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.
Edit the film.
We have all the pieces – now it’s time to put them all together!
Use a commercial editing program to assemble our footage into a coherent film on my computer. Remove everything that doesn’t logically fit into the theme of our film – for instance, I might remove the parts of my interviews that don’t directly deal with our film’s topic. Take my time during the editing process – allow myself plenty of time to get it just right. When I think I am done, sleep on it, then watch the entire film again and make any other edits I think are necessary.
- Make our film as lean as possible, but be the director to work with a reasonable and ethical editor. For instance, if, while filming, I encountered strong evidence that goes against our film’s viewpoint, it’s a little disingenuous to pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead, modify the message of our film or, better yet, find a new counter-argument!
Do a screening.
After I’ve edited the film, I’ll probably want to share it. After all, films were meant to be watched! Show our movie to my friends, or someone else whose opinion I trust. Then market our project as broadly as possible. Have a public screening rent, beg or borrow a venue to allow audiences to enjoy our work.
- Get as many people involved as possible. For every person involved in our project, it translates to two people in the audience for the screening or to buy our documentary.
- Send our documentary out to festivals but choose fests carefully.
- Be prepared to get honest feedback. Ask our viewer(s) to review our movie. Tell them not to sugarcoat it -I want to know exactly what they liked and what they didn’t like. According to what they tell me, I may choose go back to editing and fix what needs to be fixed. This can potentially (but not necessarily) mean re-shooting footage or adding new scenes.
- Get used to rejection and toughen up. After investing countless hours in my documentary, I expect audiences to react and respond. Don’t be disappointed if they aren’t “over the moon” about my project; we tend live in a media-consumptive world today and audiences have high expectations and low tolerance.
So here you are.
I’ve shot all footage and now ready to sit myself down in front of my computer and start making magic. I need to organize it in an order that is interesting, coherent, and will keep the viewers’ attention. Make a detailed shot-by-shot outline to guide the editing process. Provide a coherent narrative for the audience to follow that proves your viewpoint. Decide which footage will go at the beginning, which will go in the middle, which will go at the end, and which won’t go in the film at all. Showcase the most interesting footage, while cutting anything that seems meandering, boring, or pointless.
Here’s my post-production check-list:
- Log tapes, examine & study footage
- Create a script – I’ve written up a whole page just on this topic
- Choose music: research music libraries, work with a composer or look into purchasing copyrighted materials like a pop song
- Edit your documentary – click here for a step by step editing guide
- Strategize on a distribution and marketing plan for my film
- Check all the legal stuff to make sure I won’t get
Shoot dramatic recreations.
If there’s no real-life footage of an event my documentary discusses, it’s acceptable to use actors to re-create the event for my camera, provided the recreation is informed by real-world fact and it’s perfectly clear to the audience that the footage is a recreation. Be reasonable with what the film as a dramatic recreation – make sure that whatever you commit to film is grounded in reality.
- Sometimes, dramatic recreations will obscure the actors’ faces. This is because it can be jarring for an audience to see an actor portray a real-world person in a film that also contains real footage of him or her.
- I may want to film or edit this footage in a way that gives it a visual style distinct from the rest of my film (for instance, by muting the color palette). This way, it’s easy for audience to tell which footage is “real” and which is a recreation.
A story can be told through several ways, and nowadays one of the most popular and also more interactive ways is digital storytelling.
This film left audience with a good interaction and the audience deeply soaked in the rhythm of the film. The visual design of the film presents the scenes from angle of the first person, and the light in this clip brought audience to a suspicious story. The functionality of the film linked interactive points that impress audience and make them get involved in the story. The structure of the film presents a meaningful and logical story which led audience to a suspicious world. The audience can get the interesting stories around the world by simply clicking the hints.
To be frank, I like the way of storytelling in this film that presents the most common issues in a humorous style. There are three parts in this story, comprised of six short videos which are performed vividly by three ‘animals’. Compare with people actors in a film, animal characters are more attractive and amusing.
The visual design in this story is very distinctive and creative since people live as normal but with costumes on the body, which brought a lot of funny elements into the story and I am deeply impressed by the visual design of this film. The functionality of the film gave audience a strong sense of humour. The producer posted each character’s social media link on the website where audience can chat with characters directly online. The structure of the story presents people’s normal life with a unique way on the screen. And the story tells that people should find a way to vent the pressure from daily life and don’t hide in a sheath. Sometimes, people should think of the society as a jungle and we play different roles of animals.
I really enjoyed the way of storytelling in this project. It included few videos and articles all in one web entry. The visual design of this story is quite simple and clear, which by using black and white as the main colours, and also formal words format. The functions are also very easily controlled by viewers. The whole page is clearly classified into three parts, which are the video on the top; texts above; then the chapters categories.
The structure of this work include three parts. It leads us to watch the video first, and then allow us to read the article for exploring more information about the topic in the video. After finish the reading it guides us to go to the next chapter to watch another video. The viewers can also randomly choose a certain chapter they would like to watch. But I think all the people will watch them in order, due to the storytelling is listed with a process of making a T-shirt. We all wear T-shirt all the time, but not many of us have considered how they have been made. This interactive storytelling work has provided us a change to view the whole process with a very effective way.
In addition to establishing shots, I’ll also want to get secondary footage called “B-roll” – this can be footage of important objects, interesting processes, or stock footage of historical events. B-roll is important for maintaining the visual fluidity of our documentary and ensuring a brisk pace, as it allows me to keep the film visually active even as the audio lingers on one person’s speech.
- In our documentary, I’d want to collect as much Story-related B-roll as possible – glamorous close-ups as well as footage of the story in motion.
- B-roll is especially important if our documentary will make use of extensive voiceover narration. Since I can’t play the narration over interview footage without keeping the audience from hearing what my subject is saying, I’ll usually lay the voiceover over short stretches of B-roll. I can also use B-roll to mask the flaws in interviews that didn’t go perfectly. For instance, if my subject had a coughing fit in the middle of an otherwise great interview, during the editing process, I can cut the coughing fit out, then set the audio of the interview to B-roll footage, masking the cut.
Here are two examples of projects where I utilize that narrative storytelling license. (It’s rather apropos that both happen to involve my daughter who as of this writing just went off to college).
This is a personal project I’ve been slowly developing over the past two years. I want to tell the stories of biracial people, but do it in such a way where it feels completely like a scripted film. You will never see the interviewee. In fact, I purposefully recorded audio-only interviews with the subjects, thereby requiring all the visuals to be narrative and metaphorical re-enactments. Here’s the trailer for the first episode (still in production).
This documentary short film was for a commercial client that provides B2C tools and community resources for professional photographers. This was part of the keynote address their new CEO gave at their annual conference that year. In it I interview four, non-photographer artists to talk about the creative process. Interwoven throughout is traditional b-roll, but also a narrative story of a teen girl writing a song she got in a dream.
Documentaries represent one of the most important and significant art forms of this and last century. They have the power to change the world. As makers of this medium, we should always strive to make their impact on the audience all the more powerful. Utilizing cinematic techniques is one way to do that.
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.
Organize, outline, and schedule the shooting.
I don’t necessarily need to know exactly how my documentary is going to come together before I start shooting – I may discover things during the process of filming that change the plans or offer new avenues of investigation. However, I should definitely have a plan before I start shooting, including an outline of specific footage I want to shoot. Having a plan ahead of time will give me extra time to schedule interviews, work around scheduling conflicts, etc. my plan for shooting should include:
- Specific people I want to interview – make contact with these people as early as possible to schedule interviews.
- Specific events I want to record as they occur – arrange travel to and from these events, and get permission from the event’s planners to be able to shoot at the event.
- Specific writings, pictures, drawings, music, and/or other documents I want to use. Get permission to use these from the creator(s) before I add them to the documentary.
- Any dramatic recreations I want to shoot. Search for actors, props, and shooting locations well ahead of time.
Interview relevant people.
Pick a selection of relevant people to interview and collect as much footage as I can from these interviews. I’ll be able to splice this footage throughout the documentary to help prove my point or convey the message. Interviews can be “news style” – in other words, simply sticking a microphone in someone’s face – but I’ll probably want want to rely more on one-on-one sit-down interviews, as these give us a chance to control the lighting, staging, and sound quality of your footage while also allowing your subject to relax, take his or her time, tell stories, etc.
- These people may be famous or important – many of these people may not be famous or important. They may be ordinary people whose work has given them a familiarity of my subject or people who simply witnessed an important event firsthand. They can, in certain situations, even be completely ignorant of my subject – it can even be enlightening (and entertaining) for the audience to hear the difference between a knowledgeable person’s opinion and an ignorant person’s opinion.
- Remember––a good interview should be more like a conversation. As the interviewer, I must be prepared, having done my research and informed myself to glean the most information from the interview subject.
- Grab B-roll whenever possible. Get shots of interview subject after the formal interview. This allows me to cutaway from the talking head shot.