The crew is the backbone of every successful documentary film. There are a variety of positions within a documentary crew, and usually, the crew will consist of two to five people.
A typical documentary crew, or film crew, comprises a director, camera operator, and sound recordist. The director of a documentary is responsible for the overall vision of the film production and works with the producer to ensure all aspects of the project run smoothly. The camera operator uses a number of tools to capture the footage that will become part of the documentary. The sound recordist is responsible for capturing the location audio.
The Difference Between Documentary Crew on Location and Other Staff
Although the most visible part of documentary production is the crew on location – we all think of the classic scene of a director, a camera operator, and a sound recordist (usually with headphones, a mixer bag, and a boom pole) – the fact is that there is a raft of people involved who are important to the success of a documentary film who operate behind the scenes.
In the professional documentary world, documentary crew roles usually include a producer, executive producer, production coordinator, production manager, film editor, archive researcher, and various postproduction specialists.
Plus, very importantly, a researcher or assistant producer who is the crew member responsible for the journalism and research of a film. Important because the foundation stone of every good documentary is thorough research.
A documentary director is the most important film crew position and film crew member because he or she sets the priorities, direction, and creative tone of the film at all stages of the production.
The Roles of Documentary Crew at Various Stages of Production
Before Production (Pre Production)
Documentary films typically take months or even years to raise funding before they go into production and are slated for broadcast or distribution. There are numerous stages that a documentary can go through.
Very often, a researcher or director will hear about a story and then pursue it sufficiently to establish whether or not it might turn into a documentary film worth making. Usually, this means doing an initial run of research to check out the story, discover and contact the principal people involved, see whether access can be gained to the story. Plus also check whether someone has already done a similar film, or whether one is already in progress.
Other times, a broadcaster, network, or production company will have a story that they wish to develop and make, and hire a researcher or director to pursue it.
Assuming that the story checks out, and some access can be gained, the director or researcher will usually approach a producer, production company, or even a commissioning editor direct with a proposal.
The two principal decision-makers at this stage are the producer and the commissioning editor. The producer has to decide whether the project is marketable, and assess funding and distribution options.
The commissioning editor, once approached, has to assess whether the project fits within the overall strategy and slots of their employer. Eventually, the commissioning editor will be the main client for the film, responsible for approving final delivery.
As the project progresses through pre-production, others will get involved. Mainly the broadcaster (if the film is made in-house) or the production company’s head of production to draw up an initial budget. This becomes part of the proposal for the film and forms part of pitching documents as funding is sought in various places.
Once a project has been green-lit and funds have been raised, the director, producer, and researcher will meet to decide on plans for production.
There will usually be a period of further research and development before any kind of filming or video production takes place. This is very important in order to cast the documentary – in other words, to choose the people who will appear in it. Plus also investigate important aspects of the story that will then work their way into the shooting plan and script.
Sometimes for larger productions, a trailer is needed for film festivals and as a teaser to help raise funds, therefore location crew (camera operator, sound recordist) and a video editor will get involved at an early stage.
Prior to principal filming, the executive producer and director will normally review the state of preparedness for the project and agree on the main schedule and targets. At this stage, the principal film crew positions are hired and brought on board.
On location scouting and filming is probably the most fun, and hard, part of the overall production process. Aside from editing, which we’ll get to in a moment.
Although documentary budgets have been ruthlessly chomped down over the years, it is still usual practice for the researcher to accompany the director, camera operator, and sound recordist (production sound mixer) on location. Even overseas.
Sometimes, due to budget reasons, the camera operator has to also handle the sound recording – almost always a mistake since it detracts from their most important job at hand. Lighting, composition, and camera movement while concurrently thinking about the visual sense and storytelling of every scene is more than enough for any human!
The role of a production assistant on location with the camera crew has all but disappeared in the face of budget cuts.
In partnership with the production manager or production coordinator, the director will design a shooting schedule, which will involve choosing the best location(s), crew, and scheduling meetings with key contributors.
Bad weather, sickness, and other circumstances can upset these plans, so it’s vital to remain flexible and adaptable.
Either the director or the researcher will normally conduct interviews with the participants, while the ‘crew’ (camera and sound) capture the material, and work with the director to get scenes and sequences that will work for the film.
Once back at base, the director will normally spend a few days or even weeks reviewing the material that has been shot on location, plus assessing various bits of film and photo archive that either the director, the researcher, or a specialist archive researcher has gathered.
This logging process of the digital media is critical in order to ensure a smooth edit.
Once the material is logged and transcribed, the director creates an editing (cutting) script which is used as the basis for the first batch of editing, done with a video editor.
It is almost always a bad idea for a director to edit his or her own films since it is hard to put emotional and psychological distance between experiences, relationships, and the sheer graft on location from choosing the best shots and ideas in editing.
Therefore, choosing a skilled and ethical film editor is vital. I’ve had the privilege of working with many great ones of the years, with only a handful of lackluster ones.
A First Assembly is done of the film, to knock the material into a very rough shape, before progressing to edit the Rough Cut. The Rough Cut is the most important stage of an entire documentary film project because it is the moment at which the film finds its first form and structure, and that needs to be approved by the executive producer and commissioning editor prior to proceeding to Fine Cut, postproduction and Delivery.
Once Fine Cut is approved, the film proceeds to Picture Lock – at which point no further changes to length should be made (although some shots will be changed in postproduction, and a lot is still to be done with sound, graphics, and so forth).
Although editing is part of the postproduction process, there are a series of steps that need to be done to deliver a professional documentary film.
Notably sound mixing, color correction (grading), captions, graphics, and narration (perhaps using a voice actor).
As postproduction gets underway, the director will normally be finishing the commentary script and making minor shot changes.
How Documentary and Drama Film Crews Differ
Budgets for documentary films are miserly compared to most drama and feature productions.
Therefore, you won’t see an assistant director, 1st AD, art director, production designer, script supervisor, costume designer, line producer, 1st AC (assistant camera), 2nd AC, camera assistant, location manager, set decorator, set designer, casting director, props, camera department, or one of a myriad of other crew that you find on a film set.
There is a much more creative and logistical onus on a documentary crew than their counterparts in the drama side of the film industry. Even for a documentary short film.
Which one the one hand is extremely challenging, but on the other means that a much greater creative input in the filmmaking process is made by those people that do participate in the process of making a documentary film.