Documentary films differ from the typical Hollywood movies due to one clear reason.
While movies tend to be fictional stories that are acted, documentaries are non-fictional stories about real people and real events unfolding, often, in front of the camera. Your goal is not to develop a fictional story, but to essentially to tell a realistic and true story by presenting facts and interviews.
First things first: You need to decide what kind of documentary you would like to pursue. There are many different kinds, the most common of which are expository, observational and participatory.
Expository documentaries speak directly to the viewer, often in the form of an authoritative commentary employing voiceovers or titles, proposing a strong argument and point of view. This style of documentary is often biographical or historical in subject. Examples of expository documentaries are TV shows and films like "A&E Biography," "America's Most Wanted," science and nature documentaries, or Ken Burns' "The Civil War" (1990).
Observational documentaries attempt to simply and spontaneously observe lived life. Becoming popular first in the 1960s, this mode of film focuses on individual human characters in ordinary life situations. Think of all the un-scripted "reality" television that is popular today. Shows like MTV's "Made," slice of life programs like "Little People Big World" and "Deadliest Catch" are all examples of this "fly-on-the-wall" type of documentary making. The filmmaker is the one who observes but tries not to influence or alter the events being captured on camera.
Participatory documentaries believe that it is impossible for the act of filmmaking to not influence or alter the events being captured. Not only is the filmmaker part of the film, but the viewer also gets a sense of how situations in the film are affected or altered by the filmmaker's presence. For example, Morgan Spurlock's film "Super Size Me" put the filmmaker himself in front of the camera to tell the story about what could happen to the human body when it is sustaining itself on fast food alone. The filmmaker's experiences are incorporated into the film, and the creator is the center of the story. The encounter between filmmaker and subject becomes a critical element of the film in order to find a "truth" through the encounter.
The key to documentaries is research and interviews. Ideally, you as the filmmaker will learn as much about your topic, or more, than your audience. This is why people like Ken Burns make documentaries about things they know absolutely nothing about: to educate themselves. Otherwise, you are not making a documentary, you are going to end up with a commercial for your beliefs.
Unlike the typical short film process, however, most documentary filmmakers come up with their narrative, point, structure and storyboard in the editing process, not pre-production. As a documentary filmmaker, you will need to change your approach to creating your film; otherwise you may end up influencing what you shoot with your own opinions.
Start by writing a proposal on what you want to do, how you go about doing it and what kind of research (library, living people, photos, etc.) to include in your documentary. Create a rough outline of the shots you think you will want to have in your documentary and send invitations to those experts you want to interview in advance.
When you are interviewing people, or gathering data, you have to ask questions that do not introduce personal bias/propaganda into the documentary. This can be very difficult. Keep the questions general and just let them talk. You never know what you might get. Select people who have knowledge of or are interested in your topic. If you get many interviews you will have a more diverse and interesting piece.
When filming, do not chat up the subjects off-camera. Off camera they might give you all their perfect, natural sound bites and you'll wish you'd been rolling. The same bites will be forced or flat if you have your interviewer repeat them for the camera. Also, make sure they know that you are going to edit what you are shooting. They will get much more comfortable once they know you are going to edit.
Mix up your shots to keep things interesting. For example, if everything you film is a medium shot of people walking, your edits will be incredibly boring. Get wide shots to establish location and get tight shots if the situation allows. Extreme close ups of the subjects are excellent if they are discussing something with passion. Get cutaways like legs walking, hands writing, etc. These types of shots are called B-Roll footage. B-Roll footage helps back up your narration with visuals and helps tell the story.
Get lots of shots. Vary using the camera as a handheld and with a tripod. Plan on getting many more shots than you can imagine you will need. You will need them and may even wish you had more.
Once you get to post production, your job is to tell a story. Throw out any footage, no matter how lovely the shot, that doesn't advance the story. Be sure to use your B-Roll footage effectively and add in captions and graphics as needed. Plus, remember to put the name of those you interviewed on the screen with the subject. Include their full name and their title, just like they do in news programs. Your end product should tie all the information and interviews, footage, etc. together in an interesting way.
Documentaries are a unique film genre that can persuade, educate, and entertain. Is there a story out there you want to document? Is there a moment in time you want to capture? Is there a message you want to convey to the masses? Decide on your purpose, research and grab a camera. Just be sure to keep it entertaining, informative and factual. Only then does it appear to be much more realistic and believable.
About the Author: Jaclyn Bell is a digital media instructor and the director of community content for OneSeventeen Media Inc. as well as the competition director of the Young Minds Digital Times Student Film Competition.