A documentary is the sum of relationships during a period of shared action and living; a composition made from the sparks generated during a meeting of hearts and minds. Documentary makers have an ardent respect for the integrity of the actua4 for the primwy of the truth in the lives of real people, great and small. The documentarians mission is not to change or evade destiny, but rather to embrace its substance. –Michael Rabiger accomplished film/video documentarian Chicago, 1987
Pondering the shifting sands of time.
Walking the straight and narrow.
Fanning the flames of passion.
Intersecting an historic crossroad.
Approaching the point of no return.
Entering unknown territory. You name it, you can tape it. Whatever your topic, whatever your goal, cliched approach or fresh and new, the video documentary requires only a point of view.
It was once believed that the documentary should pretend to objectivity:
all-seeing, all-knowing, completely non-judgmental. The camera as dispassionate eye.
No longer. The emergence of documentary “new journalists” like Michael Moore (Roger & Me), Claude Lanzmann (Shoah), and Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) has made explicit what was implicit all along: The good documentary is an effective, artistic piece of propaganda.
“We need more documentaries,” Moore asserts, “made by people who hate documentaries.”
Maybe that’s you.
What it Is
Invented and named as a cinematic art form in the 1920s, a documentary presents factual information within a framework of non-fiction. It’s coherent, articulate, and reflects a particular viewpoint. It’s real, in the sense that events portrayed actually happened. But it’s more than that: It’s reality filtered through someone’s mind.
If you set up a camera at a busy city intersection and videotape non-stop for a week, you’ll have 168 hours of footage but no documentary. The simple act of editing, however, will begin to filter the action through your own peculiar mind.
You may choose to focus on the frantic yuppies galloping to work. Or the 12-year-old thieves filching produce from the corner grocery. Maybe you’re entranced by the shuffling hopeless who scream meaninglessly at mute and menacing buildings. Or perhaps you’re piqued by the shifting colors of the day contrasted with the steady rhythm of traffic lights.
Whatever your street scene jones, you’ll find that as you edit closer to the center of your concerns, your 168 hours of raw footage will begin to look less like random banality and more like a documentary.
A good documentary goes beyond ordinary newscasts or Hollywood entertainment. It forces us to confront issues within our neighborhood and beyond. The quality documentary takes us deep inside a subject; forces us to think, to feel.
Mounting the Soapbox
Documentary producers say you don’t find a subject for a documentary-it finds you.
The reunification of Germany, the recovery of Yellowstone National Park from a devastating 1988 forest fire, intertribal warfare in South Africa-all might intrigue you. But you may find your real documental obsession is local-the fight to preserve the timetunnel neon of the K-Bar Cafe, or the pungent, scandalous memories of a 100-year-old horse thief.
Your documentary is liable to soak up an in-ordinate amount of time and energy, so choose your subject carefully. Look for something that truly grabs you. Your interest should run deep, wide, and frequent-enough to sustain you through a veritable googolplex of shots, genlocks, and edits.
Legal releases and working conditions are among other considerations.
Say you wish to tape the harried, overworked personnel in a hospital emergency room. First you’ll need permission to shoot. Then you’ll need to stay out of their way. Finally, you’ll need releases from all patients, practitioners, and passersby who appear in your video.
All this can be-and has been-done, but it takes time, patience, planning, and perseverance.
Personal safety is another concern. An aggressive look at the manufacture of methamphetamines, for example, should not begin with an unannounced nighttime visit to a back-country meth lab.
Any video likely to feature the police in a bad mood is equally risky. There are increasing reports of police officers confiscating camcorders or assaulting videomakers who are attempting to document police actions. While it may be your constitutional right to videotape a public official at work, the Constitution is often not consulted until cases reach court.
Search and Research
Once you’ve picked a subject, the research begins.
Start at the library. Be exhaustive. Read it all. Follow through on every lead. Talk to experts.
Essential to a good documentary, research sometimes will offer more than just background material; it may shift your perspective.
While researching one of the earliest Chinese temples in the United States, I read all material available at the local library, including historical journals and newspapers from the 19th century.
Through contact with the area historical society, someone familiar with local Chinese history provided the names of surviving members of the original Chinese community. After several interesting interviews with these people, I widened the scope of my documentary to include the entire Chinese settlement during the Gold Rush.
As you snoop around, remain alert for sources of collateral material. Sometimes, oddly enough, one of the big problems in documentary making is getting enough good visuals. Old photos and diagrams that turn up during research can be invaluable.
While still in the planning phase, determine your budget. In addition to obvious items like videotape and batteries, include funds for titling, editing, music, and legal releases. Obtain exact costs by soliciting bids.
Work out your storyboards with money in mind. Scenes that might enhance your project may have to be dropped due to prohibitive cost.
Grants may be available to help you along. There’s an art to preparing an effective proposal, however, and in these days of budget deficits you can expect plenty of competition for scarce grant dollars.
Documentaries don’t have to be expensive. Actors, set designers, lighting crews, and stuntfolk usually aren’t necessary. The documentary can be shot with any kind of camera, and can be created with a crew of one.
View and You
Topic and budget handled. Next, style-the way you tell your story.
While there’s no “right” style, your project and its message should be presented in an appropriate manner. You wouldn’t approach an expose on Ollie North’s gunrunners as you would a documentary on coral reefs.
The techniques you use will reflect your style; an effective style requires the right techniques. For example, bright, high-key lighting tends to cultivate an upbeat, optimistic feel. Lowkey lighting is more somber and emotionally downbeat. Fast cuts between a lot of short shots give video a tense, jumpy feel.
Related to style is viewpoint, two types: personal and multiple.
A personal documentary seeks to persuade people to feel the way you do. It’s your opinion and is more or less expressed as such.
Governments, corporations, and activists use this one-sided approach to influence the public. Advertising could be considered a particularly virulent form of personal documentary, since it presents carefully culled “facts” that somehow omit anything negative or detrimental to the product.
Leni Riefenstahi’s Triumph of the Willis considered one of the best documentaries ever made in spite of the fact that it portrays Adolph Hitler as a saviour and the German people as one great army. Riefenstahi may have considered her documentary objective, but history revealed otherwise.
The multiple viewpoint form is sometimes referred to as “objective,” but that’s a misnomer. A purely objective documentary doesn’t exist. Instead of presenting one point of view exclusively, a multiple viewpoint effort includes other perspectives.
If you’re claiming a multiple viewpoint documentary on the spotted owl, for instance, you should account for representation from environmentalists, the forest service, loggers, developers, Native Americans, and the owl.
A documentary can be presented in mosaic or narrative form.
The latter approach-highly structured and linear-employs extensive use of voiceover narration, well suited to conveying complex information difficult to understand without explanation.
Most nature documentaries are done in narrative form. If we weren’t told, most of us would never know those penguins bobbing up and down were courting.
The mosaic form builds up an overall pattern a piece at a time. Each scene, each interview, works toward that pattern. Individually the pieces may seem disjointed or even confusing; but together they form a complete picture.
Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi is a classic example of a mosaic documentary. It’s a film devoid of dialogue or narration, relying on fast-moving images to contrast natural landscapes with the city.
The mosaic form uses less narration and filler material than narrative. It allows the images to speak.
While letting your subjects or images express your views is undeniably powerful, viewers may not receive a particularly clear exposition of critical information-the primary limitation of the mosaic form.
When making a mosaic documentary, remember that all pieces should invoke some kind of response. A montage of autumn trees with brightlycolored leaves may look nice, but if it doesn’t express an opinion or point of view it’s nothing more than experimental art.
The mosaic form is effective for conveying feelings. Narrative is best for showing how something works. A documentary about the operation of a nuclear power plant would be enhanced with narrative. If you want to convey what living next door to a nuclear power plant feels like, mosaic would be the radiant choice.
A script is one of the most important tools for a successful documentary-a map to guide you on your voyage.
If you’re taping a documentary on the local Army recruiting office, begin by making a list of the scenes you’ll include: interior and exterior shots, prospective recruits talking with officers, committed recruits signing papers. Then list the interviews you’ll conduct: recruits headed for boot camp, the officers who’ve helped direct them.
If you already know the order in which you want these scenes to appear, consider this mental vision a rough script. But get it in writing-with provisions for the unexpected.
It’s not uncommon for documentary scripts to take twists and turns, on the fly, in the field and during editing. If a new interview inspires a new lead, keep the camera rolling and don’t be afraid to change your focus.
You make sense of it all on the editing bench. This can be the most satisfying part of producing a documentaty: starting with a stack of tapes containing a chaotic jumble of images and imposing your will on it, shaping the material to reflect your vision.
Editing’s also the most time-consuming part of making a documentary. Good scripting thwarts editing overload.
Like the framework in a high-rise building, a documentary needs a basic structure in order to stand on its own.
The structure determines the beginning and end, which shots make up a scene, how the scenes tie together, how long the final product will be. Even cinema verite, which seems to flow without any predetermined rules, has some kind of structure.
The basic element of any video production is the scene, which in turn is composed of individual shots. Just as the scenes work together to build the documentary, so must the shots in each scene.
As in a dramatic production, every scene in a documentary must work towards the climax and resolution. Make every second count.
Sometimes you’ll have scenes that are great video but just don’t fit the structure. Take a deep breath and cut them. Including something just because it looks good will make your work wander.
Always start and finish with a strong scene. A powerful opening will hook your viewer, a striking closing will sum up the experience.
Start a Fire
Video’s a visual medium. To succeed, your documentary must be visually interesting. This can sometimes be challenging; stay vigilant for creative ways to present your information.
A friend began his Civil War documentary with a shot of an 1860 United States map. Bonanza-style, the map’s center burst into flame. As it burned away, a map of the divided Union and Confederate states appeared underneath.
I thought that was a telling and effective way of bringing action to what might otherwise have been a static shot or a bit of voiceover narration.
Don’t overuse such gimmicks, however. Use them only to illustrate or emphasize a point. Too much circus razzle-dazzle can confuse or distract viewers.
By heeding this and the aforementioned advice-find and study a suitable, feasible subject; settle on appropriate style, presentation, and viewpoint; and script your work out in advance-you’ll minimize risk, effort, and expense for a video documentary to be proud of.
Jonathan Banks, a retired radio/TV sports commentator and lifelong film/video documentarian, resides in the western United States.