Viewfinder: Documentary Observations

I have always been fascinated with the documentary video genre. A day in the life of a nurse or a policeman makes for excellent video. Even something simple like a wedding day makes wonderful content for a documentary.

As videographers, we need to answer this fundamental question with our work: "What was it really like to be there?" What was it like to be at Ground Zero for the two men who happened to be recording the life of a fireman on September 11th only to get footage of the attack on the World Trade Center? I’d like to know what it was like on the day that my parents got married 51 years ago. What is it like to be in the pits at a car race? Video is a wonderful medium to capture people’s real lives.

As with any other genre, the documentary has its extremes in style. On the far end is cinema verte’, which strives for "no interpretation," just capturing the truth. To this end, Andy Warhol produced a video entitled Empire, which comprised one seven-hour shot of the Empire State Building.

On the other extreme, some video producers abuse the power bestowed upon them. An abusive producer can take sound bites and scenes out of context and completely manipulate a story to make it far from the truth.

Nam Jun Paik has produced many avant-garde videos. He strives to capture the truth in its purest form, and uses no narration. He wants the video to speak for itself.

Today’s TV networks feature documentaries in prime time with programs like 48 Hours and National Geographic, each exhibiting its own narration style. Within the world of documentary production, there are many different opinions and subcategories.

There are many opportunities for you to make a documentary. At least a portion of any event video (wedding, graduation, reunion, etc.) is a documentary in its purest form.

If you’d like to avoid altering the natural event or the lives of your subject, here are a few tips. Get to know your on-camera subjects before you start shooting your video. Making them comfortable will allow them to act more natural while you shoot.

Consider spending 15 percent of your total project time just getting people used to the idea of being videotaped. If they are still shy, using a shotgun or parabolic microphone and a telephoto lens will allow you to capture poignant moments while positioned far from the action.

Try your best to pay attention to all of the little things that happen while you’re living out the experience with your subjects. Documentary video production is a truly rewarding experience. Be sure to make the best of it next time you have the chance.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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