John Grierson, the Godfather of British documentary, coined the term documentary in the 1920s, and defined it as the “creative treatment of actuality”. This definition is still central to a modern discussion of film theory, and the most respected of all documentary theorists is American Bill Nichols, whose important books include Introduction to Documentary.
Nichols defines what he calls the six modes of documentary; all non-fiction films display one or more of these traits in their construction, as there is often overlapping between the different styles and conventions.
Here is a promotional interview with Nichols about the book.
The documentary finally comes together in the edit suite as the content that has been recorded is assembled into the recognisable shape of a documentary film. This is one of the most creative, rewarding – and sometimes hugely frustrating – parts of the process. There are five stages:
View everything that has been shot in advance – the rushes – and make a long assembly of the footage that succeeds in telling the story outline
Shape this assembly of raw footage into a long-ish rough cut, which looks like a proper documentary
After feedback from a first viewing, this rough cut is turned into a fine cut, which looks more like the final version and is nearly cut to time
After viewing the fine cut, final changes are made and picture lock, which means no more changes to footage
Finally, script lock – the script is signed off, recorded and laid on the final version of the documentary
The shooting treatment is the culmination of a process that has seen the outline become a treatment, and finally the shooting treatment. This is the guide to what needs to be filmed to tell your story. From this evolves a shot list of what needs to be filmed to illustrate each stage of the story, and the script, which also starts to take shape during pre-production. The script is driven by the narrative, and is revised and rewritten throughout the production process until the edit is complete. If there is voiceover, this will probably be the last thing to be recorded, so the script is active right up to the end of the production.
Pre-production on a documentary is when you develop your knowledge on the subject of your film. You assume nothing, and research everything. A documentary filmmaker should do their own research so that they can become experts on the subject: they have to know their topic inside out. The best films reveal information that is surprising; it could be new facts or a revealing perspective on an established argument. So here are four simple rules when researching: 1) don’t be afraid to ask simple questions; 2) don’t pretend to know all the answers; 3) don’t assume what you think you know already is correct; 4) approach everything you learn with an open mind.
The very first thing that every documentary filmmaker has to think about is the story: what the film is about and why it will engage an audience. Is it an interesting perspective on the world, or will it provide access to a section of society rarely seen on television? Most importantly, will someone care about the film or the characters in it? And who is the intended audience?
What about how the film is made: what is the hook of the story? What is the essence of what makes the subject interesting? Is it a visual story? If not, can it made visual? These are some of the questions that will be discussed within this series of posts that will examine the production process.
This is an introduction to a series of tutorials about the making of documentaries that will combine to offer a comprehensive understanding of how to produce and direct non-fiction films. It will reveal how to research and develop story ideas, how to create compelling and engaging narratives and how to achieve access to the subject of a film.
Journalistic skills are encouraged to engage a viewer emotionally and intellectually. The story is grounded in fact, not fiction, but is subjective and not objective. This is because active, subjective choices are made throughout the filmmaking process, no matter how balanced, fair and neutral the filmmaker tries to be. But this doesn’t detract from the power of the film, or its worth as an accurate and honest account of a subject of interest.
This recap tutorial collects a number of videos produced by Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. They may look a bit retro and ‘old skool’ in style and appearance, but the content is as relevant today and it’s ever been. The videos are a great way to recap on the core principles of storytelling for television.