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Awesome Documentaries about Very Specific Things

HelveticaBecause I am a frazzled working mom, I'm often way behind on seeing movies with smaller releases. This obviously applies to documentaries since I'm not in a huge release market and these things tend to fly through theaters anyway.

Thankfully, Netflix (and other such services) exist, so I'm able to catch up on some of the awesome stuff that I miss. Most recently, I rented and adored two documentaries that are about subjects so very micro that they're almost ridiculous: Helvetica (the font) and Donkey Kong.

Both documentaries are from about two years ago so I'm very late to jump on their bandwagons but my god are they fantastic.

I actually should have seen Helvetica last year when a group from my grad program, which has a heavy design component, went to see it. But the aforementioned frazzled working momness prevented me. So I finally got to see it the other night. Not only is it fascinating to hear the story of how Helvetica came to be, how it basically revolutionized written communication and to see just how ubiquitous it is, getting to hear the testimonies of typographers and the total boners that they have for the font is just...hilarious. There is nothing that specific in life that I am into, so listening to these professionals give an almost pornographic analysis of Helvetica's lower-case "a," (which is very nice when you really look at it) was so over-the-top that I had to laugh. Imagining the research that director Gary Hustwit must have done made me giggle, too. "Find me people who will just go OFF about Helvetica. Also find me the one guy in the world who absolutely hates it. I want to hear his completely ludicrous screed."

Hustwit has a new documentary out called Objectified which is a little broader in its focus. It's about...objects. And how they're made and how they make us feel. Please note that the movie poster's font is Helvetica. Personally, I think his follow up should have been about Comic Sans, but I think maybe the typographer that invented it is in exile or the witness protection program or something. People want that person to pay for creating such a monstrosity.

Anyway, the other kick-ass documentary that I watched recently was The King of Kong. There is a certain subset of the video-game-playing population that is really REALLY into Donkey Kong. We're talking drama and scandals going back almost 30 years. This documentary focuses on the feud between two champions: Billy Mitchell, who set the Donkey Kong world record in 1982. It stood until 2005 (I think?) when unemployed engineer Steve Wiebe set out to break the record. The two go back and forth, achieving stratospheric high scores and breaking each other's records and the rivalry between them is straight out of an old-fashioned Western. Mitchell is a fantastic villain: cocky, hypocritical, and obviously intimidated, while Wiebe is the scrappy challenger who wants nothing more than to face off with Mitchell. And the level of devotion and reverence that his fans/lesser players have for him is just incredible.

While most of the documentary is fascinating and humorous (I mean, seriously, Donkey Kong?), it also touches on some really heartbreaking moments when we see how the devotion of Wiebe and Mitchell affects their personal lives. Wiebe's family feels bad because, despite his consistently advanced achievements in many areas (baseball, engineering, etc), he's often come up short in big successes. But his hours of practice and record-setting attempts keep him from his wife and kids and during one videotape that he made when he first broke Mitchell's record, we hear Wiebe's young son crying for his attention. Wiebe is mere moments away from the record and while I can't really blame him for shooing his kid away just to complete the goal, it was a really tough moment to experience.

So, if you're looking for something rad to watch, I highly recommend those documentaries. Both Helvetica and The King of Kong are available to watch instantly on Netflix.


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Snarky Amber

GARH COMIC SANS. Papyrus is also dangerously close to Comic Sans levels of ubiquity and awfulness.

I love nonfiction about specific, nerdy things. You should check out Word Freak. It's a book about Scrabble tournaments and it's Capital A Awesome.


Great topic! These documentaries can be so mesmerizing. I had a college professor that made us print out all our speech guides in 14 pt Helvetica bold. More recently, I remember a twitter friend posting about an application letter they were processing- It was all in COMIC SANS. It really is the little things, isn't it?

I also enjoyed Wordplay (2006) about the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. So many famous (and infamous) fans. Really well done.


I freakin' hate Comic Sans. Can we do a documentary about that?? I think the world needs more font documentaries.

Fawn Amber

OMG, I thought I was alone in my hatred for Comic Sans. I love this site. Also too, I love Lucida Sans. Love.


King of Kong was GREAT! still not convinced that at least part of the film was a put-on. maybe im HOPING that some of it was. otherwise, im just plain embarrased for some of those guys.


Heh, only this crowd would sympathize with the way my skin crawls when people say "font" to mean "typeface." And then I go and do it myself.

Took a book design class where the teacher would not shut up about his love for Garamond. I have since used it for any documents where the reader might be a connoisseur, JUST IN CASE. I do agree that TNR is too uptight.


Eesh, didn't know people hated Comic Sans so much. Just scrolled through some of my email choices....Blackadder? Really?


I've had long, drawn-out discussions at my office about typefaces. Since I work in an interactive advertising office, a LOT of thought is put into everything that is chosen, and Helvetica is generally our default.

My coworker has even been recognized for his design of a typeface (Black Slabbath) that is used in one of our local coffehouses. And he designed a font specifically for our agency, which we use on all of our documentation.

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