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.