Documentaries are always more work than you’d think when you are first starting. You can’t just grab a camera and start filming aspects of real life and think that makes a documentary - that’s a home video. With the help of these tips you’ll be able to turn your documentary from just “okay” into a tighter, more captivating film.
Create a compelling storyline
The storyline is arguably the most important part of a documentary.
You may have beautiful footage of snow-capped mountains, green forests, or red sunsets but if that’s all the documentary is about there isn’t much there that will make an audience want to take the time to watch the whole film through. After all, you could easily turn to Google, YouTube, or get out there yourself to see those natural wonders with your own eyes.
Story is what compels the audience to sit down, watch, and then stay seated throughout the viewing. It makes them want to see what will happen next and makes them grow to care about the characters of the film.
To create your storyline a good place to start is with the story arc. The story arc consists of the basics you learned back in elementary school: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Within the story arc you would include establishing the characters and their goals in the beginning, introducing conflict while following the characters as they work towards their goal, and finishing with them either completing their goal or not and following that with what happens because of that outcome.
Also, included when mapping out your storyline is timeline, setting, theme, and character development.
As an example, I’ll use, Martin’s Boat, a film that won the Environment Award and People’s Choice Award at our last festival. This film revolves around the story about the late conservationist and founder of Grand Canyon Dories, Martin Litton. Throughout the film it follows a crew of Grand Canyon dory guides who knew Litton and take people on river trips at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. The guides talk about who Litton was, the work he did to preserve the Grand Canyon, and that because of his work they get to enjoy and experience the Grand Canyon today. This is all done as they make their way down the river and through rapids.
For your own film, look to come up with a fresh, original topic that hasn’t been done before or a way to view a topic from a different angle. Keep the topic relatable though so that a broad audience is able to connect to what it presents.
Of course, a documentary is not a work of fiction so you can’t just create events. Thus, researching your topic and subject(s) is important in order to get a good idea of where to take the story.
As a side note, a storyline is not essential to a short documentary but it will always make for a stronger piece if it is present.
At Wasatch Mountain Film Festival, strong storylines are a big factor in the films chosen to be shown in the festival. In fact, create any sort of storyline and you are already miles ahead of the countless films that are solely about showing footage of repetitive ski runs.
This is the second most important part to a documentary.
Interviews can take up to 50% or more of a documentary's screen time and help flesh out the characters by allowing the audience to get to know their opinions and expertise on a subject.
Before the interview, come up with questions in mind that will help carry your story along. Also, remember that in the end the viewers will not be able to hear the questions you ask your subject during the interview so you need your subject to talk in complete sentences. If you plan out the questions you intend to ask beforehand you can come up with questions that’ll hopefully elicit a complete response without you having to remind your subject to answer in complete sentences.
When you’re finally ready to film, a good idea is to try to get to know the characters in your film. Have a conversation, joke, and laugh with them. If they feel comfortable with you they’ll feel much more at ease with being questioned while cameras are pointing at them. In addition, if your subjects feel comfortable they are more likely to open up and show their personality which works wonders in making a film feel more rich and real.
Picking the perfect location
Before everyone arrives on set to film you should have established the location of where you want the interview or scene to take place. The location chosen should of course tie into the story and what the film is about.
This would include settings such as the home and town the characters live in, the places they visit often and why, and places they want to go.
When choosing a location for interviews try having the environment surrounding the subject relate to the person being interviewed.
In my example before on Martin's Boat, interviews were done in dory workshops, next to docked dories, and along the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Wherever you go, beware of the lighting; especially when filming outside. It’s best not to film, especially interviews, in the middle of the day when the sun is high and blazing down on your subjects causing them to squint and creating intense shadows. Instead look for overcast days or the time of day called the golden hour when the sunlight is softer, warmer, and more flattering. The golden hour is shortly after sunrise and before sunset.
You should not use all the film you collect.
A good tip is to keep the camera rolling at all times so you don’t miss any good footage. However, this doesn’t mean you should use every bit of footage you capture, even if it does look cool.
When putting your scenes together during the editing process you should always ask yourself whether the scene adds to the overall story and/or theme or not. Focus on being concise and use exactly what gets your point of the scene across and no more. Do not take an hour to say what could be said in 20 minutes.
Remember, a film is not a high-school research paper; you do not have to pad it with nonsense to get it to a certain length. And just like your teacher didn’t enjoy reading your paper that droned on and on, people are not going to want to watch a film that is full of unimportant information and doesn’t move the story along.
How does that music make you feel?
The music you choose to play in your film is important because it has the power to connect the story and emotion of the film to the visual side. When picking the music for your film keep in mind the mood you are looking to create and the emotion you want your audience to feel.
Just like music can create the mood it can also propel the pace of a scene so make sure to match that to how you want your scenes to feel. Fast tempo, loud music should be reserved for scenes where either conflict is happening or for an action scene. Soft, slow music should be used during setbacks in the plot or during toned down, mellow scenes.
Pick your music wisely as the right music is capable of enhancing the emotions the audience feels towards a scene in the film.
Overall, the biggest points to take away are that planning is essential to a good film and spontaneity in creating a film will rarely, if ever, result in a masterpiece.
However, keep in mind that when it comes to documentary filming things won’t always go according to plan. You will be working with real people who are not characters from fiction with a script. Beware that you might have to go with the flow and tweak your storyline throughout filming to match what they offer but that you should always aim to stick to an overall theme and vision of where it will go next.
We screen films from all over the world but we are always on a look out for a Utah connection such as an athlete, location, topic, or filmmaker. We have such a creative and athletic community and want to showcase this homegrown talent. Submit your films here.