How 3 Types of the Documentary Genre Are Made

Learn about 3 of the more commonly known types of the documentary genre. They include: Observational, Expository and Participatory.

Video Transcript

A documentary is a specific film genre that centers on the intent, in one fashion or another, to document reality. Documentaries can be very personal stories but close attention also has to be placed on the distinct requirements that come with the production of the genre. When it comes to creating documentaries, there are many different ways to tell your story to the audience. Three of the most popular are the observational documentary, an expository documentary and the participatory documentary.

A general rule of thumb is that the content will dictate the form the documentary will take, however, it is up to the director, who makes the ultimate decisions, as to the style and look of the piece. They will determine what the audience sees, hears and understands about the subject. Because of this, all documentaries have a point of view, however, an observational documentary tends to stray from this concept as much as it can. Observational, just like the title suggests, means letting the action play out naturally and having the camera there to cover it.

A good modern example of this would be Winged Migration, where we see all different types of birds migrating over the season change. The cameras are placed upon hang gliders and mounted on the actual birds themselves to document their travels. There is no participation from the narrator, the cameraman or the crew, we simply saw what was shot and later edited and that was the basis of the movie. Shooting this way is known as the fly-on-the-wall technique, which means that if a camera was placed in a room where there was some action taking place, whatever the camera captured is what would be used for the documentary. It is the least intrusive type of documentary filmmaking.

Another example would be the extreme far end known as cinema verite, 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. He strives to capture the truth in its purest form and uses no narration. He wants the video to speak for itself.

A modern example of the fly-on-the-wall technique would be using a security camera to capture video for a production. There would be no B role, as the action playing out is the focus of the piece. There should be no interruption and no participation from any outside nonrelevant source, that includes the production crew.

An expository documentary is generally a biographical or historical piece that generally includes a narrator and tells a story. A good example of this would be A&E's Biography series. The episodes have voiceovers, they have a host and they feature characters who have a story to tell. The story is assisted in its pacing by the narrator and/or the host. B role is very necessary to tell the story. It's also called safety footage or backup footage. B role is video taken to serve as a visual in a production. The narration may serve to move the story and the shots generally fill in the visuals but can be set up and don't necessarily have to play out in front of the camera like an observational documentary film would.

The basic shooting style involves more of a descriptive element, such as on a news crew, grabbing only what you need based on what will be edited later, essentially asking the question what do I need to describe this scenario, this is know as the shoot-to-edit method. For example, if we're going to shoot a piece about laying out a magazine cover, we would first grab a few quick shots of the cover being shot and then shoot the design being put together, and lastly, we'd shoot the finished product. These three steps would describe our scenario and explain our story, there is no need for long, boring shots. This way, we can tell the story of our layout with our shots and create an overall descriptive setting for the audience.

A participator documentary is a documentary where the filmmaker's experiences are included within the finished production. A good example of this would be Michael Moores' Roger and Me or Bowling for Columbine. They are extremely one-sided and shot from the director's point of view. Another good example of a participatory documentary to the extreme end would be Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me or Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, both of which center on the creator as the main focal point of the film moving from just being involved in the story to becoming the actual story.

These types of documentaries are generally driven by the characters and strive to attain some sort of goal by the end of the production, such as Super Size Me, where the goal was to see what would happen to someone's health if they were to only eat McDonald's Value Meals.

No matter how we choose to tell our stories, documentaries are based in reality, now it's up to us to define that reality in our own unique vision.

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