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Elements of a Dynamite Documentary

Documentaries seem to be all the rage in filmmaking circles these days, and everyone in the industry has either produced one of their own or has it on the agenda somewhere down the line.

Unfortunately, the increasing ease of use and accessibility of video production had led many to fancy themselves “documentary filmmakers” without any formal training (or even independent research) to back up their claims.

If videographers followed a basic industry formula, it would increase their chances of producing awesome documentaries, and if these key areas are edited correctly, the result will be far superior to some scriptless wonder produced on a whim. 

The Five Fundamentals of Documentary Making

The folks at DVWorkshops, a Los Angeles and New York City-based digital video course academy, offer up a few tips for crafting a stellar documentary film. The school’s official website excellently outlines five core elements of documentaries for students and readers.

First, there’s the interviews. If you’ve ever seen a documentary (or a reality show, for that matter), then you know exactly what this element entails: a person faces the camera and relays his or her story directly to the audience. DVWorkshops warns filmmakers to steer clear of unexpected distractions – such as the glare from an interviewee’s glasses – when framing a shot.

Next up is the cutaways. They’re great once you get to the editing phase of film production since they help to streamline the process. Here’s some examples the website throws out to help clarify the term: close-ups of people’s faces, a shot of a busy street or freeway, a candle, or even the outside of buildings in which relevant events occurred.

Then, there’s what DVWorkshops calls the “Chill Footage.” Why the funny name? Well, the studio wants newbie filmmakers to chill and not talk to subjects as they follow them around with cameras. This encourages subjects to behave more naturally. “Chilling” will lend some major credibly to your film.

Process Footage is simply footage of you and your crew filming the documentary. This kind of footage gives your film that gritty, real-world feel that makes documentary makers salivate. You can make your presence a major part of the film, or you could opt to only allow yourself be seen in glimpses if you’d rather keep things subtle.

Finally, there’s the archive shots. This includes old photos from subjects, government pics or videos, and stock footage from news outlets that pertains to your film. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need while going through the motions of film production.

Further Considerations

DVWorkshops certainly seems to have the documentary-making process down to a science. However, other experts on documentaries offer a few additional considerations for budding documentary filmmakers as well.

For example, a faculty member at Saint Andrew’s College in Ontario outlines key areas of documentaries for students. Primarily, the instructor warns never to forget the importance of the narrator. Whether on-screen or dubbed as a voiceover, the narrator leads the audience through the interpretive high points of the film. Hence, the narrator essentially carries the story. Music can also be a good addition, but it’s no replacement for narration. Ensure you use music subtlety and sparingly throughout your film.

At Video Production Utah, we know how to get the job done right when it comes to documentaries. Our team includes experts who are pros at researching, writing, shooting, and editing documentary films. That’s why we can help you tell your story with every bit of the grit and pizazz you’ve longed for your film to have. 

Alternatively, you can use our video cameras and recording studio, as well as our professional voice over artists, to give your film the best look and feel possible. Plus, the price for everything is surprisingly affordable. Contact us for a free quote here.


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