Documentary or Narrative… Everything should point towards the story you’re telling. A good doc has the ability to immerse the viewer in a world of; heros and villains, drama and comedy, life and love. Here are few tips from Filmmaker Magazine on how to improve your next documentary project.
1) Talking heads should be used as spice – not as the whole meal. Unless your protagonist is Slavoj Žižek or Speed Levitch-level entrancing, your characters’ spoken words are probably what’s most riveting. So show us images onscreen that are equally fascinating, that will add to those words and broaden our understanding (rather than merely giving a visual repeat of what we’re already hearing).
2) Dispense with narcissism. For the activist doc-maker, realize that an “important issue” is important – to you. Universalize and personalize so that your film can reach beyond the converted. (The Invisible War is a deft example of doing so. Why should I, a civilian, care about rape in the military, when there are so many other issues closer to my experience? Because, according to Kirby Dick’s exceptional film, these rapists who get off scot-free eventually return to civilian life – and into my and your metaphorical backyard.)
3) Just like with fiction work, the directing must serve the story. This means that if your subject is a punk rock band, for example, the filmmaking should be equally “punk rock.” (See tip number one.) The style should give us an entire sensory feel for the subject or subjects. It’s not enough to point and shoot – and expect your characters to do your job for you.
4) Realize that doc-making has entered the mainstream. Michael Moore discovered decades ago that the more you entertain, the more eyes and ears – and hearts and minds – your message will reach. View your film as competing against the latest Hollywood blockbuster, not the latest TED Talk.
5) With this in mind, know your market. Theatrical release has long been regarded as the holy grail – yet most docs just can’t fill a 21st-century screen. Better to be big on the small screen than small on the big screen. (Not to mention the small screen is where the future is at.)