Once, documentaries were only of interest to academic and intellectual types. In the 2000s, though, they went mainstream, with slickly produced docu-movies like Bowling for Columbine and An Inconvenient Truth scoring big at the box office. Since then, the trend has only heightened, and nowadays documentaries regularly top the charts on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon.
Even if you have no money right now, you don't have to miss out. Here, we've rounded up the 10 best creative documentaries currently available to watch YouTube for free. So whatever your discipline, you're sure to find something to entertain, inform and inspire you.
01. Abstract: The Art of Design
Lavishly shot and beautifully edited, this documentary series truly has something for everyone. Directed by Scott Dadich and available on Netflix since 2017, it’s recently been made free during lockdown to watch on YouTube.
Abstract: The Art of Design consists of a series of eight standalone episodes, each around 40 minutes long, and profiling in turn graphic designer Paula Scher, illustrator Christoph Niemann, Nike shoe designer Tinker Hatfield, stage designer Es Devlin, architect Bjarke Ingels, automotive designer Ralph Gilles, photographer Platon, and interior designer Ilse Crawford. Watch the first of these above, and access the full playlist here.
02. Inge Druckrey: Teaching to See
Born in 1940 in Germany, Inge Druckrey is a designer and educator credited with bringing the Swiss school of design to the United States. This 37-minute documentary from 2012, directed by Andrei Severny and produced by Edward Tufte, explores her teachings and provides some fascinating insights into graphic design, typography, composition, form and visual arts education. Whether you’re an aspiring designer or a veteran, there’s much to learn from this beautifully put together documentary.
Infamy is one of the best documentary films we’ve ever seen on street art, so it’s amazing that it’s available to watch free on YouTube. Directed by Doug Pray, this one hour 30 minute movie, first released in 2005, includes interviews with six of the most exciting graffiti artists of the time: Saber, Toomer, Jase, Claw, Earsnot, and Enem. While street art has moved on since then, this snapshot from earlier in the century remains an energetic and inspiring watch.
04. Naughty Dog
Based in California, Naughty Dog is the video game studio behind such influential creations as Uncharted and The Last of Us series. In 2014, it celebrated its 30th anniversary by releasing this intriguing look behind the scenes of the award-winning studio. Covering the full history of the company, from its early developments to its recent triumphs, this is a worthy tribute to one of the best game developers of a generation.
It’s undeniable that the rise of the internet has democratised global culture. But is this leading to better music, film and art overall, or is mass culture dumbing everything down to the lowest common denominator? That’s the question posed by this one hour 24 minute documentary film, featuring interviews with some of the world's most influential creators and entrepreneurs.
06. Everything is a Remix
Where do you draw the line between inspiration and copying in your creative work? That’s the subject of this 37-minute documentary by Kirby Ferguson, which was first released in 2010, and remastered in 2015. In it, he argues that creativity is based upon three three elements – copy, transform, and combine – and that these building blocks are the basis for all new ideas.
07. Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of Hardware
Remix or copy culture isn’t just something that influences music and art, but increasingly the whole of the economy. This one hour seven minute documentary looks at the evolution of 'Shanzhai' – or copycat manufacturing – in China, and how it has transformed traditional models of innovation. Taking us inside the bustling Chinese city of Shenzhen, it asks what the rest of the world can learn from this so-called 'Silicon Valley of hardware'.
08. Raising Creativity
Raising Creativity is a documentary about how we can raise the level of creativity in education. Made in 2014 by Rebecca Zak, currently co-founder and VP of ArtResin, as part of her PhD in Educational Studies, it takes a comprehensive look at existing research, makes some incisive observations, and offers some constructive ideas on the way forward. Running for one hour 17 minutes, this is a must-watch for anyone working in design education.
09. John Lasseter: A Day in a Life
First released in 2011, this 25-minute documentary details the daily routine of John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar/Walt Disney Animation Studios. The films Lasseter has made have grossed more than $19 billion, making him one of the most successful filmmakers of all time. So while this typically sanitised Disney doc doesn’t go into a huge amount of depth, it’s still fascinating to see what his working day looks like, from choosing the Hawaiian shirt he’ll wear to fixing last-minute production errors on Cars 2.
10. How far is too far? The age of AI
This 34 minute documentary is part of a larger 2019 series of YouTube Originals looking at the latest artificial intelligence technologies and where they're taking us. In this episode, presented by Robert Downey Jr, Oscar-winning VFX artist Mark Sagar and pop star Will.i.Am explore how AI is providing us with new ways to be expressive and creative.