Bringing out the real story and the real personal is what documentaries are all about. With the surge of fast-paced advance technology, the demand for documentary films has soared. People are interested in facts, reality, and the hard-hitting truth. Gone are the days of making documentaries to be viewed only by close peers and cause-oriented groups, the internet has made it easier for a great documentary to go viral and inspire others into making a difference.
Even if documentaries may seem as the simplest of all film genres, it is the most difficult to make. Far more than extravagant special effects, high-definition cameras, and multi-million dollar budgets, documentary films thrive on the story it delivers and the characters it unveils. So if you are thinking of trying your luck or a change in genre, read on to learn a few tips and tricks on how to make your own critically acclaimed documentary.
The crucial subject. The heart of the documentary lies in its main topic. Pick out a subject who or which is personally meaningful for you or the entire film crew. It would be easier to capture other people’s interest once the topic has depth and is currently popular. Read through news articles, surf the web, or simply go out and talk to people in your own community to get to know what issues are being discussed.
Hit the books and then hit the streets. Know everything that you can about the topic, research in publications, news items, and online. Especially for science-related fields, get to know the fundamental processes or basic concepts of the topic. Once you go out to interview an expert, you’ll be confident in understanding the jargons and the complicated explanations they might throw at you. Try to interview as many people as possible, get to sort out those who you think would do well on an on-camera interview. Can he explain fluently and clearly? Is his input greatly relevant to the topic?
Gear up for battle. As there might be around 20 or more interviewees for a one-hour documentary special, shooting all that footage requires flawless gear. With regards to lighting, documentaries rely on natural light to portray the subject’s own reality. Aside from the camcorder, this specific genre of film always shoots with a shot gun microphone attached to the camera. Clarity in audio recording is a must, with the ambient or natural sounds included. You may want to bring two or more cameras to the shoot, as it works best to have lots of footage during editing. If you are under a tight budget and could only use one camera, it is absolutely fine. Use it up by shooting in different frames, from different angles, and in different locations.
Building up the story. As the saying goes, “There are two sides to every story.” Create your own take on the subject as you try to present every possible angle. With every character presented, make sure to bring out the entire story as a whole and to support opinions with facts. Think of explaining the subject to a person with entirely zero input on the topic, break it down into simple terms for easy comprehension.
The ever-important cutaways. During the shoot with the interviewees, the camera must be steadily focused on the interviewee. Then you might wonder – where should the B-roll or cutaways come from? You will have to form the person’s own life story on film. Shoot him at his house, at the workplace, doing his hobbies, walking around his neighborhood, etc. These shots add a sense of reality into his interview, plus it breaks away from the boring “talking head” shots of the interviewee itself.
End it with a bang. As the story unfolds during the editing, never forget to leave your audience with a firm, meaningful thought. It may be a compelling realization, an essential lesson, or simply a much needed call to action regarding a crisis. It is, after all, the main reason why documentaries are watched – to learn a valuable lesson or to understand a specific issue. Add in a follow through on what the viewers can do on their part. Offer other resources discussing the same issue, highlight civic organizations that tackle the said problem first hand, and present websites that allow for people to help in taking action for the said cause.