Q&A: Tom Jennings, executive producer and founder, 1895 Films
Veteran filmmaker Tom Jennings has picked up a pack of awards in his career, the latest the George Foster Peabody Award for MLK:The Assassination Tapes. He tells Future Vision why archival footage will continue as a creative driver in decades ahead.
Q. Cutting edge technology is changing our lives by the nanosecond. How can paying attention to the past help us carve out the future?
A. Exploring the past helps us see who we were and what we’ve become. Take MLK: The Assassination Tapes. As producers, we could see that the vernacular, the language if you will, of daily life in the South of the US had changed. At the same time, it became abundantly clear as we were filming how little some attitudes had changed. So from my point of view, paying attention to the past is a way of gauging our progress as individuals and as societies.
Q. One would think you would lose audiences with the use of archival footage and yet you win award after award for your work, the latest just last month when the Smithsonian Channel won the George Foster Peabody award for your production MLK: The Assassination Tapes. Why? Why does archival footage still work so well?
A. Archival footage is unique in this day and age because it stands on its own and transports us to the time frame when the event was actually happening. Our company specializes in historical documentaries, so we don’t use narration or interviews. In other words, we let the footage tell the story. We don’t use talking heads and in that sense, we stand out in this day and age.
Q. Getting down to the business of being creative, how can archival remain relevant in the digital age?
A. Just that. It’s a creative tool, not just footage and not just about the past. And there are millions of hours of great archival footage out there that can be used creatively. Broadcasters need to lose their fear of being labelled an archive channel just because they use film or TV content—whether it’s documentary or fiction--that has archive footage in it.
Q. Well, producers and directors play a part in this scenario, as well.
A. Absolutely. Producers and directors have to begin to think outside of the box when it comes to how archival footage is used. The basic clip show is pretty much dead.
Q. And how are you doing that, going outside the box?
A. Our format of using only archive footage with no narration and no interviews helped break the mould but we are going one step further, and other creatives need to do the same. At the moment we are looking at and finding new ways of manipulating the 4x3 format of archival footage to tell new digital age stories.
Q. But cutting edge editing suites do help, don’t they? They foster a creativity in and of themselves?
A. Yes, exactly. There are a number of different creative approaches, including mixing new formats with archive. As an example, one project we’re currently working on involves a cutting edge scientific take on strange science experiments from the past, using archival footage. This is a part of our heritage that is priceless and yet continues to tell new stories that are relevant to and very much a part of the digital age.
Q. You’ve named your company 1895 Films after the year the Lumiere Bros. launched 118 years ago. Ten years from now, what changes do you expect to see in the world of documentary filmmaking?
A. People already have the tools to tell their own stories, to make their own documentaries, if you will, at their fingertips with the widespread use of cutting edge digital cameras, especially in mobile use. But we’ll be seeing more and more of this. In the future more people, and especially young people, will document their own lives and experiences. More to the point, they will tell stories the way they want them to be told, for better or worse. In other words, there will be a lot more Michael Moore’s out there.
Q. I see several of your documentaries are on Netflix?
A. Indeed and companies like Netflix are great for us because they allow us to reach a larger audience. People will be able to watch a documentary any time they choose or search for a subject that interests them, rather than being reliant on appointment TV.
Q. They’ve also created a need for more content, yes?
A. Exactly, and that’s good for us as well. There are so many outlets out there now all over the world and they all need content, and documentaries are a great way—educationally and creatively--to fill that need.
Q. There are really some serious issues out there on the table when it comes to documentary making in the digital age. Not the least is the credibility of documentaries that go straight to the web. Do you believe accuracy is a greater problem now?
A. It’s always up to the audience, to the viewer, to gauge how much truth there is in anything they are seeing. If a documentary is presented by a reputable organization like Discovery, National Geographic Channel or Smithsonian Channel, the odds are much greater that the information has been vetted for accuracy.
Q. Sky Soldier: The Vietnam War In 3D is an example of how archival footage, in this case 3D, can be used to re-create history, to tell a new story.
A. 3D photography has existed for more than 150 years but during the Vietnam War, it was not in vogue. Sky Soldier, produced for 3net, came about because a helicopter pilot named Joel Glenn took a 3D camera with him and shot what he witnessed. What is fantastic about this project is that those photos became the only known 3D photos of the Vietnam War. As images, they are amazing because they allow us to feel like we're actually standing inside the frames that were shot.
Q. Putting aside the dazzle of cutting edge technology and the gear that allows you to go anywhere in the world to film, how has storytelling itself changed during the course of your career?
A. The thing is that, for good or bad, audiences have a shorter attention span. They have more choice so you have to cram more information into a shorter period of time. In other words, you have to hook them sooner, before they change the channel.
Q. Reporting has changed and ethics in reporting has become a slippery slope over the last few decades. What’s changed that’s good and what’s changed that’s bad for you when it comes to journalism?
A. The upside is that we have instantaneous access to more information. Today, we can go online and get immediate access to a 24-hour news cycle. We don't have to wait for an anchor on the nightly news to tell us what is happening. The downside is that there is an influx of so many people putting out so much information. Not all of it is what it seems to be.
Q. How so?
A. Well, reality TV is a good example. Every aspect of reality TV is produced and scripted. Yet viewers continue to believe this is how these characters live, that, in fact, what they are seeing is reality. It’s not.
Q. What are your feelings about the influence of Twitter and Facebook and other social media sites in reporting and documentary making?
A. For documentary makers, for content makers, social media has been great. It allows filmmakers and content makers to get the word out more easily, to create critical word of mouth and that drives interest.
Q. What do you think is the media world’s biggest global challenge right now?
A. There is a lot out there competing for the attention of viewers. Figuring out how to attract and keep that attention is probably the biggest challenge of any content maker and any global media player.
Top Right: Smithsonian Channel's David Royle and 1895's Tom Jennings give green light to 9-11: The Heartland Tapes at MIPDoc in Cannes April 6.
Middle Right: Sky Soldier, copyright Joel Glenn Estate.
Bottom: MLK graphic, courtesy of Smithsonian Channel