This question comes in from Suna (@sunathanlater on Twitter).
How Much Documentary Narrative Is Decided in Pre-Production?
This is a very difficult question to answer because there is a huge range in the ways documentarians approach their storytelling. Instead of giving you a one-size-fits-all answer, I’d prefer to explore the different approaches to story in pre-production and let you decide which approach is better for your specific projects or for your general style.
One common approach to documentary storytelling is what’s referred to as cinéma vérité, or “follow-doc,” which requires very few decisions to be made about the narrative in pre-production. In this style, the documentarian will follow subjects with a camera and shoot as much raw material as possible, deferring narrative decisions to the post-production process.
Another common approach to documentary storytelling resembles something closer to scripted production. Tons of “documentary,” “docu-reality,” and “reality” films and television shows employ this approach because it is cost-effective. Most of them will outline their stories before hand. Some of them will produce these scenarios so they get something that resembles their outline in production. Fewer even will script scenes outright.
When I was studying documentary storytelling in school, cinéma vérité was often celebrated as being more “authentic” than the alternative. The misconception about this style of documentary storytelling, however, is that there are no decisions made about the narrative before the filmmaking process begins. If a documentarian is making decisions about where and when to shoot, they are making decisions about story. If a documentarian is making decisions about what to shoot because their equipment requires them to change tapes/cards, batteries, etc. along the way, they are making decisions about story. For these logistical reasons, documentarians shooting cinéma vérité often outline a narrative in pre-production to help them organize their thoughts about the subject and so that they don’t forget to shoot something when production begins.
In conclusion, there is no one way to approach documentary storytelling. There is a wide spectrum of styles and each documentarian employs their own style, often times adapting that style on a project-by-project basis. My personal approach is somewhere in the middle. I find it very difficult to capture authentic moments when trying to shoot overly produced docu-reality scenes… and it’s even more difficult to edit these moments together in an engaging way in post-production. Conversely, I find it very difficult to make sense of a story that doesn’t have a beginning, middle, and end clearly captured. For that reason, it’s important to me to have information about the subject and plan for potential stories in pre-production, but to be flexible enough in production to follow a story if it goes in an unexpected direction.
There really is no right or wrong way here, only what works best for you and your project.
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