Notes on documentary film making:
Script or no script
You can script your doc and have it narrated. This gives you the most
control over the material and the best quality of the audio (very
Or you can build your script as you go, doing observational coverage (verité style), or shooting interviews. In the latter case, transcribe all
your interviews, otherwise, on the screen the interviews roll by at 150 words per
minute and it is very hard to rewind to listen a second time, whereas
with a transcript you can skim over and use a highlighter and make
precise edits on paper very efficiently. You can also cut and paste on paper much more quickly than you can on a timeline.
Microphone or no microphone
USE A MICROPHONE!!!! Research has shown that we can tolerate a poor
image much more easily than poor sound. There are all kinds of
effects you can do to compensate for a mediocre image, not so with
substandard sound. There are three factors to consider to get good
• proximity: get your mic as close as you can. Ever notice in
recording studios and radio stations people have their mouth right up
to the mic?
• signal: get a strong signal but not too strong: if you have meters,
try to record at -12 Db. Use headphones and be sure that the signal
doesn’t get too hot and distort.
• noise: minimize the ambient noise in the room. Avoid echo-y spaces
with reflective surfaces. Listen carefully through the headphones to
get the best balance of signal to noise (using the gain or input levels on your recording device). When possible turn off all distracting sounds like refrigerators or fans. And NEVER record with music playing in the background (e.g. in a cafe) as it with totally muck up your edit as you try to cut into the background music.
Get the picture
Okay so then how should you shoot an interview? Try to use up the frame when you shoot an interview. This can be a stylistic consideration. The interviews in Dogtown and Z-Boys are very tight compared to say,
The Parking Lot Movie
but they both are composed nicely. Look at these examples to figure out your
compositional style. Make sure to compose with the interviewee
looking into the negative (empty) space.
Ask open-ended questions. For example, begin questions by saying “could you tell me about…” or “can you discuss” to avoid one or two word answers that are impossible to edit.
Practice questions first with someone you don’t intend to use in
your doc. That way you can both test your equipment and your
interviewing technique and not ruin an important interview.
Look at lots of docs for ideas. Here are some samples: