The Desktop Documentary: A New Aesthetic

Chris Houkal takes a look at a new form of filmmaking, in which a computer’s desktop serves as the artistic medium. Kevin B. Lee’s self-reflexive ‘desktop documentary’ Transformers: The Premake (2014) contemplates in near real-time the role and repercussions of the filmmaker on the street as he or she records the making of a blockbuster.


It began as a whim for School of the Art Institute of Chicago student Kevin B. Lee: the filming of the filming of the Transformers 4 movie near his home in Chicago. As he filmed, he couldn’t help but notice that many others were as well. It seemed as though everyone was out taking their own images and, he later discovered, quite a few of these were making their way onto video-sharing sites like YouTube. Certain that something new was underway, Lee set out to document the phenomenon.

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He did this via what’s being called a Desktop Documentary, a new type of filmmaking developed at SAIC by several faculty members and students, including Lee. At its most basic, it uses the way in which many of us experience much of our day-to-day life – through a computer screen – to tell its story. As Lee says: “This form of filmmaking treats the computer screen as both a camera lens and a canvas, tapping into its potential as an artistic medium.” His finished short documentary, Transformers: The Premake, incorporates clips shot by curious people the world over as the film was being made: places like Texas, Detroit, Hong Kong, mainland China, Utah’s Monument Valley (yes, that Monument Valley, site of so many John Ford films), and Chicago.

But Lee doesn’t just display various clips onscreen or cut them together in typical documentary fashion. We experience the film as if we’re on a YouTube kick, clicking on every video related to the movie’s production. It’s not random, however. We know this not only because graphics (implying some form of post-production) often show us where we are, but also because we’re watching as the filmmaker purposefully navigates through particular folders on his desktop (on his hard drive named after the wonderful Harun Farocki). Occasionally tweets appear onscreen to comment on what we’re seeing, again implying some kind of editing, but for the most part it feels as though we’re along for the ride as the filmmaker explores the subject in real-time. (For implications of the ‘screen-within-a-screen’ read this article by filmmaker/writer Sam Davis.)

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In some ways this desktop documentary style was inevitable. Lee et al. are simply taking screen capture technology and the ordinary YouTube instructional video to a higher level. What’s new about Transformers: The Premake is how Lee has pieced together dozens of easily accessible online clips into something more than the sum of their parts: a statement on the change underway in the film industry (how film consumers are becoming producers thanks to cheap, readily available cameras and the internet), how Hollywood is benefiting from this change (free advertising), and how we now experience much of our lives through a computer screen. And in keeping with the source material, Lee’s documentary has been posted online (here) for us to watch, free of charge.


Author: Chris Houkal is completing his MS in Cinema Productions at DePaul University. This autumn he is the Programs Assistant Intern at Facets. Here are some samples of his work on Vimeo.

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