If you can describe a documentary as a series of moving images telling a true story, then almost anything can apply. From The New Yorker magazine’s iPad-embedded video interviews this week of Russian citizens in the time of Putin, to the insane urban-cycling videos of Lucas Brunelle, the definition of the form is exploding, both in terms of destroying the old definition and expanding into a new one. As Sundance announces its short-doc competition for next month, it almost seems as if what we think of as documentary is suddenly too limited.

Still image from RSA Animate video 'Changing Education Paradigms'
A still image from the RSA video Changing Education Paradigms, which has been viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube.

When I came across RSA Animate on YouTube, a collaboration of the UK’s Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and Cognitive Media, I was entranced. The videos, which RSA spokesman Luke Robinson says have gotten a collective 40 million views, are simple in their conception: They match “idea speeches” from RSA to the whiteboard drawings of Cognitive Media’s director and “scribe,” Andrew Park.

“They work on the strength of ideas,” Robinson says, and it’s the fascinating mural-like drawings that give visual interest to what could otherwise be a more-typical person-at-the-podium video.

Park began drawing these large-scale works 15 years ago. Cognitive’s media’s website explains the thinking behind “scribing.”

A scribe works on large walls, using markers [and] pens to map conversations live at events, interpreting and drawing ideas quickly, using pictures, diagrams and symbols to make ideas visible and accessible. Over the last 15 years, working with lots of people, groups and individuals within many industries and professional cultures has given me tremendous insight. It has also helped me understand the different languages that these cultures can speak. The role of a Scribe in my view, is to act as a translator within these cultures to allow as many people as possible to understand the information being conversed.

RSA Animates feature deep thinkers often challenging conventional wisdom, such as Sir Ken Robinson’s takedown of conventional education models, which has garnered 6.3 million views. That’s not nearly as good as Can’t Sing Psycho Girl Freaks Out, but the RSA Animate videos have made deep thinking more popular than gift-wrapping a cat.

RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms

What makes the Animates work is Park’s intricate drawings, which divert from the speeches as they inform them.

Abi Stephenson, who produces the series at RSA, says the project grew out of a search for how to illuminate what was coming out of the RSA lectures.

We had been looking for an innovative way of disseminating our incredible lecture content for a while, but just couldn’t find quite the right way of doing it. At around the same time we had asked Andrew Park, who was, and is, an RSA Fellow, to do some live ‘scribing’ at one of events. This was the service Cognitive Media were offering at the time – going to conferences and meetings and sketching the ideas that came up, and providing a visual translation of them on a big flip chart. We asked Andrew to come to one of our events and create a visual record of it for our journal, when my colleague Sophie Charles had the bright idea of ‘animating’ it and creating a short film.

The speeches, hand-picked from those delivered at RSA, are edited down from the typical 30 minutes to something on the order of 10 minutes. The audio goes to Cognitive, and Park sets to work visualizing the information.

Stephenson says the series is irregular, because of the time involved in producing them, but it’s continuing “as long as people still want to watch them.” She says the Animates have appealed to a much broader audience than typically attend the speaker series, and includes a lot of young children and teenagers.

“We deliberately wanted the videos to be as democratic and accessible as possible, so that these great ideas weren’t just limited to a restricted group of ‘lecture-going’ people.”

I’m sure this will cause disagreement, but consider that the RSA videos do some of what the best documentaries also do: They enlighten. They challenge. They explain. They entertain. And they are creative. It’s becoming easier to call works like these “documentaries” not just “web videos.”

Stephenson says,

That’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t have described them in that way – but then maybe my definition of ‘documentary’ is too limited. I think of a documentary as a visual record of multiple real-life scenes and events, mostly with a narrative or personal story at its center. Because the RSA Animates are taken from keynotes and lectures, they don’t seem to really fit into that mould.

I’d argue they are, or at least made in a documentary tradition. Documentary films such as What The Bleep Do We Know? and Freakonomics use innovative graphic devices to tell a story over expository narration. Given Cognitive’s growing visibility, I wouldn’t bet against Park’s work popping up in a documentary soon.

Watch a few more of the popular RSA Animate videos below or on the RSA YouTube channel.

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Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.