What is documentary filmmaking?
Documentary filmmaking is a style of non-fiction filmmaking that shows or explores real life events or factual stories taking place.
Documentaries can take on different styles and use different techniques to achieve their purpose. For instance, some documentaries might seek to be entertaining, some informative, some educational and some persuasive. Some simply seek to capture and record an event or an occasion.
How is documentary filmmaking different to narrative fiction filmmaking?
Documentaries tend to be quite different in style to fiction-based narrative filmmaking, as much of the story or the content is determined by things that have already happened or that someone else is in control of. However, it is important to remember that documentary filmmaking isn’t passive. The filmmaker behind the documentary has a lot of scope to influence how they tell the story and what to include, based on their aims, their interests or their perspective.
The process of making a documentary film is also very different to producing a narrative fiction film. When documentary filmmaking, you are much more likely to work amongst real people, i.e. non-actors and real places. You have to be much more agile, as it’s rare that you will have the controlled production environment of a film set.
You can also be a lot more agile with the storytelling. You might find that any of your earliest thoughts or plans change as you get closer to the subject matter. This is very different to working with a script. You can a lot more flexible and responsive. You might find new avenues to explore that change your original plans, or that mean you see the story in different light. You might find new collaborators along the way.
When you come to edit the film, you might also find that by rearranging the sequence of events or including different elements you can vary the message to tell a very different story. These are all choices for a documentary filmmaker to make all the way along the process.
Documentary Filmmaking Techniques
Here are 6 different documentary filmmaking techniques you can include when starting out in documentaries.
“Fly on the Wall” Photography
Fly on the wall photography is ‘documentary’ in its purest form. It involves setting up a camera in the room of activity or event, and allowing it to film action as it happens.
It doesn’t need to be “on the wall” literally, on a tripod is fine, as is handheld camera activity, or even a CCTV style capture. The main things is that the filming captures the activity uninterrupted and without influence, as though the subjects are unaware that the camera is even there.
Depending on what you intend to shoot, a Wide Angle is probably the most well-used kind of shot for this style of documentary filmmaking. Although if you are focusing in on human reactions, or wildlife activity, a closer in shot might be more appropriate.
You can edit various ‘fly on the wall’ shots together into a sequence later on, but try to avoid too much ‘in camera’ editing work. If you want to capture different angles of the same event, consider using multiple cameras in different setups if you can. (Unless you’re planning to use montage).
Interviews / Talking Heads
Documentary filmmakers will often include interview segments with subjects or experts to give the viewer further insight into the story or to include a range of perspectives. These ‘talking head’ shots can be seen in news reports, on factual TV programmes and in short and feature length documentaries too.
In a ‘talking head’ shot, the camera features one subject, who talks either directly to the camera, or to an off-camera interviewer, just out of the frame. Depending on the how you would like your shot to look, the second approach usually looks a bit more ‘professional’, however a direct to camera shot can be more effective in encouraging the viewer to take action.
Talking heads are usually shot from the waist (a medium shot) or in a medium closeup. Sometimes they might also swap between the two.
To help with storytelling, or to help focus the message, a documentary filmmaker might include some voiceover narration in their film. This can help to ‘fill in the blanks’ of any missing details, such as anything not quite caught on camera, or if a subject has declined to be interviewed. It can also share the personal thoughts and reactions of the filmmaker, who can also be a part of the story.
Documentary filmmakers might choose to use their own voice (and even their own image as a presenter or a subject of the film) or they might find another voice to include in the project, such as a professional voiceover artist or a collaborator.
Where documentary filmmaking explores historical or public events, filmmakers can include archive footage or stock footage to share additional information with the viewer, or add to the story in some way. This is footage doesn’t originate with the filmmaker, but exists somewhere else, such as a film library.
Examples of archive footage might include news reports of big public events, or interviews previously filmed on the same topic. If you think of historical documentaries, you might have seen journalistic footage from a war zone or similar.
Documentary filmmakers will often have to pay for the use of archive or stock footage and so include it within their production budgets.
Dramatic Reconstructions or Re-enactments
Where archive footage might not be available, or its use impractical, documentary filmmaking might also use dramatic reconstructions to help the storytelling. This is where documentary filmmaking is closest to narrative fiction filmmaking, as it uses dramatisation.
Actors will re-enact a dramatic scene based on what is known about the original event. This will be shot by the filmmaker and then included within the documentary. Although not necessarily very true-to-life, the TV documentary series Horrible Histories uses a lot of this style to tell its stories.
Montage technique is when a series of footage clips are sequenced in order to tell story within a condensed period of time. It shows us snippets of events happening, out of real time. This is helpful to condense a lot of information that could feel drawn out to take a long time to explore in detail, into the key moments that a viewer needs to know.
This technique can be a great way to document events. Event videographers often film big celebrations that take place over the course of a day or even a week, and then distill it down into a series of moments that be watched in a short video. It doesn’t capture every single thing about the event, but it captures lots of highlights and serves to tell the story of the celebration.
In educational or informative documentaries, filmmakers can choose to montage clips to show particular parts of a story and connect them by theme or by story. This can both underline a message and also save potential viewing time for other elements.
Documentary filmmaking is one of the styles we explore as part of our Sparks Film School’s youth filmmaking classes.
As part of our theme The Camera Never Lies, Sparks Film School students are exploring documentary filmmaking techniques, as well as mockumentaries and reality TV filmmaking styles.
If you would like to learn more about filmmaking, you can join us for a free filmmaking trial class at any of our UK Film Schools.
You can also follow along with our blog, where we’ll be sharing more tips and advice on documentary filmmaking soon.
About Sparks Film School
Sparks is a youth film school for ages 5-18.
We help young filmmakers to develop their skills, confidence and creativity. We deliver filmmaking classes from over 30 UK film school locations and in partnership with schools, charities and community organisations.
Find out more about Sparks Film School here.