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Categories: Features

If you are planning on shooting your first documentary but have no idea where to start, or are still unsure of how to structure your piece, then The Spread has a few tips to help.

Pre-Production

You may have thought writing scripts was the prerogative of Fiction, however successful documentaries rely just as much on careful construction and scripting.

However most filmmakers have no idea where to start and what to do. If you are producing a documentary your film will benefit from a well-shaped and articulate narrative.

A great story the backbone through which a successful movie depends. So in order to construct your narrative, start with questions:

  • What do I want to document?
  • Is this subject matter possible film?
  • Will there be interest?
  • Who/what are the main participants?
  • Has this documentary been made before? Or similar?
  • If so, what can I learn from their film(s)?

Learn as much as you can about your topic. Compile all the facts and figures from your research.clipboard

Next, compose a list of participants you want to take part. Approach them, open up conversations and try to get access to as many people as you need for the film. Keep an online Excel sheet handy with important contact details.

Production

When you get the production stage, plan the shooting schedule alongside when and where you can access your participants. Be economical with your trips. This is important especially when shooting on a shoestring budget. If you need to travel specifically to shoot, what else can you film in that location? Maybe you can interview locals or sites of relevance.

Your documentary may have several characters and stories you want to feature. You need to sew them together into a coherent and interesting narrative. Even though it is non-fiction, your film is still a story because storytelling is essentially what filmmaking boils down to.

In order to do this, experiment with categorizing your film into themes or subject matter. It is important to map out a narrative structure so you can highlight the dramatic points, the twists, the dead ends, etc.

Have an overall idea of the main elements of storytelling within your film. For instance, who is the protagonist/antagonist? What are their motives? Is there a journey (physical or emotional) involved?

Additionally, in a documentary the filmmaker can step forward as the protagonist themselves. It can be told from the point of view of their own journey. Or not. It is however one effective way to structure your piece.

You should have a list of interviewees, which you need as first hand accounts, or talking heads. Interviews are useful because not only do they create the content of your film, but it can inspire your narrative further, taking it into sometimes unforeseen directions.

docu1

Post-Production

This is where the magic happens because if you have enough good footage, the editor will have all they need to stitch your story together.

It is important at this stage to keep an open mind. You may have a strict narrative flow, which you want to adhere to. This is fine, however if during filming some amazing tangent occurred that diverts the course of your story, you must step back and reassess. Being flexible can transform a good documentary into a great one.

Deadlines can be tight, especially if you are entering your piece into an upcoming festival. Nevertheless, if possible, leave a gap between filming and editing. Let the ideas and footage marinate in your head. Take a break before you set out into the edit. This is especially true when you are the writer/director/editor

Final Thoughts

Your documentary does not have to be unimaginative when the medium itself has an extraordinary scope for storytelling. When embarking on your next film, remember that there are no new stories under the sun but there are still many new ways of telling them. Find your angle, explore and enjoy the process.

Are you a Documentary Filmmaker? Has your Documentary received recognition?

Share your stories and tips with The Spread by writing on the comments below, or by tweeting us.

Christabel Samuel is a writer, director and editor. Having graduated from University College London with a BA in English Literature and an MA in Film Studies she is now a self-taught filmmaker, writer and perpetual learner. She won funding in 2011 for Lust in Translation and has gone on to judge at the London Film Festival, been appointed Head of Film for The Book Magazine and is currently editor-in-chief for The Spread.

Posted on Apr 10, 2014

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