Notes on Documentary Filmmaking Theory

Documentary Filmmaking Theory

Here are some tips from a favorite book of mine “Introduction to Documentary Production – a guide for media students”. In Chapter 8, Editing non fiction and Documentary Film:

Planning for post production – Two basic Stylistic Approaches of Producing a documentary:

The planned approach – the film evolves through screenplay, scripts, storyboards etc. The structure establishes the aims and objectives of the production. The downside is that the producer can become bogged down in the organizing and lack spontaneity may cause. (this is definitely NOT what I have!)

The loosely structured or empirical approach to production is based on observation and experimentation rather than a systematic or specific script. The script will be prepared to fit the material at hand. The approach often use a voice over as a unifying system to confer meaning to what we see. Care has to be taken as the voice over can take out the possibility of different interpretations of the subject matter by the film maker and the audience. One has to be careful not to create just a sequence of unrelated and confused images that can lack purpose and cohesion. It then may then become impossible to develop themes and relationships between players at all. Good documentary practices should develop a balance between a planned or scripted a approach and a more spontaneous empirical approach.

Some points to consider when editing and organizing material

He basically says, non-fiction (documentary) as in fiction too, is dependent on a degree of tension or drama to engage the viewer. Bearing this in mind one should be aware of:

  • How a shot will effect or inform what has gone before
  • What is the significance of the shot in the overall debate or argument put forth
  • Whose point of view does it represent

    He then goes on to say: Considering the above points will establish focus and emotional impact as well as encourage the audience to empathize with, oppose or questions that is being presented. He goes on to talk about a strategy of concealment and revelation, what does the viewer need to see at any given time and how do we introduce, seed and organize complex ideas and relationships.

    Our choice of shots will represent the ideas and related debates that lie beneath the surface of our principle argument.

  • How does it make the audience feel, emotions does it stir up
  • How is the shot trying to prove the point your trying to make – if any?

    After producing a rough cut the flow will still be somewhat disjointed and erratic. The editor is able to create a better flow by:

    Looking at compositional or graphical relationships between shots. Choosing shots whose composition matches the preceding or following shot. This can also include patterns of light and dark (tone) and color. Discontinuous matches can at times also be appropriate e.g. placing interviewer and interviewee on different sides of the frame to create counterpoint.

    Spatial unity (use of space to create unity) can be achieved by placing the subjects in an interview that perhaps may be filmed at separate times on the same eye level.

    Rhythmic relationships: The frequency and duration of a given shot creates beat and tempo.

  • Does the shot remain on the screen for enough time for the user to get the message.
  • A shorter shot may have to be made longer for the audience to get the point, add additional material to it e.g. a cutaway shot.
  • A shot may be able to be shortened and still get the message across .
  • Being too long could make the shot distract from the overall flow.
  • Categories

    Initial Project notes on “The Making of Energy Crisis 2012”

    In October 2005 I made a short film entitled “Energy Crisis 2012” (view the movie online here)for the “Shoot Out Boulder” a 24 hour filmmaking contest.

    My crew all had a blast making it and and we placed in the top 10 out of 60 entries! In addition to the actual 6 minutes of footage that I shot on the day of the movie, I also recorded 6 hours of “The Making of” type footage during and before the day of the competition. I had the idea that capturing the creative process on video would firstly help me get a big picture view of the filmmaking process and secondly it could help develop my documentary filmmaking skills by using the material to create a documentary on the “Making of Energy Crisis 2012”. I have never actually produced anything more than the two 6 minute pieces for the 2005 and 2006 “Shoot Out Boulder” competitions armed with 6 hours of raw footage, I could not get my hands dirty and perhaps produce something remotely watch-able!

    A big problem however was that no one particular person was assigned to this parallel project. It was more of a “hit the record button on the camera” during the cast meetings and rehearsals and “see what we get” than an execution of a carefully though out plan for a documentary. Having said this and, having sat in front of the computer for 6 hours during the capture stage of this footage I can honestly say that we did get some real gems and even though the end result will be more of a spontaneous, reality type documentary than a carefully planned out one, I think it has some potential (sweet baby Jesus, I hope so!). I now have the somewhat daunting task of separating the wheat from the chaff and throwing together a 45 minute piece (or shorter) entitled “The Making of Energy Crisis 2012”.

    As of the date of this post, I’m basically at the stage of having 6 hours of footage captured on a nice 400 Gig hard drive. My first thought after capturing the material is – now what! I have decided to create some article to assist me (and hopefully others) on the task at hand. There will be some editing technical type articles using my G5 Mac with Final Cut Pro and some purely non-technical ones dealing with the theory and thought process behind documentary filmmaking.


    Reply to Scammers

    If you’ve ever been a part of the circus and you’re a guy then you’ve probably gotten a lot of email from scammer, spammer and general “right old slapper” types saying something like:

    [This is what one gal wrote …..]


    Your profile cought my eye and I’d like to get to know you better. Since I am not often to the site please write me at Cannot wit to hear back from you sooner.


    My Reply ……

    No, no, I really feel we should communicate using the email system until I know you are legit (not some dodgy scammer from the Ukraine). I think I may love you and want to have your babies but let’s just see how things go first, ok. Can you meet me on the corner of 2nd and Lubb street at 9pm tonight? I will be the bloke in the skimpy little dress and heels, don’t worry as you will easily recognize me by my full beard and Cabbage -tree hat. I’m also take a fancy to sporting a red Burka these days so I should be pretty easy to spot.



    Still more – July 2006

    It happened suddenly that I saw your profile and I couldnt stand from writing

    to you. I will be very happy to get to know you better.

    Life is a very complicated thing. And you never know what will happen one day.

    People could meet and understand they were meant for each other. And they could

    live a happy life together for the rest of the life. Or they could be

    lonely for long time and be afraid to have new relations. So I dont want to

    miss a chance of my life and find a person I could live with and have strong

    and happy family with.

    I would really like to know more about you. Hope you too. So, please, ask me any

    questions you have and I will gladly answer them. As soon as I get your

    reply, I will tell you more about myself, my life, my interests.

    Have a nice day!

    I am waiting impatiently for your reply.

    Actually I live in Ru_s_s_ia. I was mistaken when filled a profile.

    I hope in it there is nothing terrible and you don’t afraid Russian woman!

    I promise you will not be disappointed!!!

    Please, don’t make me wait for long.:-)


    reply me at

    Please see my pics

    (the girl in the photos is hot! yeah right this is the person behind the email – NOT!)

    OS X Virtual desktops

    What’s a virtual desktop you may ask. Right now, all the windows that you have open are sitting on one desktop so to speak, just imagine having another computer monitor to your left with say just your mail client open and another screen to your right with say your finder open and an ftp client window open. If you’ve ever seen this in action you’ll know that adding monitors creates one big desktop so to speak or splits your desktop up into 3 sections. It’s nice to just be able to jump to say an FTP client that is neatly aligned next to say ones finder window without having to cmd-tab through a list of all your windows.

    Enter virtual desktops and this OS X implementation called Desktop Manager. It allows you to set up multiple desktops and only have certain apps showing on these desktops. It’s Alpha software but it seem to work ok and it’s also free! Once installed you’ll see a little graphic in the bottom left of your screen. Each square represents a different virtual desktop. Clicking on the second square will take you to the second (empty) desktop. To move windows from the first into the second desktops simple do a opt-cmd-o and it’ll ask you what desktop you want to send the window to. See a writeup on the software at orillynet.

    In closing here’s a short tip. When I do a cmd-tab to bring up the app switcher, I usually select the app I want with the mouse instead of tabbing to it.

    MacWorld 2006 NEWS – New Intel PowerBook and iMac!

    Ok Mac Cult members the wait is over, here are the new announcements from the 2006 Macworld expo in Sanfran. Yet again Mr J. has stumped us all with the announcement of a new PowerBook not iBook as expected! You gotta love the tagline for the new announcement clearly displayed on the top of front page of the website “What’s an Intel chip doing in a Mac? A Whole lot more than it’s ever done in a PC!”

    – New Intel Powerbook! (MacBook Pro)

    – New Intel iMac

    – New iLife ’06’ cool

    – iWork upgrade (yawn!)

    – iPod Radio Remote … yawn

    Apple Introduces MacBook Pro

    Introducing the new MacBook Pro notebook computer featuring an Intel Core Duo processor which delivers up to four times the performance of the PowerBook G4. This pup is gonna be $2499 for the fastest 1.8Ghz Processor with 256Megs of Video ram and 1 Gig of system ram standard. No modem or firewire 800! Has Optical in and out and also PCI-ExpressCard and screen is 67% Brighter. Just one inch thin and weighing only 5.6 pounds, the MacBook Pro also includes a built-in iSight video camera, an Apple Remote and Front Row software. Apple FrontRow, their multimedia application that turns your computer into a digital entertainment center.

    Apple Unveils New iMac with Intel Core Duo Processor

    Running Mac OS X on the new Intel Core Duo processor, the new iMac delivers performance that is up to twice that of its predecessor. The widely praised iMac design now features dual-core processors, a built-in iSight camera for video conferencing and the breakthrough Front Row media experience with the Apple Remote.

    Apple Announces iLife 06

    An upgrade to Apple’s award-winning suite of digital lifestyle applications, iLife ’06 features iPhoto 6 with Photocasting for sharing photos over the Internet, iMovie HD 6 with new motion themes, iDVD 6 for authoring custom DVDs for today’s widescreen TVs and GarageBand 3 for creating professional-quality Podcasts. iLife ’06 also introduces iWeb, a new iLife application making it super-easy to create amazing websites and publish them on the Internet with just a single click.

    Apple Announces iWork 06

    A new version of Apple’s suite of productivity software, iWork ’06 makes it easy for users to create even more compelling documents and presentations with Pages 2 and Keynote 3.

    Apple Announces the iPod Radio Remote

    The iPod Radio Remote combines the convenience of a wired remote control with new FM radio capabilities for the iPod nano and fifth generation iPod. Skip tracks and adjust the volume of an iPod even when it’s in a pocket or backpack. Listen to FM radio stations while displaying station and song information on the iPod screen.


    MacWorld Expo 2006 New – Tell me, tell me NOW!

    It’s 11.31am Mountain time here in Colorado and I haven’t heard a bloody peep from the Macworld Expo regarding the “Big News” that every Mac geek has been salivating over for the past six months. Christ on a Bike! is it now 2006 or what – how about a live video feed, or low tech audio feed Mr Jobs? All the major Mac news sites like ThinkSecret and are down, thanks to frantic searchers like myself. In the name of all thing good and unholy TELL US, TELL US NOW!! I’m now searching – nuffin! Oh sweet God and baby Jesus how long has a bloke to wait! Do I have to phone a friend of a friend who lives in The Haight and get em to stroll down the hill to the expo with a cellphone in hand?

    We’re all chomping at the bit here Steve, even the suits (apple stock just went up 5% over night!)Here is what has been suggested the announcement are gonna be:

  • Intel Macs
  • New Ibook with Intel chips
  • New Ipod Shuffle
  • Early Morning Rainbows

    Here is a photo that I snapped from outside my front door one morning this week as I was getting ready to go ski.