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My First Job in Film: What is a documentary?

What is a documentary?

A documentary film running to feature length time should never be regarded in anyway less dramatic than fiction, after all, reality is often more amazing than fiction - fact! Often the process of making a documentary however couldn’t be more opposed to that of the scripted feature film. Documentarians can go on their instincts and follow a story, never truly knowing what the outcome might be. In many cases directors will be shooting the project or, like Nick Broomfield, holding the boom. Filmmakers work in very small teams which creates an intimacy between filmmaker and subject and allows for greater flexibility with schedule and budget. Making a documentary is an exciting (and often exhausting) ride as a filmmaker and an immersive journey for an audience.

Unlike a fiction film where a defined period is in place to produce the work, documentaries can be shot over days or even years. Netflix Originals Making a Murderer was shot over a 10 year period, lighting up media outlets in January 2016 with a story that is still playing out today.  Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi started a project documenting a man’s release from wrongful imprisonment only to find themselves caught up in a tragic loss of life, another trial and, potentially, police corruption and yet another false imprisonment. In an interview Demos and Ricciardi mention they had no money to make the film, but what they had was time with the Avery family, who granted them access to a very closed and private group of people. Ultimately, documentaries are largely made by filmmakers who wish to affect change. A survey conducted by the Documentary Filmmakers Groups revealed that 80% of filmmakers polled had a primary focus to create films that make a difference; highlighting causes that impact on global, national, communal or individual levels.

Documentaries have experienced a resurgence of late as audience desire to engage in non-fiction film is on the rise. This is in part due to the creative and inventive methods documentary filmmakers employ in their films, alongside the subject matter they wish to pursue. VOD outlets have expansive documentary sections, and more feature-length documentaries are finding theatrical distribution deals. The world is an amazing place. Documentary filmmakers take the opportunity to explore it, offering their own distinctive voices into the mix. Filmmakers such as Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Stupid White Men), Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me, This is Us) or Chris Bell (Bigger Stronger Faster, Trophy Kids, Prescription Thugs) present themselves in front of camera, leading the narrative as they set out their mission directly to us, the audience. Others such as Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) and Asif Kapadia (Amy) take an investigative stance that is bound around the importance of narrative structure, despite being non-scripted documentaries are constructed stories that take us from A to B.

who makes documentaries and how are they funded?

Documentaries can be passion projects, the work of independent filmmakers who find funding themselves through connected sources (if the film is highlighting a cause) or crowdfunding. If the filmmaker has a back catalogue of work a documentary feature can be funded using the same means as a fiction feature film, equally it is not uncommon for a documentary to be financed using the filmmaker's credit cards.

How long does a documentary take to make?

Documentaries are made by independent filmmakers who give over years of their lives to a project. American: The Bill Hicks Story took filmmakers Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas 5 years to make, gathering original footage and utilising a photo animation technique to tell the personal story of the comedian Bill Hicks. Because the filmmakers act as crew in many circumstances the duration of the project depends on the acquisition of funds and access to the subject matter. 

What crew is involved?

Due to the intimate nature of many documentaries they rarely field a full crew, it largely depends on the project and the style of the film. Many documentaries rely on footage that has already been shot, so there may be cause to use a cameraman/woman and sound recordist to shoot the interviews. Other productions might use a cameraperson, but they may also be responsible for the sound. Working on documentaries as a member of the crew is very specialised, you need to be flexible and adaptable to the needs of the production. Broadcast is an ideal training ground for working in documentary as a cameraman or sound recordist. 

what experience do i need to work in documentary?

Anyone can make a documentary, how good it is will depend on your subject matter and your instinct setting up a strong narrative structure. You don’t need a full crew, and high-quality camera equipment is the least expensive it has ever been. What you do need is an abundance of time and deep pockets to potentially bankroll yourself.

The best way to become involved in documentary production would be to look at opportunities in factual TV. Move into the Editorial Department (TV editorial not to be confused with drama editorial) and hone your skills for storytelling. Documentaries are not simply a selection of interviews all spliced together, it takes ingenuity, integrity, creativity and good instincts for finding the right story to tell. 

what types of documentary are there?

Bill Nichol’s Introduction to Documentary sites there being 6 types of documentary production, meaning they can have a particular trait that defines the type of documentaries. These consist of:

  • Poetic: This style of documentary focuses on the feel and tone of a subject, poetic docs can be referred to as avant-garde and often go against traditional filmmaking practice.

  • Expository: Docs with narration fall into this category. A vast majority of documentaries utilise the power of the narrator's voice to drive the story along, some filmmakers chose specific individuals to lend their talents to specific docs.

  • Participatory: The documentaries of Nick Broomfield or Michael Moore can be classed as participatory documentaries as the filmmaker's presence drives the narrative forward.

  • Observational: What is often referred to as a ‘fly on the wall’ style documentaries. Often filmmakers are following the action to see where it leads them. Observational docs can be shot over years, returning and re-returning to capture the life of their contributors. Films such as Making a Murderer or The Weird and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia were shot over a significant period of time.

  • Reflexive: The filmmaking process is called into question in a reflective documentary. Louis Theroux is credited with making reflective documentaries, commenting on their presence as filmmakers documenting a situation.  

  • Performative: Films such as Prescription Thugs or Supersize Me will fall under the umbrella of this type of documentary. In TV this type of documentary is often referred to as the ‘mission doc’, the filmmaker is at the forefront of proceedings and their journey is what propels the narrative of the documentary.