Having worked on several drama-docs during my career, I can attest that the balance between the two elements is a tricky one to get right. Netflix has recently made a sterling effort to nail it, with several epic drama-doc series. In this blog, I’m going to look at three of these series on Netflix right now: Roman Empire, Rise of Empires: Ottomans, and Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan.
Each one of these has taken a very different approach to the expert interviews, which intercut with the drama and partially narrate it. While most of the budget on these projects tends to be spent on the drama, it’s important to get these interviews right as well – it can be jarring if there’s a clear difference in production value. Some of these drama-docs tackled the expert interviews better than others…
First up, let’s look at Roman Empire. This was produced by Stephen David Entertainment (part of Banijay Group, a US based production conglomerate), and told the story of the Emperor Caligula. Although it could never measure up to the brilliance of the HBO/BBC series Rome, its cast of contributors was well put together, drove the story along well, and delivered some great takeaway soundbites. The shooting style was very traditional: a warm background with soft focus, plenty of space in the shot for the interviewees to talk into, bright coloured shirts contrasting against pale faces.
Next, it’s Rise of Empires: Ottomans. This production by Karga Seven Pictures (LA & Istanbul) delivered a compelling storyline with an engaging cast of characters and fantastic drama sequences with excellent special effects. But the interviews really let the show down. While their cast of contributors was diverse and interesting, it was a very small pool of experts, not all of whom delivered the story in a way that best fit the drama. This necessitated several awkward fast cuts between the three (!) different angles on which the interviews were shot. This was also one too many angles – the back of the head shot in particular caused me several raised eyebrows during what was otherwise a very enjoyable show.
Finally, let’s look at Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan. Cream Productions in Canada produced this bloody tale of military might that made modern Japan. They opted for a plain black background for their interviews and decided to make them all black-and-white – a style which very effectively complemented the heavily saturated colour palette of the drama, but which only worked because all of their interviewees were either white or Japanese. As well as an over-representation of the pale, male, stale demographic, they cast the contributor net extremely widely indeed, with several different voices narrating each event in the series. As a producer, this struck me as overkill, but when I turned to my partner on the sofa next to me and asked him if he was bothered by it, he said no. A lesson for us producers then – what matters is the content, not the contributors.
Overall, Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan had the best interview shooting style, in my opinion. But even that couldn’t make up for a weak drama storyline. It looks like Netflix has yet to nail the drama-doc completely!