P.O.V. No.13 - On documentary filmmaking

Guidelines for producing a short documentary

Kirsten Sørensen, Mette Bahnsen, Henrik Holch, Gitte Hvid and Lise Otte

This paper is based on our experiences during the making of the documentary short film Jutta Ravn (2000). Hopefully, readers will find some of these guidelines useful in the practical preparation and production of a documentary short.

Before shooting the film

  • The starting point is, of course, to think of an interesting topic that all the members of the group are enthusiastic about. It is hard to give advice about this phase, except "be patient."

    It is important to formulate the basic idea of the film as precisely and clearly as possible. If you do not know why you want to make this film, what it is about and where the story is going, then it might not be a very good idea for a film.

  • If you haven't previously worked in the documentary genre, it is a good idea to find some examples that you can draw inspiration from before laying down the aesthetics and method of your film.

  • Discuss whether you prefer to have television or film documentaries as your primary source of inspiration. If you lean toward TV documentarism, the library – in Aarhus, especially the State and National Library – can be helpful (although it may take a few days to get the programmes). If you prefer documentary films, then (again in Aarhus) Filmhuset is the place to seek inspiration.

Find a selection of different documentaries, discuss the qualities of each film and note the good elements. This will probably give you an idea of how you want to structure your own film. During these screenings, however, keep in mind that most documentaries are not made on the same basis as the short fiction film – this limits the degree to which you should be inspired.

The preparation phase is very time consuming in the documentary genre. It requires thorough research on your topic or source of inspiration. In order to get a fairly good understanding of your person and his or her story you need to visit him or her and make some test interviews. This will give you an impression of the person's limits and boundaries, and what s/he is willing to talk about.

If possible, bring a video camera (to the first meetings) to find out how the person reacts to the camera, and to let him/her get used to its presence before the actual shoot. It also gives you a chance to map the different locations and thus plan more precisely what you want to be in the film (a test film is the basis for working out a fairly accurate storyboard/preliminary script.)

As regards the screenplay, there are different ways of structuring the material in a documentary. In "Looking Two Ways" (1996) Toni de Bromhead examines the different forms of narration in a documentary film. She draws up four narrative principles (modalities). 1) The Linear Narrative Form, also known as classic Hollywood storytelling; 2) the Discursive Narrative Form, which gives priority to information, facts and logic; 3) the Episodic Narrative Form, which juxtaposes situations that have no narrative or causal relations, and 4) the Poetic Narrative Form, which is built up around visual poetic associations.

The point is, of course, that the modalities (which structure the filmed material) involve the spectator in different ways. Bromhead says that one of the ways of making the viewer identify with the characters of the story is by using the rules for linear structure:

The ideal situation for realising a classic linear narrative remains the one of finding a charismatic personality who is working towards a goal along a road that is beset by frustrating obstacles (Bromhead, p. 38).

Thus, it might be helpful to look into the models for fiction already as you develop the idea, or as you write the script. At any rate you should consider how to catch the viewer's attention and keep his interest – and in this connection the modality you choose is important.

To those who question whether clarity is all that important, I can only say that it is the most important quality in the making of a film. [...] just as important as clarification, I think, is the need to simplify. A film director must have a sense of simplification. (François Truffaut, 1985, pp. 17 and 93)

A slogan like "Keep It Simple, Stupid" (K.I.S.S.) (David Mamet: On Directing Film) applies to the documentary as well.

The camera plays a role: it acts on the sender's (i.e. your) behalf. Remember that the camera angles and movements are significant for the degree to which you express respect for, solidarity with, antipathy against, etc., the people in the film. (In some respects you always make films about yourself – even though you are working in groups). Before the shoot starts make sure you have agreed on certain principles for operating the camera (of course this is of special importance if the camera is operated by more than one member of the group).

A set of rules was drawn up every time [ed. that we were making films] – as a sort of denial of being able to have everything. I simply believed – and still believe – that the more precise your choices are, the more things you have excluded, the more inspired you can be within the framework that you have set for yourself. [...] Rules: To choose to give up something or other. To choose some simple moves, some simple means (Jørgen Leth in Leifer, 1999, p. 89; our translation).

It is a good idea to draw up a set of rules, some aesthetic narrative guidelines for what you can and cannot do. This will save you many discussions during the shoot and will ensure you a fairly coherent style (it easily becomes rather mixed with more than one director).

For instance, you can make rules about the interviews and the rooms where they should take place; whether or not the interviewer should be visible in the picture; whether the camera movements should be calm or swift; in which rooms or situations the camera should be on a tripod or handheld; whether the persons should be filmed from below, at eye-level, from above; if the interviewer's questions should be cut out (in which case a certain interview technique is required); whether you want to use voice-over commentary, and so on and so forth.

Note that one of the dangers of operating with a set of aesthetic rules (like using the storyboard method) is that the interviewee may become too "stiff" and tense. The rules are only meant to be guidelines – not dogmas – and you should be willing to change them as you go along.

There are many ethical questions involved in the production of a documentary. From the beginning you must consider whether you are portraying people appropriately. Are you twisting in any way the image(s) of your subject(s)? What should and should not be shown? (Is it essential to show a very messy kitchen?) Are you crossing their boundaries? Are you invading or exposing their privacy? Will they feel good about the film afterwards? How will the film influence their lives? and so on. Along with a documentary film project come some moral obligations, and the responsibility for the people involved goes beyond the finished film; you also have a responsibility for the emotional aftermath of the film. Respect for the people involved (which includes an honest representation of them) must come before making a great film.

In his article "The Voice of Documentary," Bill Nichols writes:

Documentary displays a tension arising from the attempt to make statements about life that are quite general, while necessarily using sounds and images that bear the inescapable trace of their particular historical origin. These sounds and images come to function as signs; they bear meaning, though the meaning is not really inherent in them but rather conferred upon them by their function within the text as a whole. We may think we hear history or reality speaking to us through a film, but what we really hear is the voice of the text, even when the voice tries to efface itself (Nichols in Rosenthal, 1998, p. 52).

It is important that you reflect on what sort of "voice" you want in your film already in the preparation phase (before working out a storyboard). For a theoretical background you might want to look into Nichols's four "Documentary Modes of Representation" (in Representing Reality, 1991): 1) The Expository Mode: The viewer is addressed directly "with titles or voices that advance an argument about the historical world," and often images merely become illustrations of what the authoritative commentary (voice of God) maintains. A logical connection between sequences is predominant. 2) The Observational Mode: The camera acts as 'a fly on the wall,' style and mise-en-scène become invisible and in its purest form inter-titles, interview and voice-over commentary are excluded; the filmmaker is unobtrusive and the viewer is left to interpret reality for himself. 3) The Interactive Mode: Different kinds of dialogue and monologue are dominant. Most often these films are based on interviews. Although the filmmaker participates (e.g. in the role of 'provocateur'), the textual authority in this mode shifts towards the "social actors" (the authentic people) so that "their comments and responses provide a central part of the film's argument" (p. 44). 4) The Reflexive Mode: This renders visible the epistemological and aesthetic reflections that are the basis for the production, thus drawing attention to the process of filmmaking. It makes use of various kinds of Verfremdungseffekt and generally questions how a representation can "be adequate to that which it represents" (p. 57). (Nichols, who focuses on the documentary as a form of rhetoric, clearly lacks a fifth modus, namely the poetic in which an aesthetic approach to a given subject is predominant. The poetic representation focuses on experiencing the world, not on the objective representation of it; it attempts to perceive the world aesthetically, and is often emotional in a poetic way. Remember that a documentary can speak with many 'voices.'

If your film contains an interview session it is important that you experiment with different interview techniques before you start shooting. It can be difficult to find the right technique; at any rate it should always be developed in accordance with the people in the film. Find out whether the person is dependent on the interviewer's response or if s/he is a natural storyteller. This is important when you decide whether the interview in the film should have a visible interviewer (dialogue) or a hidden interviewer (pseudo monologue). The choice of an inaudible interviewer challenges your interviewee to a larger extent: S/he must be able to handle a 3-4 second pause between your question and his or her answer while remaining natural and engaged. The interviewee should always make clear who and what s/he is talking about (without depending on the information incorporated in your questions). Not everyone can handle an interview situation like that. Many people are – to a large extent – dependent on the interview being more like a conversation.

As you develop your method for the interview, try out different ways of asking questions. Your questions should be phrased in such a way that the answers are delivered within a limited time and do not omit any important information.

Furthermore, you should test different interview set–ups (i.e. different positions of the camera, the microphone, the interviewer, the interviewee, lighting, and so on) for aesthetic reasons as well as out of consideration for the interviewee.

An interview is always an artificial situation, and it is important to make the interviewee feel as comfortable as possible – some people find it difficult to avoid looking into the camera if it is placed right in front of them.

Deciding what style of music (if any) you want in the film can be very time consuming. Your choice of music plays an important part in the overall impression of the film, and these discussions should not be postponed until the editing phase. Music is an important factor when it comes to creating a 'mood' in the film, and the wrong choice of music can ruin the production. Discuss whether the music should be supportive, controlling, disturbing, or contrapuntal in relation to what is visually expressed. If you make a test film on location, try out different types of music with the filmed material.

A storyboard might be useful even though you are making a documentary. By making a storyboard (instead of improvising your way through) you get a high degree of control. This ensures that the project is realistic within the given time.

By using a storyboard you reduce the risk of lacking important shots in the editing room. It is clear, however, that the storyboard of a documentary cannot be as accurate as that of a fiction film (which does not mean that it shouldn't be as detailed as possible): You cannot plan the exact length of the different shots, at least not those involving 'real-life' people. Try not to be too ambitious when it comes to the number of stories that you want people to tell. Telling a story often takes longer than you expect.

One of the fascinating aspects about filming reality is that it cannot be controlled. Invariably, new possibilities will turn up along the way. Thus, the storyboard should always be regarded as a preliminary script that can be adjusted on location. Just remember that the danger of improvising a lot is that you might end up with a story lacking some of the essential elements.

As regards the storyboard, within the genre of the short fiction film the best short films tend (with some exceptions) to contain little or no dialogue (cf. Richard Raskin's Five Parameters for Story Design in the Short Fiction Film and Kortfilm og novellefilm – der er forskel). In the documentary short film the spoken word (monologue or dialogue) plays a more important role – especially within the 'portrait' sub-genre. Still, it is worth keeping Alfred Hitchcock's words in mind:

In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call "photographs of people talking". When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it's impossible to do otherwise. I always try first to tell a story the cinematic way [...]. (Truffaut, 1985, p. 61)

Consider whether you can give information 'the cinematic way' and show rather than have people tell the story (through talking-head monologue, explanatory voice-over, and so on).

The documentary is always a sort of creative adaptation of reality, regardless of whether the camera acts as "a fly on the wall" or a voice-over commentary intervenes and interprets the pictures for the viewer. In Filmmaskinen (1979) Jørgen Leth phrases it a bit differently:

Each choice is a fiction. That's how it is in my consciousness, anyway. Innocence is irretrievably lost (Leth, 1979, p. 123; our translation).

Further down the same page in Filmmaskinen, Jørgen Leth also writes: "Like a membrane, style (a series of choices) is pulled down over the authentic material." But the main issue must be how thick this membrane is – whether reality, so to speak, suffocates. And that depends on the degree of intervention, how the cinematic technique is used, and how the material is edited.

All documentaries are somewhere in between inventing and capturing reality, between the subjective and the objective, and although the distance between the two poles is short, you should reflect on where your film is placed between these poles. To what extent is your film obliged to depict reality? Are you inventing your own representations of real life in order to make reality more distinct? Are you placing authentic people in situations that they wouldn't otherwise have been in (as is the case with Nanook in Robert Flaherty's classic documentary Nanook of the North (1920-22))? Are you writing their lines and instructing them on playing themselves (as in Jon Bang Carlsen's It's Now or Never (1996))? Are you arranging tableaux or events which the characters take part in? Asking yourselves questions of this sort is essential in order to elucidate which form of modality you prefer in your film.

The Shooting Phase

Shoot the 'soft' things first (the daily chores). Don't shoot the interview until the person has become used to the presence of the camera as well as his/her role as an 'actor.'

As regards the interviews, compared to the interviewee the members of the film group are 'high status' (because you control the technical equipment and know what is to be filmed). In order to make the best of the interview and make the interviewee feel more comfortable, try to place yourselves in a low status position. You can tone down your high status position by pretending that you are not in complete control of the technical equipment. It may also have a relaxing effect if the interviewer improvises his other questions instead of reading off a script.

If a scene doesn't turn out as you planned (and it has to be re-shot), don't indicate that the interviewee didn't do well (even if that is the case). Instead, find some other excuses for re-shooting the scene; for instance, that the sound wasn't good enough, the picture was out of focus and so on.

When you need to check your filmed material, it is a good idea to leave one or two members of the group to chat with the interviewee (while the others check the pictures). Let the interviewee finish his or her story, even though you have already gotten what you wanted (to show respect for what s/he is saying).

In order to balance the unequal relationship between interviewer and interviewee and to make the interview situation less artificial, it might be a good idea for the interviewer to share some stories and contribute to the conversation.

Be careful about the technical side of the production. Making a documentary – filming 'reality' – is not an excuse for poor technical quality.

In order to make your persons appear as natural and spontaneous as possible, it is important to shoot the different scenes at psychologically the right times and places.

If the person is occupied with something, s/he is more likely to forget the camera.

If you use such camera movements as panning and tilting, make sure you have several takes of each shot in which the camera is moved at different speeds. This will give you more possibilities in the editing room.

If the camera is handheld it is important to keep it fairly steady. Make sure the picture pauses for 4-5 seconds every now and again, as this gives you a natural place to cut.

Avoid zooming unless you have deliberately chosen the aesthetics of television. It is difficult to edit a shot that contains a zoom. If you need to get closer to an object it is better to move the camera.

In general it is good to make the shots a little longer than first intended – you never know what you might need in the editing room.

Be ready to switch on the camera (or leave it on) if something unexpected happens that takes the full attention of your character to sort out. It might turn out to be a magical moment that you should consider using instead of one of the scenes from the script. In general, you need to be spontaneous and open to chance.

Shoot the general pictures in different formats (e.g. full shot as well as close shot). Often people find themselves lacking a particular format in the editing room. In general, extra pictures might come in handy.

Using the potential of cinematic techniques without drowning reality is a fine balancing act. On the other hand – don't rely so much on reality that you forget that you are actually making a film.

Be ready to make changes – maybe even to give up the original concept of the film (i.e. throw away the storyboard) if you find out that what you had planned doesn't really work. This goes for the shooting phase as well as the editing phase.

The editing phase

Basically, the editing principles of fiction and documentary are the same. However, there are more possibilities when editing a documentary, as you are not bound by causality in the same way and thus do not need to tell your story in a certain way, which gives you a high degree of freedom; you should therefore consider alternative ways of piecing the material together. Try to maintain a certain sensitivity towards the raw material in order to avoid forcing it in the wrong direction because you are too focused on the story you had planned to tell.

Rather than throwing the good story or the good feeling overboard, it might be better to give up on style, aesthetics or beautiful pictures.

In his book In the Blink of an Eye. A Perspective on Film Editing (1995), Walter Murch says (in relation to the fiction film) that in order for a film to be fundamentally interesting, the main thing to strive for in the editing room is the evoking of emotion. Then, secondarily, comes the story. This principle of priority could be applied to the documentary as well (although from time to time it can be necessary to deviate from even the best of principles).

In the above-mentioned book Walter Murch gives a piece of advice that is not only useful when editing a fiction film:

...one way of looking at the process of making a film is to think of it as a search to identify what – for the particular film you are working on – is a uniquely 'bad bit' (Murch, 1995, p. 11).

Likewise, when editing a documentary it is a good idea to search for and identify 'bad bits.' Some shots that you previously thought were essential to the film often turn out to be 'bad bits' when the film begins to take form. Also, remember the old slogan: "Kill Your Darlings."

It can be difficult to identify the unnecessary 'darlings' or 'bad bits,' especially if you have become hypnotized by the material and are no longer able to see what works and what doesn't. It is always a good idea to get somebody to view your production with a fresh eye.

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Works Cited

Bromhead, Toni de. Looking Two Ways: Documentary Film's Relationship with Reality and Cinema. Aarhus: Intervention Press, 1996.

Leifer, Anders. Også idag oplevede jeg noget... Samtaler med Jørgen Leth. Viborg: Informations Forlag, 1999.

Leth, Jørgen. Det er ligesom noget i en drøm & Filmmaskinen. Udvalgte historier om cykelsport og film. Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag, 1994 (orig. pub. 1976).

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality. Indiana University Press, 1991.

Nichols, Bill. "The Voice of Documentary" (pp. 48-63) in New Challenges for Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.

Mamet, David. On Directing Film. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Murch, Walter. In the Blink of an Eye. A Perspective on Film Editing. Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1995.

Raskin, Richard. "Kortfilm og novellefilm – der er forskel," Dansk Novellefilm, Festivalavis, November 1998, p. 13.

Raskin, Richard. "Five Parameters for Story Design in the Short Fiction Film." University of Aarhus, February, 1998.

Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985.

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