Tips for a Dynamic Documentary

People often say that a good movie can change the way you see things by successfully presenting the world through another person’s eyes. This is especially true for documentaries. Documentaries are especially powerful because they seek to tell stories of real life, shattering stereotypes along the way. At Phase 3, we believe that the stories of the Caribbean especially deserve to be told—and are always proud when a superb documentary is filmed using our equipment!

Here are some useful tips to consider when shooting a documentary.

  • Consider the story. Is it appealing? Topical? Interesting? How enthusiastic are you about the story? Good stories generally follow the struggle between characters as they make their way through the world—will your story have any appealing dramatic tension?
  • Find inspiration. Of course, if you have never shot a documentary before, it makes sense to observe some pieces that really speak to you in order to find some inspiration. Take notes of what worked and what didn’t work, and use these to help guide technique and aesthetics.
  • Be patient! With documentaries, it’s impossible to have it all planned. You’re working to shed light on a real-life story—not one that you’ve written. This is why thorough preparation is key. Be as specific about your story as possible—this way you won’t find yourself lost halfway through production. Arrange test interviews with your subject/s, so that you understand what they’re comfortable with sharing and so that you get an idea of where the story can go. Make a storyboard but understand when to sit back and let the story take its course.
  • Be ethical and fair. With documentaries especially, a filmmaker has the duty to portray his subjects—and the issue—as fairly and as accurately as possible. This is definitely a sticky topic, as it’s easy to become so emotionally attached to your subject that you lose sight of the issue. How do you deal with a situation like this? For one thing, you need to decide beforehand whether the documentary will be told from an insider’s or outsider’s perspective. Don’t try to convince your viewer that you’re examining the topic through an unbiased lens when you know that you’re not. Also, treat all your interviewees with respect—even if you disagree with their opinions or actions.
  • Pay attention to how and what you shoot. Camera angles and movements can show so many things, depending on how you want your subject to be portrayed. They can show respect, sympathy, solidarity, or even antipathy. The goal is to agree on the documentary’s purpose and how you want your subject to be viewed, and to draw up some aesthetic rules to help guide others on your team. Another helpful tip is to shoot routine, mundane or low-intensity situations first in order to help your subject get used to the camera. This will help them to become used to their position as ‘actor.’
  • Don’t force your editing. Remember: don’t try to force your story to go in a certain direction when editing—it will show in your final product. Embrace the fact that your story may have taken an unexpected turn, and may have ended up as something you did not plan. Also, it’s important never to sacrifice a good story or feeling for something that is stylish or ‘pleasing’ to look at. Your documentaries ‘meat’ lies in the story of your protagonist/s—not in how well you shot it.
  • ….and lastly, have fun! You won’t be successful if you don’t enjoy what you’re filming or if you’re not passionate about it. Now go out and film!

If you have some more tips you’d like to add, feel free to tell us on our Facebook page or through Twitter.