Modern Galleries in London: a Documentary

From Londonhua WIKI

Modern Galleries London

by Sofia Reyes and Jacob Dupuis

Modern Galleries London
Milestone Image
A Documentary


Our project summarizes the different types of documentary film and their origins, and looks at the fundamentals behind what goes into making a documentary film. The deliverable we created is a short poetic documentary. Originally we set out to create individual projects that had overlapped: Jacob set out to create a documentary on the Serpentine Pavilion, while Sofia was looking at modern art in galleries, including Serpentine. Once we combined our project into a documentary about several galleries, we decided to focus our background on the history of documentary, using the vast resources available on cinema here in London. The background of the project outlines types of documentary films, with historical examples, and the process involved in making a documentary film come to be. For our creative piece, we shot and edited a short documentary using several of these styles and what we had learned. Our film showcases modern art galleries across the city of London.


This project takes a look at the art of documentary film making and how different styles of documentary are used to tell a story. We created a documentary on Modern Art Galleries in London, using the information that we learned from our research. London is home to incredible art galleries, and we decided that it would be a great subject to document. In our research, we utlizited resources found in the library of the British Film Institute, one of the largest film institution in the world. Our project looked at White Cube Gallery, Unit London, and Serpentine Gallery & Pavilion. We focused on the details of the current displays, and how they come together to create these exhibits.

History of Documentary

Introduction to Documentary
Sofia Reyes
Book to provide concepts that characterize documentary film.

A documentary film can be regarded as the first genre of the modern cinema.[1] During the 1890s, when cinema began, most viewers saw films as examples of real life. Most early films were documentaries, often simple, single-shot affairs, showing newsworthy events, scenes from foreign lands, or everyday events. However, more fictional (or staged) actualities also began to be produced in these early years of the cinema,[2] such as the Lumière brothers' L'Arroseur Arrosé, which appeared as early as 1895. Perhaps one of the most well-known early films is Georges Melies' Trip to the Moon (1902). Between 1895 and 1905, a number of identifiable genres of documentary film emerged, including tropical 'travelogues scenic', industrial sports films, trick' films fantasy' films, and films that used fictional reconstruction or staging in a variety of ways. These early genres of documentary film were quickly assimilated into existing modes of popular culture and entertainment and initially appeared in venues that used other, non-film performances such as acrobatics, song, and dance. [3] Since the early 1900's, filmmakers have been capturing and telling the stories of real people, places, and events along side these fictional ones. The desire to learn or experience something new through the film was growing. In 1926, John Grierson, a Scottish filmmaker, and expert created the term Documentary, when reviewing the film Moana (1926), by American filmmaker Robert Flaherty.[4] John Grierson was inspired by the works of Flaherty and went on to create his own films in Scotland and Britain. He inevitably became in charge of the British Empire Marketing Board where he would oversee the production of thousands of films produced in the United Kingdom.[5] In 1929, he developed his own film Drifters, which would then be credited as the first British documentary, introducing the storytelling medium to the English.[6] While documentary film is a popular informative method of filmmaking, often the difficulty and work put in to create these films is overlooked by the audience. With the rise of smaller, high-quality cameras, and better editing capabilities, documentary is becoming even more widespread than ever and still is a popular field for award-winning productions to develop.

Documentary film dates back to the last decades of the nineteenth century and has been practiced since then in every region of the world. Varying in style, technique, editing, story-telling, narration, and intent, it is a medium that records the cross-section of human experience, from monumental conflict to simple lives lived day to day. It documents the events, pressures, and institutions of modern society, records traditional cultural practices, cultural changes, and captures the natural world in all their complexity. Diverse in form and subject matter, documentary film can have many missions as well; to inform, intrigue, teach, enlighten, convert, outrage, accuse, and also to serve as propaganda. The internationally recognized authority on documentary and ethnographic film, Bill Nichols, provided a book that gave a comprehensive introduction to the issues and concepts that characterize documentary film and video production. This book provides a clear division of types of documentary defined by unique characteristics. We used this book to identify and explain the types of documentaries below.[7]

Types of Documentary

Every documentary has its own distinct voice. Like every speaking voice, every cinematic voice has a style or “grain” of its own that acts like a signature or fingerprint. It attests to the individuality of the filmmaker or director or, sometimes, to the determining power of a sponsor or controlling organization. Individual voices lend themselves to an auteur theory of cinema, while shared voices lend themselves to a genre theory of cinema. Genre study considers the qualities that characterize various groupings of filmmakers and films.

Based on the academic work of Dr. Bill Nichols, they are basic ways of organizing all documentary film and video into six categories that function something like sub-genres (also called modes) of the documentary film genre itself: poetic, expository, participatory, observational, reflexive, performative. Modes progress chronologically with the order of their appearance in practice, and documentary film often returns to themes and devices from previous modes. Therefore, it is inaccurate to think of modes as historical punctuation marks in an evolution towards an ultimate 'accepted' documentary style. Modes are not mutually exclusive - there is often significant overlapping between modes within individual documentary features and it is therefore difficult to find examples that adhere only to one mode. These six modes establish a loose framework for individuals to work in, setting up conventions that a film may be styled like, and they provide specific expectations viewers anticipate to be fulfilled. [8]
To some extent, each mode of documentary representation arises in part through a growing sense of dissatisfaction among filmmakers with a previous mode. In this sense, the modes do convey some sense of a documentary history. The observational mode of representation arose, in part, from the availability of smaller, mobile 16mm cameras and magnetic tape recorders in the 1960's. Poetic documentary suddenly seemed too abstract and expository documentary too didactic while it now is possible to film everyday events with minimal staging or intervention.

Poetic Documentary

Subjective and Artistic Expression

Sofia Reyes
Tom French 2016

Poetic Mode emphasizes visual associations, tonal or rhythmic qualities, descriptive passages, and formal organization. It uses a unique, non-traditional technique to show the viewer the content of the video. Due to the fact that it uses completely nontraditional techniques, it can be considered as Avant-Garde filmmaking.[9]

This type of documentary does not follow the continuity and linearity of traditional documentaries and explores different patterns and closeups to show details of the film's subjects. As the poetic mode is more open to alternative forms, it makes it simple to address many types of protagonists. Protagonists vary from people to places. Different characteristics and attributions are presented with music, different angles, and the editing. Bill Nichols states that: "Music is key because it develops the mood and tone of the story being told." [10] Because of its relying on the visuals and music to guide the tone, often these films do not contain a narrator or captions for the viewers- the person watching the documentary has to analyze and make their own interpretations of what is happening. It can be described as analyzing a visual poem.This protagonist can be "told" and interpreted in many different ways within this same style and because of this type of documentary is usually used for persuasion. [11]


  • Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Play of Light: Black, White, Grey (1930)
  • Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, 1928)
  • L’Age d’or(Luis Buñuel, 1930)
  • Scorpio Rising (Kenneth Anger, 1963)
  • San Soleil (Chris Marker,1982)
  • The Bridge(1928),
  • Song of Ceylon (1934),
  • Listen to Britain (1941),
  • Night and Fog(1955),
  • Koyaanisqatsi (1983).
  • Joris Ivens’s Rain (1929)

Expository Documentary

Nanook of the North
Image from the film

Expository Mode emphasizes verbal commentary and an argumentive logic. [12] Expository documentaries are prominent in today’s documentary culture but began alongside the poetic documentary in the 1920s as an alternative to the often experimental films that were being produced. This mode assembles information into a more rhetorical or argumentative frame than an aesthetic or poetic one. Expository documentary looks at an argument and then walks the audience through that argument, providing evidence to support the claims and reasoning. Similarly, Expository films can introduce an audience to a point of view, and explain to them the reason behind that point of view, as nature based expository films often do. These films are typically narrated, providing information about what you are seeing unfold on the screen. "Nature documentaries by companies such as the BBC, and National Geographic heavily rely on this style, as they can collect footage and then create a story with it after the fact".[13]


  • The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)
  • Trance and Dance in Bali (1952)
  • Spanish Earth (1937
  • Les Maitres Fous (1955)
  • "Nanook of the North (1922)"

Reflexive Documentary

Sofia Reyes
Surname Viet Given Name Nam
(Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1989)

Awareness of the process

"If the historical world provides the meeting place for the processes of negotiation between filmmaker and subject in the participatory mode, the processes of negotiation between filmmaker and viewer become the focus of attention for the reflexive mode."[14] In this documentary the filmmaker engages with the audience, asking for their opinions on a certain topic or interviewing them. Instead of seeing the world beyond them, reflexive documentaries ask us to see the documentary for what it is: a construct or representation. Just as the observational mode of documentary depends on the filmmaker’s apparent absence from or non-intervention in the events recorded, the Reflexive documentary in general depends on the viewer’s neglect of his or her actual situation.The motto that a documentary film is only as good as its content is compelling is what the reflexive mode of documentary calls into question.Reflexive documentaries also address issues of realism. This is a style that seems to provide unproblematic access to the world. Through techniques or continuity editing, character development, and narrative structure it can relay messages of value. The reflexive mode is the makes you reflect on yourself and the topic the documentary is talking about. [15]


  • Reassemblage (Trinh Minh-ha,1982)
  • Letter to Jane (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)
  • Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989)

Observational (Cinéma Vérité)

Fly on the Wall

In Observational documentaries the filmmaker is a neutral observer, watching from the outside looking in as if with the audience.[16] This type of documentary is based on observation, as it name suggests. As Nichols explains in his book this documentary mode no intervention, no commentary and no re-enactment, and in essence try to observe the action as it happens and unfolds." [17] It emphasizes a direct engagement with the everyday life of subjects as observed by an unobtrusive camera. Although many films may have observational sequences in them, wholly observational films have a distinct aesthetic, often preferring to use small crews (often a single director) and handheld cameras. The history of Observational documentaries can be found in the Direct Cinema and cinéma vérité movements of the 1960s.

a visual that shows cinema verite and direct cinema


  • High School (1968)
  • Salesman (1969)
  • Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)
  • Primary (1960)
  • the Netsilik Eskimo series(1967–68)
  • Soldier Girls (1980)
  • Oasis


Participatory Mode: emphasizes the interaction between filmmaker and subject. Filming takes place by means of interviews or other forms of even more direct involvement. Often coupled with archival footage to examine historical issues. [18] Coming to bloom in the 60s and 70s shortly after Observational documentaries, participatory functions as an opposite to that idea. In this, the filmmaker interacts with and is a part of the story at times, often through interviewing subjects. This shift from the passive camera is described by Dr. Patricia Aufderheide as ‘somewhere in between an essay, reportage, and a well told tale’.[19] Participatory films not only tell a story to the audience, but they tell the filmmakers experience as well. This method rose to popularity alongside the invention of synced sound recording with video, and allowed for filmmakers to record direct interactions, eliminating the need for voice overs after the fact. The filmmaker’s role also shifts away from just recording to now directing, interviewing and guiding the story along.[20] The most famous example of this would be the famed The Thin Blue Line (1988), created by American filmmaker Errol Morris. In European film history, one of the first examples of participatory documentary is Chronique d’un été (1961). The french film translating to Chronicle of a Summer, was created with a British professor, French filmmaker and Canadian director. This team of creators open the film discussing their reasoning behind its creation, and then go on to to interview individuals about society and happiness. The film is recognized today for its innovative structure and unique approach to a documentary.[21]


  • The Thin Blue Line (1988)
  • Chronicle of a Summer (1960),
  • Solovky Power(1988)
  • Shoah (1985)
  • The Sorrow and the Pity (1970)
  • Kurt and Courtney(1998)

Creating a Documentary

When starting with an idea about a documentary there are a lot of moving pieces that need to be addressed, and may different ways that directors and producers go about it. The New York Film Academy and the British Film Institute Academy have a lot of resources dedicated to laying down a foundation for new filmmakers to follow and ensure that they have covered the right grounds in this process. The subject and scope of documentaries can vary, which means that depending on the scale of the production, a lot more time and energy need to go into crafting these. Funding is an example of a step that we will be skipping over, as it has the most variation based on size of the production, and can be drastically different from film to film. Below are the outlined basic tasks that apply to creating any documentary, from a large budget production to a small student-led project.[22]


Before writing a script and planning, it is essential that you have a short pitch that details exactly what you are setting out to create. The pitch will contain a few things:

Logline - One or two sentence hook.
Synopsis - A paragraph (or more) describing the project
Locations - A few sentences about where the project will take place.

The pitch for large studio based projects usually is under 5 pages, while smaller projects will have a pitch of just a few sentences to ensure that all parties involved have an understanding of what could be created.[23]


At the Blueprint stage, you will be organizing and planning what material you will need to cover in order to tell your story to an inevitable audience. At this point, the blueprint is usually an outline that covers topics and themes, without going into technical details. The purpose of the Blueprint is to help breakdown the project into sections that allow for creative ‘wiggle room’ but still keep the fundamental story in place.[24]


In documentary work, the filming and principal production will take place before a script, with filmmakers working off of the Blueprint documents. In the field, these documents will have guides of what types of material to capture, and questions to ask, but no concrete assigned shots or scripted guide. This is because the story is usually told as it unfolds, and having a concrete script would not allow for that to happen. This typically varies depending on the filmmakers approach.

Script and Creation

Following principal production, the film’s script is then created before the story is crafted. Once data, research and footage is collected, the filmmaker’s job is to now utilize what they have and create the story the are trying to tell. This process occurs because the material that has been gathered can often change the initial plan of the film, and lead to the discovery of a more interesting story or details that were not initially known at the time of the pitch. A script will often be broken down into three categories for documentary: visuals, sound, narration/story. The visuals are where the shots of the story are laid out, and the audio next to it will be to arrange sound effects and music. The narration/story section will list either the script for a voice over or interview, or the purpose behind the shots listed in visuals. The director is now tasked with opening a door for the audience, into the information they have learned, and make sure their message is perceived in the development of the film.[25]

Section 2: Deliverable

Behind the Scenes
Sofia Reyes
Unit London
Location: SOHO, London


For our own production, we chose to focus on showcasing recently created modern art This came from our own interest in the spaces, and the programs that they are doing to bring art on display and into the city around them. The 3 galleries we decided upon are the Serpentine Gallery & Pavilion, Unit London, and White Cube. Each of these galleries displays modern art with their own mission and purpose. We then decided that we would incorporate some of the different styles of documentary that we found into the different sections of our final film.

Modern Galleries: London


The city of London is full of new and old art, being showcased for visitors from all across the globe. This film takes a look at a few recent galleries, to show viewers what they do and why they are worth visiting.

Synopsis & Locations

Taking place here in London, we focus in on newer galleries that display modern and contemporary art., highlighting them all using the Poetic style of documentary. We visit White Cube, Unit London and Serpentine Gallery (and Pavilion), and each gallery is given its own segment with unique styling.



  • Locations - High vantage point overlooking the city.
  • The introduction will start with pointing out the different locations in the city, ending with the White Cube (our first stop). After this we will display titles and credits before a transition section of B-roll of the city to lead into the White Cube section.
  • Style - Poetic. Looking at the details and visuals in and around the gallery, providing the viewer a chance to discover new ideas.

White Cube
Sofia Reyes
Artist Larry Bell

White Cube

  • Locations - White Cube Gallery external footage and internal footage
  • History - Started in 2011 in a renovated space, serving as the main display for the White Cube organization. Contains 3 exhibit spaces and a theater and offices for educational programs and lectures.
  • Purpose - The purpose of White Cube is to provide a space for artists to exhibit their work, and create innovative and unique shows.
  • Current Displays - Currently exhibits at White Cube include Larry Bell's Smoke on the Bottom collection of freestanding large glass sculptures and unique reflective 'paintings' of aluminum layers and quartz burned on paper.
  • Other Locations - White Cube also has exhibits on display at satellite locations in northern London, Hong Kong and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
  • Transition - Exterior shots of the building leading back to the street.

Unit London

  • Location - SOHO exterior and Unit London interior.
  • Mission - To breakdown barriers of exclusivity and allow anyone to have access contemporary art.
  • Current Exhibits - Tom French's Parallax and works by Cecile Plaisance
  • Transition - Fade

Serpentine Gallery
Serpentine Pavilion 2017
Artist Francis Kéré

Serpentine Gallery & Pavilion

  • Location - Exterior and Interior of Serpentine Gallery. Hyde Park Exteriors. Exterior of Pavilion Construction.
  • Purpose - The pavilion is an event that occurs every year, in which an acclaimed architect or designer is tasked with designing and building a structure in the pavilion space in 6 months time. Since 2000 the pavilion has led to the creation of innovative and inspiring designs.
  • History - Slides with images of previous pavilions. Noteable ones include Zaha Hadid's, Bjarke Ingels' 2016.
  • Current Displays - Illustrate construction on the 2017 pavilion and its artist.
  • Transition - exterior shots of Hyde park and a traffic wipe-to-black.


  • Location - London exterior shots, sunset.
  • Summarize - Summarize project and how each gallery integrates art into the communities around them for residents and visitors of London.

Filming & Editing Notes

The video was filmed with the equipment that we had access to which includes a Fujifilm X100s (35mm f2), images that we took, a tripod and camera slider. We recorded audio in camera. The video was created in Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects, and color graded in Da Vinci Resolve. Each segment is color graded in a different way, allowing the audience to distinguish the different styles. The music is Creative Commons licensed for non-commercial use, by Ehlring and Silent Partner. Our final video varied somewhat from the original plan we have listed above due to time.

Behind the Scenes
Jacob Dupuis
Adobe Premiere Pro
Screenshot: Video Being Edited

Conclusion & Final Video

This project covered the basic principles behind Documentary film making, and the different styles that have developed in the documentary world over time. We look at examples from around the world and British descent, and how they show the style that they are made in. The project also looks at the basic steps behind making a documentary, and illustrate that they can be applied to any sized production and adjusted to meet the needs of a particular project. We also successfully developed an introduction to several unique spots in London that are worth visiting, and showcase the unique characteristics about them. In further research, students could look into the history of the British Film Institute, as it is a vast and very important organization in the history of modern cinema as we know. A video production could be developed more specifically about one of the galleries, with interviews. A historical approach could be taken with the records in the BFI Library about some of the films mentioned in the examples. A more art based path could be involve a project on the art in the individual galleries.

The media player is loading...

Attribution of Work

In this project, Sofia and Jacob worked collaboratively to develop the background and deliverable. The video filming at each gallery was done together, and each of us contributed content to be used in the film. Jacob edited the film while Sofia provided images and elements that were needed. The background covers the different types of documentary, and the types were evenly divided between us. We both worked on the Guide for Shooting in the deliverable section and presented the film together.

External Links

Unit London
White Cube London
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion
BFI Reuben Library


  1. Aitken, I. (2006). Encyclopedia of the documentary film. New York: Routledge.(p. 22)
  2. Ibid
  3. Aitken, I. (2006). Encyclopedia of the documentary film. New York: Routledge.(p. 28)
  4. (2014). "Chronology of Documentary History." California: UC Berkeley Media Resource Center.
  5. Ibid
  6. (2011). "Making History: Exhibition Guide, Section 1, Films: Defining Documentary" London, Tate Liverpool.
  7. (2011) "Documentary Process" London, BFI Reuben Library.
  8. Nichols, B. (2017). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  9. Nichols, B. (2017). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (p.p. 33)
  10. Nichols, B. (2017). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (p.p. 102-105)
  11. Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (p.p. 48, 88-91, 138)
  12. Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (p.p. 33-34, 105-109,138,163)
  13. Pick, A., & Narraway, G. (Eds.). (2013). Screening Nature: Cinema beyond the Human. Berghahn Books. Retrieved from
  14. Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (p.p. 34, 125-130,138)
  15. Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  16. Nichols, B. (2017). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (p.p. 34, 109-115,125,138)
  17. Nichols, B. (2017). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (p.p. 109-115)
  18. Nichols, B. (2017). Introduction to documentary. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. (p.p. 34, 115-124,138)
  19. Aufderheide, Patricia. "Public Intimacy: The Development of First-person Documentary." Afterimage, University of Minnesota. v25 n1
  20. Henderson, Julia. (2013) "Participatory and Reflexive Modes of Documentary Response and Theory." St. Edwards University. Vol. 4.
  21. (2008) "Chronicle of a Summer - 1961." London, British Film Institute.
  22. (2014) "How to Write a Documentary Script." NYC. New York Film Academy.
  23. (2011) "Documentary Process" London, BFI Reuben Library.
  24. Hugh Baddeley, W. (1996) "Technique of Documentary Film Production" London, Focal Press. p144.
  25. Ibid