As a documentary filmmaker, I’m sure you have a vision in mind for how you want to shoot your documentary. The best documentary filmmaker is also a great storyteller who knows how to tell the best story possible by knowing what cinematic techniques to use. Documentary film production can usually be shot with some common tools and equipment. However, if you know what cinematic techniques to use when shooting, your documentary will stand out from other films.
Who is Responsible for a Documentary’s Cinematography?
This is an important question because it bears on the feeling and vision of the final film. And therefore its overall impact, and the degree to which it remains faithful to the core story.
In a professional setting, usually, the director will work with a DOP who will be responsible for the day-to-day decisions about the cinematography. In this scenario, it’s very important that the director and DOP (documentary cinematographer) work closely together at all stages of the film’s production, in order to get a cohesion of style.
You might have a shot list, or you might choose to be more fluid in choices. Whichever the case, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring you get what you need for the film is that of the director.
Sometimes, the director and DOP are one and the same person, in which case the cinematography will be easier to determine, but the overall storytelling role will be harder because it’s hard to focus both on the multiple tasks of cinematography, and the storytelling role of director.
Connecting the Audience to the Film
Good documentary filmmakers know that a film is about more than just recording an event or covering a story.
The audience needs to feel inspired, connected, and entertained by the story being told on screen; they should feel that the film is happening in real-time as if they’re experiencing life through the eyes of the characters or participants.
Depending on the documentary film genre, you will make different cinematographic choices.
The filmmaker must consider how to make their film feel like a work of art – a movie – and not just a record of events. To achieve this, they can use cinematic techniques such as:
- Composition and framing
- Camera angle and shot sequencing
Cinematic Questions Worth Asking
Here are a series of questions and prompts, to help you get better cinematic results for your films:
- What will make your documentary the most visually interesting?
- Establish a sense of place.
- Show the character interacting with the environment.
- Avoid talking heads.
- Use music to add emotion, especially in montage sequences
- Establish dynamic shots that move the story forward and put the audience in the moment.
- Think about lighting, camera placement, and perspective as a film technique to convey information about the scene or to build suspense.
- What emotion does this particular shot convey? What is its meaning, in the context of the scene or sequence in which it might be edited?
These and other techniques, such as dynamic camera angles and using the camera as a storytelling device (e.g., how things look from a bird’s eye view versus a worm’s eye view), are covered in detail below.
Use Creative Cinematic Choices Help to Serve the Story
There are many techniques you can use to develop your story. Consider these aspects:
- Size and angle of shots: When you create a shot list, think about how you might shoot each scene. For example, if you’re interviewing a person at her desk, the classic approach would be to first film her in a wide shot. Then ask them to repeat their answer while you film them up close (medium close-up) and in profile (three-quarter shot). This is especially effective if the person has certain physical characteristics that emphasize what they’re saying.
- Camera movement: For most documentaries, it’s advisable to keep the camera steady. However, there are moments when camera movement as a filmmaking technique can help tell your story more effectively. For example, if you want to highlight the emotions or actions of a particular person during an interview, you can do a slightly exaggerated tracking shot of the person as they react. Or try a shot from the ground if you want to show someone from the perspective of a child looking up at them.
- Lenses: different lenses give you a different look when shooting scenes. Think about how movies look on TV and on the big screen – the latter usually use wider lenses so you can see more of the actor’s surroundings in each shot and feel like you’re watching something big and exciting happen right in front of us! If you’ve access to many different lenses (such as DSLR cameras), you should experiment with each lens as you shoot your scenes so that you have a variety of options when you edit your finished film.
- Story Awareness: It’s easy to lose sight of the overall story, once you get immersed in the multitude of tasks on location. Be sure to carry a synopsis of your story around with you, so that you can refer to it and ensure your decisions match your overall story intention.
Use Cinematography to Connect to the Character of Your Documentary
Just as a narrative film is based on a story and characters, your documentary needs to focus on those elements as well. You don’t have to write a script, but you should write down an outline of the main points of the documentary and possible twists you find as you develop your story during the shoot.When it comes to creating an effective documentary, you should research what techniques have been used in successful documentaries. Watch many other documentaries and take notes on each one.
- What did you like about them?
- What didn’t you like about them?
- Did it make you feel anything?
- Did it bore you half to death?
Take notes on everything and figure out why each decision the director made either worked well or could’ve been improved.As you watch these documentaries, think about how they relate to your own project.
- Are there techniques that would work on your project as well?
- Are there things that just wouldn’t fit with what your film is trying to convey?
Asking yourself these questions will stimulate your creativity and get you thinking in new directions as you watch the films.Remember, the main character (or subject) of your documentary is very important!
Finding someone who’s not afraid to be vulnerable in front of the camera will probably be more difficult than finding someone who’s willing to give their opinion on a particular topic or event in one-on-one interviews.
So try not to waste time looking for interview subjects until you find someone who can really carry the lead role in your film! Part of that calculation is the degree to which that person will stand out on screen; your cinematographic choices will play a big role in that!
Long Shots to Connect the Main Character and Their Surroundings
A long shot is a shot where the camera is far away from the main character. In a long shot, you can see both the character and their surroundings because of the way in which a telephoto lens pulls objects together.
Long shots are often used in documentaries to show the connection between the main character and their surroundings.Long shots are useful for showing what’s happening in a scene because they give context by showing details about where the action is taking place.
For example, you could use a long shot to show that your character is alone on an empty street or at a party with friends. Long shots are also useful when there’s more than one person in the scene because they give you the opportunity to show everyone present rather than focusing too much on a single subject.
Because long shots often use a telephoto, camera stability and focus is very important. You’ll want to carefully plan such shots, and use a field monitor when available,
Medium Shots Are an Important Part of Framing a Scene
Medium shots are a good way to create a natural dialog in your documentary.For example, if you’re following a couple getting ready for their wedding day, you can put them both in the frame with a medium shot. This is also a great option if your subjects are talking about an item that needs to be shown on camera, such as an object that has special meaning to them or a piece of evidence that’s relevant to the story.
In addition to framing naturally occurring conversations in your film, medium shots convey information about how people interact with each other and their surroundings.
You can show body language, facial expressions, and props without cutting off important details or creating awkward angles or empty space in the frame.
The medium shot is the normal default when shooting hand-held (in cinéma vérité, for example). Though it’s fine also to use stabilization, for example, a tripod or Steadicam.
Close-Ups Make You Feel Like You’re Engaging With the Subject on an Intimate Level
An important technique to get closer to the subjects in your documentary is the close-up shot.
In a big close-up, the person’s face fills the entire frame, so you can see every expression and emotion in their eyes. A medium close-up is pulled back a bit.
Focus and the focal plane become important with close-ups. Very often you can use a close-up to extrude the background and throw the background out of focus. If you know that the subject is about to move, then be ready to re-frame and re-angle to enable the scene to be edited.
Camera Angles Are Critical to Convey Emotion and Context in a Scene
The angle from which the camera shoots a scene can tell you a lot about the context and emotion of the moment. While there are many different camera angles, we’ll focus on the most common types here.
- High angle – With this angle, the person is shot from above. A high angle makes a person look small as if they’ve no control over their surroundings.
- Low angle – With this angle, you point the camera at your person so that they tower over the viewer. This makes them look intimidating and powerful as if they’ve control over their surroundings and the people around them.
- Frontal: In a frontal shot, you see your person directly in front of you, without any tilt or exaggeration. In plain English, it’s what you’d see if you were standing directly in front of the person. This angle doesn’t convey a lot of emotion because it doesn’t show anything of what’s below or above the person; instead, this type of shot is meant to provide context as the audience sees everything that’s happening in front of the person.
- Bird’s-eye view: the bird’s-eye view shows a scene from above, similar to how a bird would observe it as it flies overhead. This shot is often used to introduce scenes or to provide an overview that highlights important aspects that can only be seen from above (e.g., landmarks).
Tracking Shots Add Movement to Your Film and Also Create a Sense of Intimacy Because They Follow the Character Through Space
Tracking shots that follow the main character and keep them in focus add a sense of movement to your film. They also create a sense of intimacy because they follow the character through space.
You can use tracking shots to give the feeling that time is passing by following an object as it moves through a landscape. When shooting tracking shots with characters, be sure to match their pace to keep them in the right framing.
In recent years, low-cost drones and sliders have d increased the tracking options available to documentary filmmakers.
Tips For Aspiring Documentary Cinematographers
If you want to become a documentary filmmaker, there are many technical aspects of the profession that you should learn. It’s important for aspiring documentary filmmakers to practice their craft by making their own films and watching the work of others. This helps them develop an eye for what makes good footage and what doesn’t look so good on camera.
Take every opportunity you get to step into the editing room, to see how your shots are actually put together. That’s a great way to learn better how to ‘shoot for the edit.’
Aspiring cinematographers should also make sure they learn about cinematic lighting techniques so that when they go out into the world with a new idea, they can execute it with ease!
Matching Archival Footage in Your Cinematography
A common cinematography technique used in documentary filmmaking is the use of stock and archive footage that is then matched to footage shot on location.
There are several ways to achieve this, but the main elements are:
- Color matching: To do this, you can shoot with a specific film stock or mimic the look in post-production. The type of film stock you use, or color setting, will change the color palette and graininess of the footage. So if you choose footage that was specifically designed for a certain era, you’ll get a similar feel to stock footage from that era. If in doubt, shoot neutrally and color grade in post-production.
- Appropriate camera movement: A shaky handheld camera shot and a tracking shot with a tripod look very different. If you use the same style and amount of movement, your shots will blend seamlessly.
- Matching Editing Patterns: Another big difference between modern and old cinema is how quickly scenes were cut together; older films were more carefully edited than modern, quick-cut films. If you slow down your editing pattern, your new shots will look older when you combine them with old shots.
The Best Way to Make Sure to Get the Best Look the First Time Around
The best way to make sure you don’t have to reshoot scenes over and over again?
Shoot enough in each scene that it can be edited well. In other words, get enough ‘coverage’ with different shots of the scene. There are several elements that contribute to a good shot: good composition, proper framing, sharp focus, good sound quality, properly exposed images, and well-lit shots.
Make sure these points are met so you can work with the best possible footage during post-production. This will also save you time when selecting shots for editing.
Over time, you develop a kind of internal radar for whether a shot was a good one.When shooting for editing, keep in mind which shots should follow each other so that they blend seamlessly in post-production.
What Filmmaking Techniques Are Used in the Documentaries You Have Seen?
When you watch a documentary, do you pay attention to the shots used? Do you notice when the camera shifts from one character to another? Can you tell the difference between a close-up and a wide shot? When these techniques are used well, they look natural. But when they’re done poorly, it can be distracting and distracting.
Here’s an overview of some common cinematic techniques for documentaries:
- Steadicam shots – This is a shot with a fluid motion that follows the characters as they move around a scene. Think of car chases in thrillers or action films. They create tension and excitement for the audience; they generally don’t work well in documentaries if done overmuch because they create too much drama and give the impression that something exciting is happening (when often you need to let the on-screen drama carry the burden).
- Wide-angle lenses – Wide-angle lenses allow filmmakers to capture more in their images. The choice of framing and angle is important, for these shots to be used to their maximum potential. Beare, for example, of too much foreground – unless your intention is to convey emptiness and lack of visual interest.
- Frame subjects in their environment – When framing subjects in their environment, it’s important for filmmakers to include not only what’s directly in front of them, but also what’s behind them and on either side so that viewers get an idea of where we’re geographically in relation to our subject (for example. For example, if someone who lives near the beach happens to come across trash floating on the water, this would say something about how close or far away he/she lives from the land). It’s also important to understand that deciding what to extrude can strongly influence the impact of a shot.
- Archival footage from previous projects or other sources – Using archival footage helps filmmakers bring history into their projects by showing historical events alongside new footage from today.
Dynamic Filmmaking Tips to Keep in Mind
For documentary filmmakers, the techniques of filmmaking can seem intimidating.
Many people associate the word “documentary” with dry and dryly humorous documentaries about nature or history. But there are many other types of documentaries. These types of documentaries use cinematic techniques to tell a story in a series of scenes and sequences.
Stay alive to:
- What kind of shots are used?
- What’s the framing?
- Is archival footage used, and if so, how effectively?
- How does the camera move? Does it glide smoothly or is it unsteady? Does it pan from left to right or move up and down?
- Are there close-ups and extreme close-ups of people’s faces that can be very effective when they’re talking about personal experiences or are emotional in some way? And if so, how often do you see them?
- Crucially, how is lighting used? Natural light? Contralight? Contrast lighting?
- What effect do the cinematographic choices have on you as a viewer?
- When interviewing people who speak outdoors, how well is the sound captured by the microphones; does their voice transmit well over wind noise because we can hear them clearly without background noise interfering with their words?To make a successful documentary, you need to follow certain guidelines:
- Make sure your film is interesting enough to be promoted.
- Get your footage in order so that it’s properly edited.
- Shoot enough footage for sufficient coverage, and then try some early editing to find out what works best, and flush out any problems early on in the overall shoot.
- Write a compelling cutting script for your documentary production.
- What you learn in film school is great, but the real test comes on a live location with a story unfolding before your eyes! That’s the moment when you sometimes have to take very rapid decision.