Top Tech 2001

What do you consider the most important innovation in the history of documentaries?
December 1, 2001

What do you consider the most important innovation in the history of documentaries?

While some found a particular film style or cinematic approach revolutionary, most turned to technology for an answer to that question. Everything from house keys, to pens, to computers were suggested. What follows is a list of your top five responses.

1. Digital Video/Cameras *

The digital camera, the tool that revolutionized television, tied for the most important innovation in the world of docs. Two criteria stood out: versatility and affordability. Not only can it go anywhere, carry significant lengths of tape and shoot in practically any light, the images captured by digital cameras are (generally) broadcast quality and integrate seamlessly into digital post. Perhaps more important for the doc-maker, however, is its cost. As easy on the budget as it is to carry, a digital cam goes places you would never risk a film camera, and can tell stories that would be much harder to capture with film.

1. Computers/The Internet *

Computer technology has become so ubiquitous in the span of two decades, few filmmakers can imagine working without it. Computers and the internet tied for first place as the most important innovation. Whether for research, access to data, fast transfer of files or long-distance communication, computers have revolutionized the filmmaking process in a remarkably short time. Managing the near-impossible troika of becoming smaller, faster and less expensive, computer chip upgrades have allowed spin-off technology to become smaller and lighter, with the promise of ever more mechanical miracles.

3. Avid/non-linear editing

It’s hard to believe that it was only1989 when Avid introduced its Media Composer system, revolutionizing the way filmmakers think about editing. Just over a decade later, avid products are generally thought to be the broadcast industry standard (though pretenders to the throne are making noise), and the company’s annual revenues approach US$500 million (although first-through-third quarter revenues this year show a net loss of $39.5 million – even industry mainstays are having a rough 2001). Avid continues to push the post and animation envelope, earning third spot on the most important innovation scale. The real question is: what will they do for an encore?

4. Television

Leave it to doc-makers to keep their eyes on the bottom line. The television, the medium for your message, ranked number four in the polling. Can’t get more fundamental than that.

One step above the invention of the format is its extension into the realm of cable, which also had revolutionary effects. The proliferation of cable television has brought the factual genre to a mass audience. As one respondent put it: ‘Without the expansion of cable channels, factual programming would still be relegated to Sunday evening ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ or the occasional ‘National Geographic Special’. We wouldn’t see the wonderful history, art, industry, etcetera we see today.’

5.The Camera

When asked about the most important innovation in the history of docs, one matter-of-fact respondent replied: ‘The camera. I’m in the tv business, damnit.’ You really can’t get much more factual than that. Although now common to the point of everyday, the camera was an incredibly ambitious invention. Previously, motion was the domain of the human eye, stored in the interpretive medium of the brain. Now, it can be captured and saved, removing the immediacy previously required of the witness. The camera allows stories to be told that would not have been seen or heard by a mass audience. Beyond that, it has given jobs to countless generations of opinionated TV pundits.

Honorable Mentions

The Telephone and Videotape

* Digital technology and computers tied for top ranking, each taking 23% of the vote.

About The Author
Jillian Morgan is the Associate Editor at Realscreen with a background in journalism and digital marketing. She joined the publication in 2019 after serving as the assistant editor to trade publications HPAC and On-Site. With a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College in Halifax, she also works as a freelance writer and fact-checker.