As a documentary director, I’ll spend a lot of time on the desk in processing the output. I will essentially create a frame by frame story from a haystack of video shoots. I’ll spend hours and hours on the audio processing. And even after I’ve decided on the final piece, and maybe years after I’d have made the documentary, I might still dwell on the question where you selected the right shots and right sequences. Remember to shoot a lot. Keep the camera rolling as much as possible. I’ll realize how seemingly useless frames fit into the design beautifully later on.
How to make a creative documentary?
There is no map with clear directions available for making a creative documentary, but I can describe some of the fruitful conditions that underpin this ambition.
• I need knowledge and awareness of different traditions in the history of documentary filmmaking. Creative cultural products generally modify, challenge or are inspired by what has been produced before.
• I need to develop an ability to locate and understand different approaches to the subject, and play with different ideas.
• Creative work tends to borrow and mix technologies or forms from different or related genres or art forms but also from different cultural fields. This process is often described as hybridisation.
• In order to be a creative filmmaker it helps to be an avid consumer.
• Take time to digest; down time is essential in creative production.
• Try to collaborate with other disciplines; different skills can contribute to the creative process.
• Be a member of a professional community. Creative communities provide ideas, contacts, venues and access to broadcasters, funders and festivals.
• Understand the purpose of the film, for whom is it made and why.
• Take ideas further, find new angles and don’t copy others: push myself.
• Above all, give up the idea that I can create a masterpiece on my own in splendid isolation.
Documentary is in a period of enormous change in the way it can tell stories, so experiment and dare to make mistakes or spend hours in editing rooms to make the film work.
Editing a documentary is neither easy nor fast. Even when we start with an outline, that outline is likely to change as we get to know the footage, the subjects and events. A good place to start is to look at all the footage while suspending judgement. Look for and collect those magic moments of truth and beauty. Then I can begin to string them together and see what flows.
Research in structuring the documentary
Documentary structure is often determined by the film’s subject. There are a number of common structures used in documentaries:
- “Voice of God” narration tell the story
- Interview clips tell the story
- “Day In the Life” where the camera follows the subject
- The filmmaker appears on camera and guides the story as a first person guide, such as Michael Moore, Werner Herzog and many others
- Re-enactment of historical events using actors, photos and stock footage.
Some documentaries use a combination of these structures. It comes down to telling a complete story. Narration and titles can be used to weave the separate pieces and ideas together into a cohesive whole.
Story Telling And Character
With the exception of the mockumentary, the characters in a doc are real people being themselves. The character moves from one situation to another to effect change. It is common for a character to go from weakness to strength. The character moves to greater tension and then to resolution. Viewers expect this pattern of start, tension and resolution in a story and characters. The editor can portray the character with sympathy or disdain.
A good ending is when
- the action ends
- the viewers know what the characters will do
- the ending answers the questions in the film (often, but not always)
- the ending is logical and satisfying.
Interviews can be a powerful way to tell a story. Stacey do the main edit work, we disscuss all the content and structure.
If I were to ask all interviewees the same questions, I would have a wealth of choices in the editing room. For instance one character could start a sentence and another could finish it. By selecting the right sound bytes, the editor could tell a complete story using only interviews without any narration.
If there is a lot of interview material, organizing it can be a challenge. We prefer to work with written transcripts (including time-code) of the video interviews. A paper edit can be a more efficient way to start the job. The jump cuts may be covered with cutaways or B-roll although we prefer to leave the jump cuts visible rather than hide them.