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Documentary Now!

How the IFC Series Realizes (and Satirizes) Production Styles

IFC’s Documentary Now! is a six-part mockumentary series that pays homage to famous documentaries and biopics of the past with weekly explorations of not-quite-real people and subjects. Each episode, introduced by Helen Mirren, is shot in a different documentary style.

The half-hour comedy stars Saturday Night Live alums Fred Armisen and Bill Hader, who also serve as creators/executive producers/writers alongside fellow SNL veteran Seth Meyers, Rhys Thomas and executive producer Lorne Michaels. Directed and shot by Thomas (@RhysThom2) and Alex Buono (@AlexBuono) of the SNL Film Unit, Documentary Now! was inspired by “Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros: History of Punk,” a 2013 SNL mockumentary sketch starring Armisen and Hader about a British punk band styled after the Sex Pistols.

Bill Hader in “Sandy Passage”
Photo by Alex Buono

The IFC series kicks off with “Sandy Passage,” a loving send-up of the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens. In the episode, the fictional filmmakers Larry and Alfred Fein shoot an intimate portrait of two aging socialites—mother Vivvy and daughter “Little” Vivvy Van Kimpton—and their crumbling estate. Adding to the episode’s charm, Hader plays Little Vivvy with a deadpan gravitas, and Buono and Thomas likewise play it straight, faithfully re-creating the famed decaying Hamptons mansion down to the torn, faded wallpaper and hungry raccoons.

Buono notes that his creative approach has changed dramatically in recent years. He mentions his work shooting last season’s Saturday Night Live opening title sequence, which commemorated the show’s 40th anniversary. He and Rhys Thomas “approached the sequence using in-camera techniques that would be at home just as well in 1975 as in 2014,” he says, describing the result as “low-fi, analog, optical, vintage, classic.”

In episode two, “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon,” the hipster media empire DRONEZ sends two of its notoriously fearless journalists (Fred Armisen and Bill Hader) to track down Mexico’s most wanted drug lord.
Photo by Alex Buono

He continues, with reference to Documentary Now!, “Years ago we would have shot it as cleanly as we could and then changed the look in post. That’s the opposite of the approach we use now,” he explains. “With this series, the big focus was on matching the optics as closely as possible from the outset.”

The Documentary Now! production team reached out to Maysles Films for advice on re-creating the iconic look of Grey Gardens, contacting them before Albert Maysles’ untimely death in March. After this consultation, Buono and Thomas outfitted their RED Dragon camera with vintage 9.5-95mm, 12-120mm and 12-240mm Angenieux zoom lenses from the 1960s, supplied by their longtime SNL rental house, Technological Cinevideo Services (TCS). They opted to use a smaller portion of the RED Dragon image sensor to accommodate the 16mm lenses.

The “DRONEZ” episode is treated to look like an episode of VICE.

“A predominance of shows shoot Log C on the [ARRI] Alexa with Angenieux Optimo zooms,” Buono remarks. “It’s a lovely combination—we use that combination a lot, too!—but it’s become so common that much of what you see on television looks very similar. It’s all the same sensor, same glass, same LUT. I find that turning to older lenses, with their inherent flaws, over modern lenses is one way to add some unique character and distinguish the look.”

Technicolor Hollywood senior colorist Scott Klein performed color correction on a Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve system. Klein also used the Livegrain effects plug-in developed by Suny Behar, which, instead of applying a simple overlay, employs texture mapping to realistically model highlights, midtones and shadows.

Episode three, “Kunuk Uncovered,” is an investigation into the seminal documentary Kunuk the Hunter that attempts to separate what is real from what is fabrication. Pictured, Fred Armisen as Kunuk.
Photo by Gunnar Orn Birgisson/IFC

For “Kunuk Uncovered,” the episode spoofing Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 documentary Nanook of the North, Buono and Thomas selected a set of Cooke Panchro Series 1 prime lenses from the 1930s that were rehoused with PL mounts by TCS to fit the RED Dragon. As in the original film, a major part of the story is told through “archive” photos, which Buono and Thomas shot with Canon EOS 5D Mark III and FUJIFILM X100T digital cameras and then treated in Adobe Photoshop to look aged. With more than 10,000 still photos and no budget for a full-time photo retoucher, Buono and Thomas did most of the work themselves, modifying nearly every frame.

In the episode “DRONEZ: The Hunt for El Chingon,” VICE-style guerilla filmmakers vastly underestimate the danger in infiltrating a Mexican drug cartel. “DRONEZ” was shot using two Canon EOS C300 cameras equipped with 16-35mm and 24-105mm L-Series Canon EF DSLR lenses in order to approximate VICE‘s shooting style.

Helen Mirren hosts Documentary Now!

The episode “Blue Jean Committee,” a contemporary music documentary about a Chicago band’s rise to fame, relies on faux archival footage that appears to have been shot on 16mm film in the early to mid-1970s. Contemporary interviews were shot with the RED Dragon using a Canon 30-105mm Cinema Zoom lens to give them a sharp and modern feel, while the “archival” footage was shot with a package similar to the one used on “Sandy Passage.”

“It makes sense if you consider that both documentaries would have been shot in roughly the same era, the early ’70s,” Buono explains. “At the time, Angenieux had a patent on the zoom, so it was the only game in town.”

Archival still photos also play a significant role in the storytelling on “Blue Jean Committee.” In addition to shooting stills with the Canon 5D Mk III and FUJIFILM X100T, Buono says, “Believe it or not, we also shot a bunch of 8mm-looking footage using the Super8mm app on an iPhone 6. For us it is about combining all of these different textures to fill out the universe of this fictional band’s history.”