Top documentary filmmaking techniques.
Discover creative techniques that can help bring documentary films to life.
Dating back to the early days of filmmaking, the documentary genre offered creators a wide range of techniques for expressing their ideas. Today, film and video content creators can draw from this rich history of documentary filmmaking — not only benefiting from tried-and-true techniques but also drawing inspiration from the documentary’s intrinsic creative storytelling latitude. And learning more about documentaries — including specific documentary filmmaking techniques — helps us all to craft more impactful film projects.
8 documentary techniques: How to tell real-world stories, for real.
There's more than one way to film a documentary — in fact, there are limitless techniques you can use to tell your story exactly how you see it, be it using film angles, cutting in real-time footage, adding music for emotion, and more. From conception through completion, these eight documentary filmmaking techniques can help you in a big way.
1. Create a documentary shot list.
Shot lists help directors and directors of photography (often one and the same with documentaries) lay out the shots and camera angles, such as close ups and three-quarter profile shots, that help to visually tell the story with a clear intention. Consider how you will light each shot, and — because many documentaries feature real-life characters recounting their own story — what angle or perspective will best bring out their characteristics.
2. Design your camera movements.
Generally, documentary filmmakers like to keep the camera steady, focusing on the main subject or story directly. But there are times when using different camera movements can help tell your story more effectively and bring out more emotion. For example, use a tracking shot to show a subject’s physical reaction or a low angle shot (shooting from the ground up) to change their point of view.
3. Consider camera lenses.
When you think about how your documentary will look on a TV, phone, or big theatrical screen, you’ll realize that the camera equipment and lenses used in filming can make all the difference to both the shooting experience and to final project’s look and feel. For example:
- The wide-angle lens: With a focal length typically between 14 and 20mm, this lens shows off more of the environment in each shot. That can add to a feeling of excitement, as if something big is happening in front of your eyes.
- The 50mm lens: also known as the “nifty 50,” is a prime lens — a lens with one focal length and a fixed aperture — that can represent how the human eye sees objects and people in a natural setting. It’s both lightweight and affordable, making it a great choice for handheld filmmaking.
- The telephoto lens: Used to photograph and film faraway subjects, it brings faraway subjects closer to the camera, resulting in the framing of the subject as if you were up close.
If possible, try out different cameras, such as DSLRs or hybrid cameras that excel in both video and image capture, so that you have a variety of options when it comes time to edit your documentary.
4. Be story aware.
Always keep the story front of mind. It’s easy to lose sight of what you’re trying to say with everything else you’re doing during filming. No matter your documentary’s subject matter, create a story synopsis and keep it with you. Reference it often to make sure your decisions, such as location, subjects in the environment, music, and voiceover additions actually match what your film is trying to say.
5. Use the voiceover.
The use of historical or recorded live video footage with voiceover narration is a time-tested technique for documentary filmmaking. With this technique, the information provided by the voiceover enhances the story being shown and told in the film or video itself. Plus, a voiceover can provide important information to the audience in a way that’s easy to understand.
6. Highlight participant or observer interviews.
A first-hand account or retelling of a story from someone who participated or observed the events is a powerful way to establish facts. Often used to tell the documentary’s main story, this technique demonstrates hard-to-refute evidence. Many filmmakers use close shots of the participants to allow the viewer to engage with them on a deeper and more intimate level.
7. Keep poetic expression in mind.
This technique combines the artistic use of imagery and music to match the mood and convey emotion – which is often below the surface when you’re working with nonfiction. For example, you could turn footage black and white, with a somber music backtrack, during a story’s sadder moments. However, for this documentary technique to be successful, the filmmaker should be proficient with full-featured video editing tools and an audio mixing solution to polish the final cut. The combination of music and cinematography can make a powerful story even more impactful and heartrending.
8. Master the montage.
Documentary creators often employ a video montage with voice-over to link the action with words to help the viewer better understand what a character is saying. Mixed with other techniques, such as the participant interview, the montage makes a powerful filmmaking statement.
Find inspiration in the classics.
To see for yourself how good documentary films are both structured and presented, spend some time just watching them. From Luc Jacquet’s exploration of the natural world in March of the Penguins to Martin Scorsese’s joyous, music-filled The Last Dance, documentary films bring you face to face with worlds you wouldn’t normally experience — and make you feel something very real while you’re there.
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