Documentary Decisions & Tips

1. What’s the story? 

Before you can decide how to tell your story, you need to know what it is.  You need to report it, to ask yourself questions about the information you gather and the experiences that you absorb.   You will need to continue to fill in the blanks in your knowledge as you begin to film your documentary.   But be as precise as you can about your story.  

2. Think of a title

If you are working with a colleague, take time to brainstorm to come up with an effective, evocative title.  If you are working alone, keep a yellow pad of title possibilities.  Keep in mind that your title should fit within the TV/Movie Listings box in the newspaper.   It should suggest what your story is.  It should help you maintain focus on your story and also gain an audience for your finished film.   Working with Bill Moyers, I spent a year on a documentary about corruption in college sports – a subject that concerned Teddy Roosevelt when he was president!   I wanted to call it “The Tarnished Trophy” – I loved the alliteration.  It implied that the emphasis on winning had devalued college education.  But we eventually chose “Sports for Sale” – a much clearer, concise description of the documentary’s content.  

3. Who are your characters?

“Chance favors the prepared mind,” said the French scientist Louis Pasteur.   Unless you clipped a newspaper article that gave you your story and your characters, you will need to understand the dimensions of your story and immerse yourself in it to come up with characters.   Often documentary filmmakers begin by following several characters until they come upon one character or set of characters whose relationships embody the story they want to tell.   If someone or one group doesn’t pop for you, doesn’t grab you and compel your focus on them, then you will need to find three or four characters through whom you can tell your story.  But you must not tell the same story three or four times.  The goal is not variation but development.   Think of a relay team of runners handing off the baton or the interplay of a group of chamber musicians.   Whether the multiple character stories are told sequentially or interwoven, they must advance a larger theme or story. 

4. Why should an audience care about your story?

You care, but why should someone else?   Is your story about more than your story? Does it resonate on a larger scale?  Is it about how we live now?   How we ought to live?  It’s easy to tell a story that makes someone feel, “There, but for the Grace of God, go I”, but does it explore the human condition in a way that expands knowledge, understanding, or empathy?  

5. How do you connect with your audience?

Take them from the familiar to the unfamiliar?  Or tease them with the unusual before you connect them to the universal?  The specifics of your story will determine your approach.  But you must be mindful of your audience, of what they are likely to know, of what will surprise them.   Above all, you don’t want to overwhelm them with detail or confuse them by raising unanswered questions so that they have trouble following your story.  A documentary, as any good story, must unfold.   Think of your viewer as accompanying your film on a journey.  Every once in a while, imagine a touch of hands as a viewer connects to facts and emotions that enlarge the scope and meaning of your story. 

6. Let your story breathe.

Sound as much as picture lets us connect with a scene.  Use natural sound to engage the audience’s attention.  Don’t smother the natural sound of a scene with narration or voice/over commentary.   Be attentive to the possibilities of sound within a scene and get close enough to record sounds that will stimulate our senses – the hamburger sizzling on the grill, the wind whistling in the trees, the grandfather clock ticking in the parlor. 

7. Banish the phrase “B-roll” from your vocabulary.     

Think picture and natural sound, think scenes that involve your characters, think scenes that show relationships that can advance your story.  B-roll is a news term used to describe cover footage that originally was projected at the same time as an A-roll of interview and narration footage.   A TV director could view both simultaneously and cut back and forth between them.   It saved time not to edit the B-roll into the A-roll.  Since the term is obsolete, it’s curious why it still is used so often.  Even in news, one hopes for more thought, observation and imagination despite the pressures of time.  Saying B-roll often means you are thinking of generic shots – and if you shoot them, you not fooling anyone.  Watch the scene and you can almost hear the filmmaker say, “Would you open the door and walk into the room?” or say, “Okay, now please pick up the phone and say your name.”   Turning non-actors into awkward actors discredits the actuality of documentary filmmaking.   A derogatory term for B-roll is wallpaper – slap it up and talk over it.

8. Do you put yourself in the picture? 

What is your connection to your story?  It has to touch some part of you deeply or you couldn’t invest the time and effort to explore it in a documentary.   The rise of personal journalism, non-fiction, true stories and the media to promote them – talk shows, op-ed columns, author tours,  despite cautionary tales too good to be true that led to the crash of some who penned pseudo-memoirs, has encouraged personal documentary as a style.  It’s promotable.   If your funder, editor or ego demands your participation on camera, you must figure out how to best insert yourself into the story.   Sometimes you are the only one who can bring focus to your story – it happened or is happening to you.  You must be part of the action and narrate the action.  Sometimes you’re the expert and must be interviewed as such.   If you frame the story, you usually need to reappear during the story: see the filmmaker as investigative reporter in the field, in the library, and at the computer, or as the penetrating interviewer in two-camera shoots, or as the correspondent on camera relating hard-to-illustrate facts or statistics.  You want to avoid becoming a cliché.  Not everyone is good at every aspect of filmmaking and one should consider carefully whether to be on camera or narrate.