Tuesday, 20 October 2015

What Makes a Great Documentary?

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work on a couple of documentaries during and after school, and I have truly enjoyed it. Thankfully, in my experience with Swagger I’ve had the chance to work on both the pre-production and post-production processes of a few more documentaries, and I’ve completely fallen in love with them. Here's the link one of my favorite documentaries that I've worked on, in case you haven't checked it out yet.

I’ve always been a big fan of this genre because it allows us, as filmmakers, to convey reality in an engaging and organic way. And don’t get me wrong, I love fiction, but there’s something about the documentary recipe that never ceases to amaze me. When well-made, a documentary can be exciting, raw, emotional, thrilling, motivating and even a little scary. It’s all about how it makes us feel while watching and after watching it. Plus, it’s REAL.

And even though there’s no strict audiovisual guideline for every genre, I believe the success or the impact behind a great documentary falls in the following aspects:

1. The Story

It’s all about the STORY. The ideas behind a documentary or the situations covered in it have to be real, of course (unless you’re interested in a mockumentary, which is pretty cool as well), but it also has to be something of interest. Something with a purpose. Something that can move people. And this doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be something super intense or complex. Sometimes the greatest documentaries come from stories about ordinary people, from ordinary towns, but they're stories that people can relate to, and stories that touch others. Additionally, documentaries can cover controversial topics to communicate one or more points of view or perspectives. No matter what, the pre-production process involves a great amount of research and preparation.

So the question is, what makes the story special? What is its purpose? Where’s the emotional factor? What facts support the big idea? As filmmakers, we should keep in mind that we’re documenting reality, not manipulating it. So it’s all about what facts you want to present and how you plan to present them in order to affect and move your audience. 

2. The Hero

Who’s the hero/heroine? Who’s leading the narrative? And I don’t mean who is the narrator, but who is the key piece in the puzzle? It could be a man or a woman, a family, a country, a town, a species, or an object. You should identify who carries your story, or who is conducting the main journey, and prep your piece around it. 

3. The Script

Once you have your story straight and your hero is all set, you go out, shoot and get everything you need according to your pre-production efforts. Then the real deal begins: scripting. Most of the time, documentary scripts are built in the editing room, after gathering all the interviews and footage.

This is when you take time to watch everything carefully, transcribe it (highly recommended), and prepare a structure. Some people write the script before piecing the clips together and some others script while cutting and dragging. I personally like both; it truly depends on the project. But this is when the magic happens; this is when decisions need to be made based on THE STORY, THE PURPOSE and THE HERO of the documentary itself.

Scripting means writing and re-writing, which results in cutting and revising the cut as many times as needed until the structure serves the story. Interviews need to be balanced with the proper kind, and the right amount of b-roll, a pace needs to be established, as well as the aesthetics and the style that you want to embark on.

4. The Music

As we all know, music plays a very important role in every film. However, I find it interesting how documentaries particularly depend on it. If a documentary’s impact relies on how it makes us FEEL as viewers, then of course music plays a huge part in that. Music can affect shots in so many ways, it can give us joy, hope, motivation, but it can also set a nostalgic mood, or give the scene a bit of mystery or suspense. It compliments the picture. It sets the tone.

When scripting/cutting you should have a pretty good idea of what music can better drive the documentary’s point home -that’s if composers are not already prepping it on the side. Then it’s just a matter of finding the best spots for everything. For example, music climaxes are always good for story high-points (revelations, emotional peaks or breaks). Music is there to help us communicate, not as just serve as another extra element we need to shove into the mix.

5. The Emotional Aspect

Like I mentioned before, all the elements of a documentary should serve its purpose. And I think it’s hard to find a documentary whose purpose doesn’t involve an emotional aspect or doesn't include an emotional route.

So when prepping, shooting and editing a documentary, I believe it’s key to keep in mind how to get to the viewers, how to move them in the direction you want your story to move them, how to impact them, or how to attack their sensibilities. Is it through music? Is it through very raw and organic b-roll? Is it through guerrilla filmmaking? Or perhaps through a more personal narration? You need to find the perfect mix to complete your master recipe.

So tell us, what do you think is the key ingredient in a great documentary? Are there any other aspects that you believe should be considered in the mix? Do you have any documentary recommendations? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below or tweet @Swagger_Media! And if you’re interested in making a documentary and need some help, our team is here to assist you. Give us a call at 832-831-7592! 

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