Documentaries Part 4: Filming
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.
You must capture all the visuals you need for your story, and be prepared to react to any opportunities that arise that will make your story even better. The pre-production process results in the shooting treatment that means you enter the field with a clear sense of what you are trying to achieve with the camera. You want to maximise the time and quality you have with the subject of your film, so being prepared and efficient is vital. Your planning will mean that you will be able to recognise and capture those moments and sequences that you anticipated in advance for the benefit of your film.
How will the story be told? Will it be led by voiceover or interviews, or will sync from the sequences be enough for the film to make sense to the viewer. Perhaps you envisage a combination of all of these. What you must decide is which shots would be meaningful and helpful in telling the story. We are not interested in shots just looking beautiful. What you shoot and how you shoot it will contribute to the telling of the story. This is what’s important.
Shooting for the edit
It is important that footage is shot in a way that can be edited. There needs to be enough coverage to give you options in the edit and to let a scene play to its full potential. You are NOT shooting news where one or two shots per scene may be enough. It probably makes more sense to think of a documentary as a dramatic feature: within each scene you want wide shots, medium shots, close-ups and cutaways, ensuring each time that shots are steady and long enough to use. You want to create visual sequences that give context and extra information. For example, if someone is performing on stage, you also need shots of the audience to explain whom it is performed for and how it is received. This puts the performance in context and gives the viewer new, visual information. You are not shooting footage randomly; instead, you are recording important visual detail that drives the narrative. Look for telling detail that helps us understand the character: a quiet moment of reflection, for instance. You need to ensure you capture enough angles and shot sizes to make it a complete element that can be edited.
Shooting tips when covering a scene:
- Shoot the widest possible angle of the scene first
- Film a shot where all the figures involved in the action are in frame, and large enough so that faces and action can be seen
- Shoot several angles – without crossing the line – of the action
- Vary the shot size
- Record close-ups of every face – talking and not talking. This will prove very important in the edit
Do not just think in terms of shots: think in terms of scenes and sequences too. Think hard about the opening shot to the sequence (is it a wide shot of the action, or a close-up of detail?). And how are you going to use light? This may help you create tone – warmth or cold. It’s important that you consider the point of view in the scene. Is it a first person story, or is it omniscient third-party narration? These are questions that should be dealt with in advance because they will impact upon how you film on location.
Points to consider as you prepare to shoot interviews:
- should the interviewee address the audience directly or the director off camera?
- should you interview the subject whilst on location: at work, in the car etc
- ask open questions for full, stand-alone answers
- be fully prepared: know the storylines you want to explore with the subject in advance and their role within the film
- this point about the character should have been considered at the casting stage too
- should your first question be easy for them to answer?
- or should you play devil’s advocate from the start?
- how do you want to frame the interview?
- how tightly should you frame and what could this mean?
- do you want to create a set-up style that is used for all the interviews in the film?
- leave yourself an opportunity to capture extra footage with the interviewee afterwards in case you need to illustrate points that are made during the interview
Further reading: Documentary Storytelling by Sheila Curran Bernard