how to shoot a documentary

How to Shoot a Documentary

In my previous posts I’ve written about choosing video equipment and choosing audio equipment. Now it’s time to learn about the most fundamental step, shooting your documentary.

Why is this step the most fundamental? Because, when you get to post-production, no amount of creative editing can make your footage interesting if you failed to shoot the basic building blocks of a story in production.

In my how to edit a documentary post, I wrote that it’s easier to know what to shoot if you know how it’s going to be used. If editing is the how, shooting is the what, and my goal by the end of this post is to give you some guidelines for what you should aim to capture in the field in order to give yourself enough material to work with in post. So, without further ado…

How to Shoot a Documentary

The first rule of documentaries is that there are no absolute rules.

Seriously, this is post is only a series of suggestions based on my experience working on shows like Lockup, Project Greenlight, and Top Chef. My bias is towards documentaries intended for commercial use, held up to broadcast standards.

If you are working on a personal documentary with limited distribution, you may not be held to the same standards as professional television or film, and not all of these suggestions may apply to you. My hope is that you can still glean something from this post that helps you in your pursuit.

So, let’s get some of the basics out of the way. When you’re shooting a documentary, you’ll want to capture all of the following things so you have ample material to work with when you start editing:

  • Vérité. Vérité, also known as sound ups, sound on tapes, or reality, is the basis of every documentary. If you want to know more about vérité, including a thorough definition, you should read my post about documentary storytelling. Essentially, vérité is the raw material around which you will shape all of your scenes. A good producer will walk away from every vérité scene they shoot with a beginning, middle, and end. These beats will be accompanied by specific interviews they capture and will create well-rounded scenes as a result. Often the best approach is to shoot lots and lots of vérité footage so you have plenty of options in the edit. But, vérité is only part of the equation, and most documentaries depend on a variety of tools to tell a story.
  • Interviews. Interviews are an important narrative device, often used to provide exposition and context for scenes, but also used to explore the thoughts and feelings each character is experiencing during a scene. Typically, documentarians will shoot vérité first, taking very detailed notes about what they are capturing, and then they will interview subjects about these moments afterwards. By interviewing subjects afterwards, documentarians can craft scenes by asking subjects to fill in holes in story. If each scene’s vérité has a beginning, middle, and end, then each interview about each scene should have a beginning, middle, and end. Novice documentarians will ask interviewees to summarize scenes, whereas expert documentarians will explore individual moments in a scene in interview. This is an important distinction because a documentary is not a simple unfolding of information over time. A documentary is a series of moments, and each moment needs to be given enough weight so that it keeps an audience’s interest.
  • B-Roll. B-Roll is similar to vérité in that it captures some aspect of reality, however, its purpose is really to serve as coverage to scenes. B-Roll can be general to show the setting in which the scene takes place (shots of the city and shots of the building or area where the scene happens), or it can be specific to show something that the subjects are talking about in scene. The best example of this happens in home renovation shows when the subjects talk about a particular feature in the house (the tile, the wall color, the windows) and we see shots of these particular features at the same time. In addition to the kind of “see and say” B-Roll I just mentioned, B-Roll is often used for transitions at the beginning and end of scenes, which works particularly well when accompanied by a good music track. B-Roll is also used to cover interviews. Obviously, this kind of footage is incredibly versatile and, as such, you can almost never have too much. I’ve worked on a ton of shows where we don’t have enough B-Roll, and this is a difficult if not impossible place to be. This causes us to send pick up crews out to shoot additional footage, which is a huge waste of time and money. When you’re in the field shooting vérité, you should have a default list of B-Roll shots you get every time you shoot somewhere, and you should listen to what is going on in the scene (because you are taking notes for your interviews), and then tell your camera operator to turn and shoot B-Roll that matches the things the subjects are talking about. If you do not shoot enough B-Roll, you will paint yourself into a corner with your footage and be extremely limited in the storytelling you can accomplish when you are editing. So, shoot more B-Roll!
  • Cutaways. Cutaways are essentially B-Roll by a different name, so I will keep this description short. If B-Roll is a generic set of shots, cutaways are more specific. If your subjects talk about something in scene, you should get a cutaway of it. If you are shooting two subjects having a conversation, you should get cutaways of each subject listening (but not speaking) so you can cut back and forth when you get to the edit. If you are shooting an interview, you should get cutaways of the subject’s hands or a close up of the subject’s eyes (with their mouth framed out of shot) so you can use these shots to cover hard cuts. Like B-Roll, these items should be added to your to-do list and be captured anywhere and everywhere you go.
  • Natural Sound/Room Tone. Before I talk about this technical element, I want to talk about audio conditions in general. If at all possible, you should avoid shooting in locations with too much ambient noise happening around you (like helicopters, emergency vehicles, or any other loud, constant noise). You should also avoid shooting in locations with a strong echo (especially for interviews). This kind of thing makes it difficult to cut things together. If you want to cut from one of your subjects saying something, to another subject saying something in response, but the audio conditions are completely different in each clip, it’s going to be very difficult to make this cut without the sudden change in audio distracting your audience. It’ll sound like a mistake. Of course, there are ways to sweeten audio in post-production and attempt to fix this, but if at all possible this problem should be avoided in production. Now, if you absolutely have to shoot in a noisy setting, it’s fine, but you have to take extra care to record natural sound and room tone to help yourself out in the edit as much as possible. Natural sound is the ambient noise happening around your scene. Room tone is the same thing, it’s the white noise your microphone picks up in a silent room. At the end of each scene you shoot, ask your crew and your subjects to be quiet for a minute and record this stuff. You can use this stuff in the edit by creating an additional audio track and looping it under your scene. It will help smooth out rough patches of audio and create more continuity between cuts. I promise you that it will come in handy more often than you think!

Be More Prepared

Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, let’s expand.

When you are shooting a scene, you should always have a checklist of items to shoot that you came up with before you arrived at the location. This ensures that, if new things come up while you are shooting, which they inevitably will, you aren’t going to forget about the essentials.

Make a checklist. You need scene-specific vérité (a beginning, middle, and end), you need scene-specific interview (also tracking a beginning, middle, and end), you need B-Roll of the city and setting, you need cutaways of everything your subjects talked about as well as reaction shots, and you need natural sound/room tone.

After you’ve created a checklist, you should try to create a schedule.

In professional environments, we live and die by our schedules. Crew members expect specific call times, specific lunch times, and specific wrap times. If you do not provide a schedule for your crew, you are inconsiderate of their needs and are hurting yourself and your project in a major way. Too many young filmmakers skip this step, preferring to fly by the seat of their pants instead, but this is a mistake. You are not entitled to a good crew, and a good crew is not going to put up with an unprepared filmmaker. So, if you want to make a good film or television show, you need to be prepared. You need to make a schedule.

If you are a one-person or otherwise very small crew you may be a little more flexible with your schedule but you should still write one. It’s important to have a plan, and it’s even more important to compare what you accomplish each day with what you set out to accomplish each day. This allows you to adapt your planning to coincide with what is actually possible. As you grow and become more competent as a filmmaker, you will inevitably be able to accomplish more with less time, but the only way to track this is to keep a daily schedule, so get to it.

Take Extensive Notes

For many who work exclusively in the field, the last thing they want to do while trying to manage a crew and a cast is to take notes of what they are shooting along the way.

Unfortunately, this has a few major drawbacks.

First, the post-production team is totally in the dark without story notes from the field. I’ve worked on shows that turn 400 hours of footage into six 45-minute episodes. How do you go through 400 hours of footage? You can’t watch it all unless your team is huge, and television networks aren’t shelling out that kind of dough, so you have to lean heavily on story notes from the field. These story notes become a map of sorts that helps the post-production team navigate the seemingly endless hours of footage. The best story notes are formatted in a way that each note has timecode associated with it. But, when timecode isn’t possible, it’s still important to write summaries of conversations and scenes as they happen so all of this information can live in documents and be accessed quickly in the edit.

Second, you won’t know what to interview subjects about if you didn’t take notes as you were shooting scenes. I’ve seen this a lot. Shooting days can be long and exhausting and sometimes you don’t do interviews until a few days (or weeks) after a scene is shot. A lot happens in that time, and how much information about a scene have you forgotten? My guess is quite a lot. Even if you do remember the general topics your subjects talked about, you won’t have memories of specific things that your subjects said, yet these are the exact things you should be asking about in interview. If you get a general interview about a scene, but you don’t have anything specific, your interview is nearly useless. The remedy? Take more notes.

The best documentarians will take timecoded notes and will come up with a shorthand. They will abbreviate cast member names and add numbers to those abbreviations (Jonathan Craig would be JC1) so that they are easier to find in documents (NOTE: numbers are essential when a cast member’s initials are something like SH, which occurs often in writing and would be unsearchable as a result). They will abbreviate words cast members say so that they can take more extensive notes. They will mark certain moments with asterisks* or other signifiers to remind themselves to watch them again in post.

Again, because you are creating a roadmap for yourself here, you want to come up with a system that will help you track as much information as possible without being too cumbersome and interfering with the shoot. I’ve worked in documentary and reality television for years now and my system is always improving. There is no perfect system, but any system is better than no system, so what’s most important is that you just get started.

Stay Present and Have Fun

The best way to make a good documentary film or television show is to stay present.

Contrary to the last two pieces of advice I gave, you should prepare and take notes only to the extent that they free up your thoughts and emotions to experiencing your documentary in real time, as it is happening.

The worst documentaries are the ones created by filmmakers who have a specific idea about what they want to shoot before they start and don’t allow for any flexibility once the process begins. The problem with this approach is that a filmmaker’s point of view is incredibly limited, especially if they are making a film about something they personally are not masters of, and so the story they tell will be incredibly limited if they don’t allow themselves to learn and grow as they are producing.

On the other hand, the best documentaries are created by filmmakers who have a general idea about what they want to shoot before they shoot it, so they show up and use that as a starting point, allowing the story to unfold before them as it naturally occurs and trying not to force a story to go somewhere it wasn’t already going.

In my opinion, in production the documentarian should serve as a blank canvas upon which their subjects paint thoughts and emotions. In post-production, the documentarian takes these thoughts and emotions and shapes them into a cohesive story, doing everything he or she can to draw out or preserve the truth as he or she sees it.

In order to serve as a blank canvas, the documentarian has to let go of many of their preconceived notions about a story and truly listen to what the subjects are saying. Sometimes the subjects are saying something overtly, other times they are saying it subtly, and the documentarian has to be listening intently in order to pick up on all of it.

To do that, the documentarian has to stay present. They have to prepare beforehand, they have to take story notes during, but only to the extent that they create the proper mental and emotional space to actually listen to their subjects, follow the story, and capture it accordingly.

It’s a skill that takes consistent practice, even for filmmakers who have been working in documentary film and television for years and years, and should be the primary pursuit of anyone interesting in shooting documentaries.

I know that I still have a lot to learn in that regard, as I’m sure you do too, but I hope that this guide and the rest of my documentary series has helped you learn things that have improved your own filmmaking process.

My goal is to educate as many young documentarians as possible and to encourage everyone who is remotely interested in film and television to go out there and make more movies.

At this point, I’ve given a primer to all of the important aspects of production and post-production as I see them. In my next post I’ll write about marketing, audience building, and distribution in hopes that it gets your movies in front of more eyes.

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