Mrs. Hazel Matthews, third from left, follows the casket. From “Atlanta's Missing And Murdered: The Lost Children” (AP Photo/Sebo)
Casket containing Michael Cameron McIntosh, 23, the 25th victim in Atlanta’s string of slayings of young black is carried by members of the Guardian Angels and relatives during funeral services in Atlanta, Monday, April 27, 1981. His mother, Mrs. Hazel Matthews, third from left, follows the casket. From “Atlanta’s Missing And Murdered: The Lost Children” (AP Photo/Sebo)

Read more: Robert Hanna: A Lifetime of Documentaries

The cinematographer shares some technical data about his specific use of the camera: “Due to the massive volume of expected material,” Hanna explains, “the production opted to shoot X-AVC QFHD (UHD) in S-LOG3 color, but not RAW. We did 40 or 50 interviews of two to three hours each. They would have had to create dailies and RAW was going to be just too much material to manage efficiently.” To read the full article, click here.

While the filmmakers made a point of avoiding reenactments as a method of storytelling, there are a quite a few atmospheric shots to create a sense of time, place, and action. One set of these represents the movement of cars in which kidnap victims were rushed off. To create this imagery, Hanna mounted the Venice on a Russian arm (used frequently in feature film action scenes and commercials) to enhance, “the feeling of this ominous car traveling around Atlanta.” The driving material was shot with the Venice set at EI 2500 with a 19-90mm Fujinon zoom mounted to it.

Speaking of the numerous takes on the same subject matter that preceded The Lost Children, Chermayeff explains in an interview, “Everything that I saw was just kind of, this child was died and this child died, then this child who was the 14th here, the 15th and then oh, the splash on the bridge. It’s a much deeper, much more nuanced story.

Read more: The New HBO Docuseries Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children Transcends True Crime

“The level of archives that we were able to dig into and bring to the fore brought the viewer, literally, back into an unfolding story,” she continues. “We’re not using the archive as sparingly as we can as a punctuation point visual. We had the opportunity to really spend six to 10 months gathering archive in a significant way. And I think it tells a very different story.” To read the full article, click here.

Chermayeff also explains how the work was divided. “‘All of us produced/executive produced the series in full. We determined together in collaborative dialogue and research which way we wanted the series to go—the direction of the story and what the tone and style of the series would be. We then produced the material together—each of us doing multiple interviews, shooting exteriors and visuals, and preparing drone and specialty shoots. We were also on the whole present at [one another’s] interviews, adding questions and focus as we saw necessary to enrich each episode.

Read more: “There Were Clearly Other Things Going On, From Klan Involvement to Pedophile Rings…”: Maro Chermayeff on the HBO Docuseries Atlanta’s Missing And Murdered: The Lost Children

“As such, each of us have interviews which appear across the various episodes,” she continues. “During the post phase we determined that each director would focus on different episodes, and as directors work with the editor to produce the final series. Sam and I chose to work together on two episodes, as we have a long history of collaboration, and we felt that episodes one and two ‘set a table’ that makes them unique.” To read the full interview, click here.

Timeline of victims in “Atlanta’s Missing And Murdered: The Lost Children”

Editor E. Donna Shepherd, who collaborated with R.A. Fedde and Ed Barteski, had an enormous amount of material to work with. As reported by Jazz Tancay, it took a significant amount of work just to get to the point where the filmmakers were clear on how to tell this very involved story, containing so many angles, over the allotted time. It was a key objective for all involved to put the victims’ faces front and center. “Although that is emotional for the families, the production team shared the docuseries with the families and ‘talked them through in detail what they were going to see,” says producer Saralena Weinfeld. 

Read more: Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered Editor on Not Wanting to Leave Anyone Out

In the same interview, Shepherd notes, “It was intensely difficult to grasp all the moving parts. When I started putting things together, we knew that there was a possibility of telling the story out of chronological order but we had to start with chronological order. Once we had that, then we could start asking, ‘Should this move somewhere else?’

“The way the interviews are directed is critical,” she continues. “‘The editing choices of when to be on camera for those interviews I think can make a real difference in how you feel about what the interviewee is saying. Bob Buffington is one of my favorite characters, editing-wise, in the first two episodes because he shows you all of his emotions right there on his face. You feel the pain through his pain and so you linger on him a little.”

Read more: Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: HBO’s Investigation Is Exhaustive and Wrenching

The series has been widely acclaimed: Tambay Obenson calls it “unsettling and engrossing,” and “a must watch,” elaborating, “It will leave audiences baffled and enraged over how justice for these wicked, unusually extreme crimes, has yet to be properly served. It doesn’t solve the case, but it doesn’t set out to. What it does more than enough of, is introduce new evidence that challenges the veracity of claims made by officials, and the way the entire case was handled, while helping to bring the decades old horror back into the spotlight.” To read the full review, click here.

Read more: Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered is a Sharp, Somber Survey of a Case Marred by Unanswered Questions

As Ashlie D. Stevens concludes,What a new, different suspect would mean for the families. Yes, this is a true crime story, as well as one that delves into matters of guilt, innocence and a broken (often historically racist) criminal justice system—but it’s also a contemplation of what closure actually looks like for those affected by violent, race-based crime. There’s no clear answer, just as there is still no clear suspect in all the murders, but what this docuseries makes obvious is a community’s responsibility to ask questions for and advocate on behalf of its most vulnerable members.” To read the full review, click here.