How IFC’s ‘Documentary Now’ Crushes Collaboration

Documentary Now is a television series on IFC. It parodies celebrated documentary films, from Grey Gardens to Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Recently, the team took on Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s legendary 1984 concert documentary about the band Talking Heads. plays an integral role behind the scenes, as this video attests.

The series was created by Saturday Night Live alumni Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers along with directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono. The premise evolved on SNL, where the 3 actors portrayed faded British punk rockers in a segment called Ian Rubbish and the Bizzaros: History of Punk. The short was a parody of This Is Spinal Tap.

“We pay loving homage to some of the most celebrated documentaries,” explains Rhys. Each episode is its own film, a parody of a documentary that is usually a well-known feature film. Development includes writing, production, and post, as well as research of extensive archival footage. “We must have 10,000 archival shots in our database right now,” Alex estimates.

Test Pattern

Earlier this year, the team targeted Stop Making Sense with Test Pattern, an episode featuring Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph, Seth Meyers, and Bill Hader as members of the band. The re-creation was performed semi-live to a crowd of extras inside a Los Angeles-area venue.

The show uses extensively. Archival Producer Tamsin Rawady shares clips and images that inspire the look and content of the show with the team. “The great thing about is being able to get immediate reactions from the directors about the footage that I’ve posted.”

Two directors and many departments

These archival shots are fundamental to the production. They inspire the writing and direction efforts. And they also allow the full production team to recreate the authentic look and feel of the original. “Because my job covers so many different departments—the directors, or the art department, or makeup—everybody can be collaborating on and it becomes this central hub for the whole program.”

Keeping all of the production notes within refines the ideas and humor of the show. Plus, it prevents lots of redundant effort. “I can quickly pull up the cut. I can either see if Alex has already been through it and made notes, and then I can add to those notes,” says Rhys.

Ideally, the creative team assembles the show together in one room, explains editor Micah Gardner. “A good substitute, though, is’s timecode-specific notes.” Micah is in New York, Tamsin is in LA and the directors and talent are constantly on the move. Via the web and iOS, collaboration can occur at any time.

All the time and energy that we used to spend just organizing our ideas can now just be spent coming up with new ideas. And that’s just because we have a tool like

Documentary Now: Test Pattern appears on IFC. Background on the episode is also featured at LA Times and Pitchfork, and Fast Company published this guide to documentaries that have inspired the show in the past.

Mark Christiansen

Author at and of the After Effects Studio Techniques series (Adobe Press); VES Member, VFX Artist and Supervisor on Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End, The Day After Tomorrow, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Founder of New Scribbler (developers of Cinefex for iPad); past employee of Lucasfilm, Adobe and