What Goes into Making a Good Short Documentary?

During my research into what we should be looking at trying to do for our short documentary film, I found out 3 things that stuck with me about what goes into making a good documentary film.

  1. Research Into The Topic – Makes sense, really, and quite obvious but, if this step isn’t done, a documentary is going to be pretty bad with only limited knowledge of the subject by the film’s creators.
  2. Outline – A documentary doesn’t need to have a script that needs to be stuck to but, it definitely should have an outline of what is trying to be achieved. This outline is what will keep you, as a film-maker, on the right path to getting the film done in the way it was meant to be. According to Tanner Shinnick in his blog article on Premium Beat:

    an effective outline provides you with essentially a North Star during your production. These guiding principles, detailed through your outline, help ensure your film always stays on course, even when things begin to change up.

  3. Not just the what, but also the way – Some documentaries are probably ok if they are all about what someone does but they can become a bit boring after a while if they’re all about what is done and how it’s done. To add depth and meaning to a film, it’s a good starting point to look at why someone does what it is they do. This also adds an element of emotion to a film, and that’s what helps to engage an audience and keep them engaged.

Are We Realising These Elements in Our Film?

I believe we are realising these elements within our film. Firstly, the research has been done into the subject matter as we both consider ourselves to have a knowledge of photography. We have differing levels of knowledge and experience within the field but, I’d say we’re equipped enough to make a film about this particular medium.

We’re also informed enough on the chosen subject for the film seeing as he’s both appearing in it and helping with the interview/editing ideas.

As for the outline of the film, we’ve thought about this and have decided we want to show the subject doing what he does on set in a studio and out on location. We feel that the film will start with him talking about who he is and what he does, but it won’t dwell on this as we also want to get to the reason why he does it.

The studio and location footage and stills that will be used in the film will help to guide and inform the viewer more than just footage of the subject talking in an office would.

As already stated, we intend to delve a bit deeper into why Chris likes to do photography rather than just how he does it. This is to, hopefully, make the film a bit more interesting to a few more people.

What Type of Documentary Are There?

According to documentary theorist, Bill Nicholls, there are different documentary modes.

  1. Poetic – This is considered a biased mode where a more subjective look at a topic is done.
  2. Expository – This is where the narrator or subject speaks directly to the viewers. The use of footage and still images are used to strengthen what is being said to give the viewer a better understanding of the topic being discussed.
  3. Observational – This is a more unbiased mode of documenting a topic/subject through the use of an unobtrusive camera(s) to document the activities. This way, the footage does the talking and allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions.
  4. Participatory – Here, the documenter has to have an influence on the proceedings of the film. This can be done by the documenter being in it.
  5. Reflexive – This mode, from my understanding of it, is one that I hate. It’s the TOWIE style of constructed ‘documentary’ that certain people can’t decide if it’s real or fake. For some bizarre reason, this mode is still very successful.
  6. Performative – This final mode is one that tells a story with some facts thrown in. It is often used to tell the story of the filmmaker themselves.

What Type of Documentary is Our Film?

From what I’ve researched, I would suggest that our short documentary “Photography and Me” falls into the Expository and Observational modes.

I come to this conclusion due to the fact that it’s Chris talking about himself to the viewer as he informs them about who is, what he does, and why he does it; this gives us the Expository mode. It’s also got elements of the Observational mode as it’s footage from time spent with him on set, as well as the resulting images from those photoshoots.

My research into some short documentaries available for viewing (below) has taught me to get into the questions a desire to find out why the subject does what it is they are talking about. I think we’ve managed this in our short film has Chris talks about when and who got him into photography as well as him hinting at why it’s only now that he’s taking steps towards becoming a professional (family and real-life). These are all human factors that people would seem to be interested in. The film also shows a behind-the-scenes look at what he goes through to get a shot which, again, makes him ‘real’ and the same as everyone else. This is also what people want to see in this kind of biography of a ‘real’ person. Other people would want to see the larger than life characters and celebrities but, as our proposal states, we’re aiming our film at people who have an interest in the person himself or in photography as a hobby or potential career.

Film Research

The first short documentary film I watched is titled: Lost But Not Forgotten. It’s about a man who grew up on the island of St Kildan but who, along with the rest of its inhabitants, had to move off it to the mainland in the 1930s. The film shows us that the main subject, the man, is struggling to come to terms with the move and he longs to return to the island where he was so happy. He tells us that he’s struggling to adapt to the new world he now lives and that he does actually want to adapt to it.

To me, this film is done in the performative style as it is telling us a story and has obviously set up scenes, such as when he’s stood in the kitchen and frantically searching for his photographs as he realises his memories of the old place are fading.

This looks like a lot of time and expense went into making this film and I enjoyed watching it. The whole emotional aspect of documentaries I mentioned earlier is definitely evident within the film and do, indeed, draw us into its content.

The aerial shots of the location really drive home to the viewer that this is a beautiful location but is very remote and could be a difficult place for people to be self-sufficient. The shots of the water also help to reinforce the remoteness of the place. 

Although the film is done as a story about the man, the photographic images and text overlay at the end conclude it perfectly as being about a true-life situation people had to face and it suddenly turns from a documentary told in an acted-out story way to one of a factual documentary. This reinforces the fact that it’s a film about a real-life group of people.

One of the other films I watched and enjoyed was “Bumblebees”. This, again, I’d put in the performative category as it’s a story about a guy with disabilities that he explains to us via a voiceover whilst acting out scripted scenes to the camera. I believe, from looking at the comments below the film on Vimeo, that the subject is the brother of the filmmaker.

The film starts off telling us about how bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly due to their body size to wing size ratio but, that they can. It then relates this to the subject of the film and the fact that he too has beaten the odds and can walk, talk, read and write. This is the emotional heart-warming aspect that should go into this type of film with it being about a particular person. It also has humour in it with several scenes. My favourite was the scene where he says his date would bring a balloon so that he could find her. It then cuts (with comedy timing) to a scene of her stood in an empty field on her own holding a red balloon. Lots of emotion within this one that obviously worked looking at the number of views and what has been written in the comments section.

Perhaps my favourite of the short documentary films I watched is “Pat – A Documentary Short” by Nathaniel Hansen. Yet again, it uses an emotional slant to help the engagement of the viewer and the music it uses helps with this, whilst not being overpowering.

I like the opening of slowly zooming into the shop front then reversing it to zooming out from within the shop. This lets us know what kind of shop it is and that we’re inside. The start of the film lets us know what she does in her day-to-day life before moving on to remind us that we should never judge a book by its cover and that we just don’t know who some of these people are and what they’ve done in their past that we mingle with.

The use of still images with the Ken Burns effect appears briefly in this film (as it does in many of the films I watched for this assignment) along with close-up, intimate shots of Pat in her shop as she looks directly into the camera. The over-the-shoulder style look at the photographs she talks about, whilst she’s talking about them, also works really well.

The camera work is of a more personal nature as it would appear to have been done hand-held. This adds positively to the film as I think it works much better than a more polished, steady, artsy filmed production. It just seems to add to the intimacy of it.

What Have I Taken From My Research

Well, to start, I’ve learnt that there are different modes of documenting a person or subject. I’m still to fully grasp the different modes but I do feel that a lot of the documentary films made could be said to fall into more than one category.

Without a doubt, the main thing I’ve taken from these films is that having a degree of emotional content would appear to be the order of the day to get the viewer engaged in a documentary about a person. It shouldn’t just be about the what, but also about the why.

The use of still images within a film is often accompanied by the Ken Burns effect of slowly moving around the image; usually a slow zoom into it.

Cutting away from the interview to footage or stills whilst the subject carries on talking helps to inform the viewer more. Some people react and absorb more information through visuals rather than from someone talking to them.

I’ve also learnt that a film is perhaps best at it’s shortest version of itself so long as all the information is in there. Extra-long scenes could turn viewers off…literally.

Reference List

Shinnick, T. (2019). 5 Tips on How to Create a Great Short Documentary Film. [Online]. Available from: https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/5-tips-for-great-short-documentary/ (Accessed: 6th April 2020).