Tips for Documentary Research

Research for A Documentary

What is documentary research?

The documentary research is the shield that the documentary film is based on. The documentary research job is not only to investigate the documentary’s subject but also to develop a point of view on the director’s vision and to connect it with the subject of the story. Many beginner directors, excited to get started, often skip this stage, sometimes because it’s a personal story. No matter what kind of documentary you do, in 90 percent of the cases, you will need to do a research.

Who’s job is it?

The research stage is usually done by the director himself or by a researcher or a few ones(in films with bigger budgets). The problem with using researchers is that they have too much power over your film. They decide what goes in and what doesn’t. If they decide a certain image is good enough to enter your film,the director can check it and see if they are right, but if they decide that a certain image is not relevant or good enough for the film, the director has no way to check it out. So if you use researchers, you have to make sure that they know and understand your vision.

Many documentary filmmakers tend to share this job between the director, writer, and the producers. The big advantage here is that it makes the process more intimate and personal.

Documentary research method

The plan you will choose for your documentary research really depends on your movie.There are 3 main ways to do a research that sometimes you will find yourself doing a few of them or even all of them.

Documentary research method #1: The written words

This an easy way to start your research. It can be the Internet or books and magazines. The problem is that sometimes there are too many books and articles to read. In such a case you should learn how to read fast. If you have too many books and not enough time, read the beginning of each paragraph and the ending, go through the content and see what are the subjects that are relevant to you and focus on them.
Also, make sure the books and articles are up to date. Check the date they were written. Your next step can be to find the writers of the books or articles that got your interest. These sources will lead you to other sources and so on and that leads us to the next type of documentary research

Documentary research method #2: Interviews

It can be a good idea to use advisors from a different viewpoint about the subject. The advisors can be academic people or just people with experience on the subject. The interviews with them are going to be recorded, but they won’t be  part of the film.
Plan ahead who are the advisors you will want to interview and what are you going to ask them. You can also explain them the outline of the film and get their review on it. some directors will bring them at a progressive stage of the video editing to hear their advice. Sometimes you might find you want the advisor to be interviewed in the film. Don’t jump off camera, can turn out to be very boring on camera. Wait until you are in a progressive stage of shooting and then see if you really need him.

Documentary research method #3: Field Research

This is my favorite documentary research tool.   Go to the locations where it all happened or to the locations you want to shoot at. Try to get the atmosphere of the place and write down everything that pops into your head. You can also go to events that have something to do with your subject.

Tips for the documentary research

  • A good documentary research starts with knowing what your movie is going to be about. Try to summarize it a one or two sentences. Failing to do so, might cause you to lose control over your research and to be spread away into many directions.
  • Do the research with an open mind. Ask questions about your theme. Understand your story and tell it in a balanced way.
  • Make sure you are telling something new about the subject. Something that the audience didn’t know. Think about what it is that you want to know about the subject and keep asking yourself what haven’t been told about this subject yet?
  • A Good research builds on a series of questions with answers and then more questions with answers. Keep digging as much as you can.
  • Start with basic questions. It is very important that you’ll understand the subject you are talking about.
  • A long research is not necessary every a good one. When you are working on a piece of information, make sure the information you are gathering on it are relevant to the subject of the film and that the audience really needs to know this information.

Film Directing: Make Your Audience Emotionally Engaged

How to  Make Your Film Audience Emotionally Engaged?

Many film school students make the mistake of thinking that film directing is simply telling a story. That is not true.When you get a script, you want the audience to be emotionally engaged in the film and to do that you need their watching experience to have different layers of fun.

I’m going to talk about something that not many film schools are talking about – Film directing is not just about telling “the facts”. In fact, the facts are just the cover to tell a deeper story with deeper meaning.

Don’t sell yourself

Before we start talking about how to make a film that will thrill your audience, it’s important for me to explain, that I’m not talking about selling  yourself to the audience. Don’t do something just because the audience seems to like it right now. If you don’t believe in your film, your audience will feel it. If you want to make a film that will truly be remembered, You must think about your way of telling the story.

Find a good story

Your first step is to find a good story. Notice that I didn’t write “a good script”. First of all pay attention to the story itself. Does the story work without the stylish dialogues and scenes?
It’s hard to define a good story, but generally speaking, it’s a story that will challenge the audience, but more important a story that interests you. You are about to do a lot of story analyzing, so you better like it. Also, make sure the story’s world has to be reliable and also the characters. It also needs to have the dramatic structure.

Have a good main character

The audience has to connect with your character. I’ve talked about how to do that in the Developing Characters post, but generally, you need to have a character that the audience will care about and that will be strong enough to lead us in throughout the story. The audience should really want her to survive and succeed.

Understand your story

The director needs to be able to make complicated interpretations of the script. To do that he needs first to completely understand the story. The process starts with understanding your story’s structure and the dramatic conflict that is developing throughout the film. Back To The Future is a film that you can see the director knew every little detail about the plot, the characters, and their town.

Your director’s vision

Director’s vision is the director main tool to translate the script into a movie. If you’ll find and completely understand your film director’s vision, you’ll make great films. Your director’s vision will guide you through all the important decisions on set.
Your director’s vision is an outcome of the message you are trying to portray in your film – the film’s premise. Only after understanding your vision, you can start directing actors and camera.

Working within a genre

The genres job is to organize some parts of our life and you can find genres not only in films. If your movie is connected to a genre, make sure the script is following the basic genre rules of its genre. Gener films are great to play with because the audience is ready to see a movie with strict rules. You can take these rules and play with them so you’ll have your own twist on them.
First, see the story within the genre rules and then start playing with them, see what rules can you break or stretch without upsetting your audience.
Playing with a genre rule is fun, but it must be connected somehow to the theme of your film. It has to deliver a message. Breaking the rules just to break the rules is worse than simply following them.

Use production design to make

Production design is a film element that many low budget films tend to forget about, but if you’ll handle it right, it can be one of the most important element of your film. After you developed your characters, you can understand the movie’s atmosphere and theme and you can start working on it.  The production design will create your film’s look and should reflect the characters emotions and the movie’s theme. You can also use a storyboard to make things clearer. If you’ll put your mind (and some cash) to it, it will take your film to the next level.   

Know your audience

What kind of emotion do you want your audience to feel towards the film? Is it love? Is it respect? Do you want to impress the audience with big budget production? There are many ways you can turn the film’s watching experience into something worth remembering, but you need to know who is your audience and what you are trying to get out of him.
Every film director needs to find his own way to touch the audience.
In Blood Simple, the Cohen Brothers are making the audience laugh while feeling revolted. Kubrick makes us feel uncomfortable as he built the violent scenes in A Clockwork Orange so we’ll be shocked on one side, but wouldn’t be able to keep our eyes off.
Every director has his own style and you should find yours. This is why it’s important to shoot shorts as much as you can. That way you can test different things and see what works and what doesn’t.

Make your audience participate

A cool trick to make the watching experience more fun for the audience is to make them
a part of the film. One way of doing that by letting your audience know something that the hero doesn’t know. In the movie Hot Fuzz, the main character suspect there is a murder in the town. Everybody laughs at him, but we know he is right because we’ve seen the killer. Horror movies use that trick a lot. We know something bad is going to happen and that’s what gets us excited -the waiting for it.

Filmmaking is all about emotions

Personally, I like films that make you think, but if that’s all they do and they don’t have any emotion attached to it, then the movie was a waste of time. Find the emotion you want the audience to feel in each scene. Every scene should have an emotion attached to it and that emotion should dictate all your directing decisions. For example, a close up is a much more emotional shot then medium shot.

Exposition of A Story

Writing An Exposition of A Story

If you want to learn the exposition of a story definition, I wrote about it  in my Story Structure post, but since it is kind of an important element of a story, I’m going to go deep into the exposition part of a story and to explain what happens during the exposition of a story and give you some exposition of a story examples.

First, rule about scripts expositions

In film school they will always tell you that the exposition of a story is one of  the most important elements of a story and that is kind of true (That’s why I’m writing this post), but the real truth is that the middle is important too and also the ending, So before you start worrying about the opening, make sure you got your story right. Start working on the exposition only after you wrote the first draft.

Narrative exposition definition

It’s kind of hard to define exposition of a story because it has lots of elements. Generally speaking, the exposition needs to explain us everything that is needed to understand the plot. The exposition (or set up or the first act) needs to introduce us to the characters and their relationships with each other too, the location and time of the story, the social environment and everything else that in important to the story.
The first act will end when the turning point that changes our main character life will arrive. The great trick in exposition is to deliver the information without the audience noticing that he is being informed. You do that by telling the exposition through cause and effect. This will guarantee that the opening will be believable.

Meeting the characters in the exposition

The exposition is introducing us to the main character. We get to know her in her “normal world” before everything is going bad, but the exposition has another job too – it needs to make us care about the characters and fast. Here are some tips for introducing the characters in the narrative exposition:

  • When you introduced new characters, don’t overload with information. See if you can delay the information about them. Sometimes it works even to delay some information about a character to the second act.
  • This is the time to create the first impression of your character, and one of the important things you need to create about her is credibility. We have to believe her. If she is believable, we’ll agree to let her walk us through the story. The way to make her more believable is by actions. You should always ask yourself if there is a fast way to show through behavior what the character is telling us. If I want the audience to know my hero is an angry man, does he have to say it or can I show it through his actions.
  • Start with an action. An action is always interesting and gets the audience’s attention quick, but you have to remember that everything you do in the exposition is saying something about your movie especially the beginning, so think about that when you write the opening of the film.
  • Your characters background. In an exposition of a story,  the viewer needs to understand the context of your script, what has happened just before the movie started that put all the characters where they are now. Of course, you don’t need to give all of the characters histories, but you do need to bring the information that is important for the story. The background of the characters is what started to grow the character’s motivation (You can read about Character’s motivation on the post about Developing Characters). This is the hard part because you need to do it quick and in a creative way (try not to simply let the character tell her story). In the opening of the movie Pulp fiction, we can see right from the conversation that the couple is tired from rubbering liquor store and that’s why they want to rubber the dinner.

Setting up the mood 

Another goal of an exposition of a story, especially in the opening sequence, is to set the mood and to tell us what kind of movie it is going to be. One way of doing that is through emotions. If it’s a comedy, start telling jokes, if it’s a horror film, start creating a scary atmosphere.
A good exposition example is In the movie Pulp Fiction. In Pulp fiction, we can understand right from the start, that this movie is going to take a funny look at gangsters.

Instead, of showing the gangsters meeting in a dark alley at night and talk about rubbing, they do that right in a dinner in daylight with regular clothes. In the dialogue, the husband is telling the story about a new kind of gangsters that use their phone to pretend it’s a gun. That’s what Tarantino is saying about his film – I’m going to create a new kind of gangsters for the cinema.
The opening of Donnie Darko starts with a dark lighting that tells us it’s going to be a dark film. We see a young boy lying on a mountain that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. The boy starts laughing and we can understand that this is a weird film about a weird boy. The boy rides back home to his normal family.

Starting with the turning point

A lot of movies start right away with the turning point. This is a good trick to get the audience excited right at the start, but it also send the message, that this movie is going to be intense and with lots of action and/or suspense. If you can deliver that kind of promise, you are welcome to do that. This takes me to the next tip about exposition. When you finish writing the first act, try to see what kind of promises it delivers about the film and can you fulfill these promises.

Using dialog as an exposition

Now, The Pulp Fiction opening can be accused of a bad way to start the exposition, because it’s just “talking heads” and nothing happens and when something already happen we cut to the title, but this is all point of the film and Tarantino, being a skillful writer, can pull it off easily. One of the reasons he is pulling it off is the next law about dialogue in act 1: If you are going to use dialogue to deliver information at the exposition, make sure you have something that is powerful to compensate. In Pulp Fiction, it’s the fact that we hear two gangsters talk about expanding their rubbery “business” and they don’t follow any of the genres rules about gangsters in films. Another good lesson you can learn from this opening is that if you decide to introduce us to your characters by making them talk, make sure they have something interesting to talk about and if possible – a conflict.