Though time may flow in a straight line for us, that isn't always the case for documentaries. In fact, one of the most interesting elements of a documentary can be the way it skips from one event to another, then back again. Because of this, knowing how to control time in a documentary is one of the best ways to make a riveting story that captures the imagination of your audience.
Every moment of an audience member's time is precious. Because of this, documentaries need to be both entertaining and concise. In order to make this happen, we'll show you how to control the order of events in a story, and how to expand and condense time. Since condensing time is such an integral part to telling a story well, we'll also show you how to condense scenes and interviews so that your documentary can be worth every moment of your audience's time.
In one way or another, every documentary story moves forward in time. However, that doesn't mean they need to be told in a dry chronological manner. Instead, it can be both fun and exciting to mix up the order of events in a story. In both Who Killed the Electric Car and The Cove, the story starts by showing a snippet of what is going to happen at the end. In the case of Who Killed the Electric Car, they start by showing a mock “death” of the electric vehicle from Saturn called the EV-1, in the case of the Cove, they start by showing you how nervous the activists are as they enter the Taiji coastline where they are forbidden to enter. Both documentaries do this in order to get their audience hooked into the story early on by teasing how the story is going to end. At the same time, in order to build suspense and to keep a fast pace in a documentary, it can be a good idea to move back and forth in time. In Capturing the Friedman's, a documentary about the disintegration of what seemed like a typical New York family, the actual events took place first, with the kids growing up with their father Arnold. Then, with their father and youngest son Jesse getting arrested by police, later, getting divorced from his wife, and lastly dying of a heart attack. However in the documentary, the events are shown first, with the kids growing up, then with their father dying, next with Arnold getting divorced from his wife in order to create confusion, and lastly with Arnold and Jesse getting arrested in order to set up the conflict of the story. All of this manipulation of time works to build suspension in the story and keep the audience hooked while the storyline is slowly revealed. While skipping around in time can make a story more interesting, it can also lead to inaccurate storytelling as well. In this clip from Micheal Moore's documentary, it seems by the narration that Al Gore believed he had won the state of Florida in the national election. In real life, this rally took place before the election happened in hopes that he would be elected. As a result, by placing narration of a future thought at the same time as a current event, Moore made it seem that Gore had won the state of Florida.
Expanding Time – Another way to control time in a documentary is to expand time. Expanding the time it takes to tell a small portion of a story gives that part of the story tremendous emotional weight and can help the audience gain a better understanding of the characters feelings during that time. For instance, in the documentary Into the Void, which follows two climbers' perilous descent from the Andes mountains, the director deliberately stretches out time more and more while the story is told of one of the lost climbers slowing and excruciating progress. This gives helps the audience to understand the gravity of the climber's struggle and as such, gets the audience more emotionally involved.
Lastly, and most importantly, it is usually necessary to condense time in a documentary. If most documentary stories played out in real time, they would take days to watch instead of mere hours. Since most audience members don't have that kind of time to spare, it is of utmost importance to find the highlights in both the scenes and the interviews for them.
Nobody wants to watch 5 hours of somebody's home footage. It not only takes time, but usually contains a significant amount of irrelevant information. As such, it is important to find the parts of archival footage that will contribute most to a characters development and a story's interest while getting rid of the rest.
It's not surprising to see interviews in documentaries take 3-4 hours of footage and result in only 10 minutes of edited material on screen. This usually occurs because it usually takes at least a few minutes of time before your subject feels comfortable enough to speak naturally about a topic. Sometimes, an interview will work best when the subject can be heard and not seen. This can work as lead-ins to the stock footage of another segment, and can be a good way to cover up audio that has been patched in for clarity. This is commonly done when seeing footage of a person working while they are telling their story. Lastly, in order to move a story along it can be a good idea to use multiple speakers to tell the story of a documentary. The documentary Jonestown used this method in order to tell the complete story of Jonestown in a concise way without leaving any details out.
Much like a skillful architect can make an impressive building using a variety of materials and structural design, an impressive story is also best told with a variety of timelines structured in an interesting way. As a result, with a knowledge of how to order your events, and how to cleverly expand and condense moments in your story, you can make sure that time is always on your side.