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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.