Tips for Starting a work on a Documentary

The documentary is still figuring out its language and every documentary filmmaker needs to find his or her way to express the world that is being investigated. So here are the three main steps you need to take to understand your film.


 Know the basic structure of each documentary film

Your first step is to understand that almost every documentary film is built from 3 simple stages: 

  1. The first part of the film is where you introduce the audience to the new world you are about to show them.
  2. In the second part, you provide them with the information, the facts, and the story
  3. The last part is all about summarizing what the viewer learned from the documentary

 When you are trying to understand the emotion behind your film, you need first to think about these three parts.


Choose the right way to tell your story


In this stage, you’ll need to find the “tool” you’ll use to tell the story in a way that will enhance it. Imagine your film in the three main stages mentioned above in each possible way you can tell the story.


Here are 5 popular ways to tell your story:


  • Through action – Throughout the film, the characters are doing stuff. The camera follows them and the director can sometimes ask them questions, but the audience, mainly sees them going throughout their day.


  • Interviews – The movie can be built only from interviews and visuals cover the interviews.


  • Re-acting the scenes – These are scenes that the narrators or characters tell the camera and they are re-acted  


  • Archival footage – Such as Still photos, video archive. Archival, or stock footage, is content gained and inserted from a film library or archive. Filmmakers use archive mainly to explain historical events in a documentary or to add information without the need for further filming.


  • Voice-over – The voice-over is a commentary by the filmmaker. With voice the filmmaker is talking to the audience directly, providing facts, explanations and encouraging what is being watched.
You also need to think about the visual style of the film. The visual look of your film will be depended on your personal taste, but also on what your movie is about, which takes out to the next documentary tip.


Find out the purpose of your film 

Your next step is to understand why you need a film to show the new world. How this film will help you bring this world to the audience. Now, most documentary films want to make the world better, so Here are some of the purposes you might have for your documentary film:


  • To inform
  • To attack or defend a perspective.
  • To persuade
  • To entertain
  • To educate
  • To observe real life.


Understand the type of documentary you want to make

Now that you understand the structure of your story and the tools you’ll use to tell, you can understand the purpose of the film better, and you can choose the type of documentary it’s going to be. 

The biggest mistake most beginning filmmakers do is to choose the type before they even have an idea or even worse after the editing stage has begun. 


Here are the main types of documentary films (also known as documentary modes):


  • Poetic documentary: Poetic documentary’s job is to evoke a certain mood or feeling using avant-garde techniques and without a conventional linear narrative structure. By using rhythmic images that have an abstract and personal view of the world, poetic documentary filmmakers should provide the viewer with an emotional perspective on a subject.


  • Expository Documentaries: The Expository Documentary is a theory developed by the documentary theorist Bill Nichols. This type of documentary exposes a particular point of view about a subject with a robust and supported argument. The structure of the Expository Documentary is classic, and it will serve the main argument. Its primary tool is the voice-over, and it also may use archive footage, facts, opinions, and persuasive techniques. The voice-over will usually relate to the footage that is showing. 


  • Observational Documentaries: The Observational Documentary is the type of film that brought to the documentary genre more authenticity and realism, and you can say, it’s the first type of reality show. Its primary function is to observe the world they are introducing to the audience. If you read the lesson about the history of the documentary genre from this online documentary filmmaking course, you know its origin is from the Cinema Verite in the ’60s.
    The Observational Documentaries claim to be objective as they show us the characters of the film dealing with realistic situations to achieve closeness in the representation of these experiences.


  • Participatory DocumentariesThe Participatory Documentary includes the director in the film as one of the characters in the film. This character is interacting with the other characters without hiding it from the audience. This type of documentary films will present the director point of view in the clear may through the interactions with the other characters. By letting the director participate in the film, the Participatory Documentaries feels like they are the voice of the people.
  • Reflexive Documentaries: They examine the relationships between the audience the filmmaker to heighten the problematic relationship between reality and documentary film. They do it by acknowledging the presence of the filmmaker in the film. Through his or her involvement, the filmmaker shows a bigger picture.
  • Performative Documentaries – In the Performative Documentary genre, the main starting point of the film is the filmmaker’s involvement with the subject. By using the filmmaker’s own experience in the subject, the film reveals a bigger political or historical reality.


 Don’t be too attached to the original script

A documentary is all about shooting reality, and reality can develop in different ways. As a documentary filmmaker, you’ll need to take under consideration the reality version of your film-and in most cases, that’s the better version. Keep an open mind, listen very closely to your documentary’s subjects and always look for new dimensions for your film.

Don’t neglect the sound

This Is a mistake most documentary filmmakers make – They start shooting fast, so eager to capture the moment, that they don’t pay attention to the background noises. Make sure you are shooting in a quiet location, and if not-if it’s possible, change the location before shooting