Get live footage of relevant events.
One of the main advantages of documentary is that they allow the director to show the audience real footage of actual real-life events. Provided I don’t break any privacy laws, get as much real-world footage as I can. Film events that support my documentary’s viewpoint, or, if the subject of my documentary happened in the past, get in touch with agencies or people who have historical footage to get permission to use it.
Cinematic Techniques for Making A Documentary More Impactful
- Know the story: during the pre-production phase, I learn all I can about the story I plan to tell. Whether it’s a corporate promotional film, or a personal profile, I get as much information as I can about the people, places, and events related to the film.
- Create a shot list: as much as possible I determine ahead of time the shots I want to get to tell the visual story I want to tell. Naturally a big part of what I plan to shoot will be based on sound bites I get during the interviews. But the more I know up front what I will be shooting, the more shots I can plan ahead of time.
- Shoot it like a script: in much of the work I do, I’m NOT a journalistic filmmaker, capturing events as they happen, like an ENG news shooter might. Usually I’m directing the “talent” (i.e. employees, interview subjects, etc) and doing minimum production design (even if it’s just rearranging someone’s office to make it look just right). Where appropriate and whenever possible I also get good coverage (e.g. wide, medium and close up shots of the same “scene”; opposing angle shots; etc.)
- Mind the metaphorical: my favorite kind of narrative storytelling is metaphorical or allegorical imagery similar to the Nooma examples I gave above. Where I have the opportunity to shoot narrative scenes that have no literal connection to the soundbites, but have the strong emotional resonance.
- Music is key: when I get to the editing process, I put a lot of time into finding the right music. Music has almost as much influence in eliciting emotional responses to a film as the visuals do.
I’ve also been strongly influenced by other amazing documentary filmmakers utilizing cinematic techniques; filmmakers like Errol Morris, Werner Hertzog, and Alex Gibney.
Film establishing shots.
I’ve watched a documentary before, I noticed that the entire movie isn’t just footage of interviews and of live events with nothing in between. For instance, there are often shots leading into interviews that establish a mood or show where the interview is taking place by showing the outside of the building, the city skyline, etc. These are called “establishing shots,” and they’re a small but important part of the documentary. Always collect audio from the shoot including room tone and sound effects unique to that location.
Film the interview
While two-camera shoots are more expensive, today’s inexpensive HDSLR cameras make the two-camera interview an affordable proposition. Many interviews are not very striking visually so if interviews are a major portion of the film, the film can suffer. Take special care to make our interviews look great.
Finding great locations
It is an essential element in film. But great locations do not find themselves. On big budget productions, there is an official location scout. But if we’re on a small budget, I’ll have to do it myself. I’ll want to start by studying the script or outline to see what locations it suggests.
Choosing the background for a lengthy interview is an important decision. An interview may become most of the film so it must look good. I want a room that is large enough, quiet enough and one where I can control the light – a controlled environment to shoot in.
This eliminates shooting outside because the noises and lighting will change and could ruin the interview. Short interviews are filmed outside everyday, but a long interview like a story or biography must be filmed in a more controlled location which generally means inside.
Look for a quiet room. Listen carefully in the room. Do you hear noise from heat or air vents, airplanes, traffic, construction? Ask about what sounds one might typically hear in the room.Loud traffic noise or being in the flight path of an airport are real problems we should must avoid. Like when we shoot Angie on the boat at harbour, the sound of another yacht in the distance almost ruin our shooting. In some interviews I can just wait for the noise to stop, but when we’re recording a life story, I don’t want that kind of distraction to disturb the rhythm of the shooting.
Go to the location before the shoot. Walk around. Take lots of pictures. Here are a few questions to ask about any location:
• Is there electricity?
• Is this location near an airports or railroad?
• Will you need someone to let you in?
• Where are the breaker boxes?
• Is the area or neighborhood safe?
• Where can the crew set up their gear?
• Are there events scheduled for the shoot day?
• Does the location cost money?
• Is there can set up the good light and kiddile?
Do Not Forget Audio
There are so many potential audio issues that can add time and expense to a shoot. Look and listen carefully to see what audio gotchas could be lurking. I got a lot of lessons from the audio issue during the shooting day.