5 Ways (or Devices) to Tell Someone’s Story

What I am about to give to you should not be considered a list of the different types of stories that we tell in documentary. These are not the various storytelling techniques that we employ as documentary filmmakers, like personal docs, re-creations, or observational. Instead, this is merely 5 tips or suggestions for telling someone else’s story. Often our documentary films are about one chief subject or character. And this is a list of 5 Ways (or Devices) in which to tell that someone’s story.


1. Archival Photos/Footage

One storytelling device that is a tried and true method for telling someone’s story is through the use of archival photos or footage. The first and maybe most obvious filmmaker that comes to mind, might be the filmmaker, Ken Burns. Any of his various documentary series about the music form jazz, the sport of baseball, or recently, the Vietnam War, all of these rely very heavily on the use of archival photos/footage. But he might be a bit of an extreme example since it feels like 90 percent of his stories are often told through the use of archival. And certainly his films are very history-focused.

But what I’m more talking about is the documentary that is about another person. The point that I’d like to make here is that when telling the story of someone, old photographs or super 8 films, are a great way to depict the story of someone’s past without, perhaps, having to re-create it yourself. There is a beautiful authenticity to the use of someone’s personal collection of photos or home movies that can really connect the viewer to a subject.


2. Testimonials

Another great way in which to tell someone’s story is by letting others tell the story of your subject. Testimonials are a wonderful way to have others speak to you the life lived of your subject. Entertaining anecdotes, remembrances of their relationship with the subject, words that talk to the character of the person that your film is about, are all reasons for using testimonials.

It’s one thing to hear a person talk about their own life, but that is simply one perspective. Getting the perspectives of other people, can really help flesh out the story of someone’s life in a more complex manner.

Think of it this way: would you rather see a film about you being told by your voice and your voice only? Or would you like to have others give their fresh and unique perspective on how they see you? I, for one, would most definitely choose the latter. I hear myself talk too much as it is, so to hear someone else’s take on my life would be a rather illuminating way in which to hear about my story… for better or for worse.


3. Find the Details

Sometimes the most telling moments are the ones in which the subject is completely unaware of being filmed. Or when the camera is pointed in an entirely different direction than you might have imagined. Or the director or editor is showing us something about the subject that couldn’t necessarily come out in their own words or someone else’s tutorials.

You and your DP – or perhaps you may be one and the same – should look for the deeper visual details that can tell aspects to a person and/or their story. Perhaps the exterior of their house is immaculate. The gardens are not just kept up, they are beautifully manicured. The house looks like its always wearing a fresh coat of paint. However, once the interior of the house is revealed, a different story is told, as things are in disarray. Dirty clothes and food wrappers are on the floor. The bathroom drawers are open and items are spilled out on to the sink, which clearly has not been cleaned in ages.

Take the time to study your subject. Their manner of speaking. Maybe non-verbals. Where do they place their keys when they come in the house. When and what do they eat? What are their early morning rituals? Are there any habits that they have long become unaware of? Do they do the crossword puzzle every day? Do they put on certain types of music during certain times of the day?

It’s the details that can really shine a light on what makes a person tick and how they tick. So try and always be conscious and take note of these sorts of things, because they will often be a wonderful way to help paint the overall picture of a person.


4. Become the Explorer

In one of our very early episodes of the podcast we spoke with documentary filmmaker, Ian McCluskey. Ian gave one of the more powerful and thoughtful discussions on what it means to be a documentary filmmaker and to live the life of a documentary filmmaker. You might remember him talking about the documentary filmmaker as an explorer. He said, “First and foremost you are explorers, you are expeditioners who happen to be documenting life.”

Not unlike finding the details about your subject, I believe that it is your duty and your privilege as a documentary filmmaker, especially when telling someone’s story, to become the explorer. Look at the story that you are setting out to tell as an opportunity to get in and truly explore who this person is, what makes them tick, how they have lived the life that they lived. Investigate and dare I say, infiltrate your subject’s very life. Because it is only in this investigation, infiltration, and thorough exploration, that discovery can happen. And once discovery can happen for you, it can then happen for your viewer.

Think of it in the way that Ian McCluskey does…

“I just keep taking this path and it presents itself project by project with new ways to explore the world and new experiences to have.”

So yeah, get out there filmmaker, and explore.


5. Silence is Okay

The last recommendation that I’ll leave you with, in terms of telling someone’s story, is to allow for silences. Not just when conducting your interviews – and we’ve mentioned this in the past, how giving space instead of filling up those spaces with your comments and replies, can allow for the subject to say something maybe more telling than the answer to your initial question. But I’m not necessarily talking about that kind of silence, though I suppose it’s some of it.

I’m talking more about not filling your film up with actual sound. Not having to use music or soundbytes or any kind of sound to constantly keep a viewer engaged or to emote a certain emotion. Sometimes just showing the visuals of your subject – whether it be archival photos or filming a moment of contemplation – can be a very potent and powerful way of revealing something hidden deep within your character.

Other moments that come to mind when employing silence?

When you’re watching a film and you hear the interviewer ask a particularly sensitive or surprising question and the subject is completely caught off guard and so instead of replying with something, you just see the reaction on their faces. They may be at a loss for words. That moment, played out on screen, without the use of a music cue for emotion or the interviewer interrupting the moment with a word or two… that is the kind of silent moment that can be very telling.

Or perhaps in your edit, you are cutting together a montage of photos and you are slowly panning and scanning, to reveal story or emotion in this fashion. Without any voiceover or music. Just some silent moments with visuals… again, it can be a powerful way to tell the story of someone.


How are you telling the stories of your subjects? What techniques do you employ to convey the message and emotion you’re trying to evoke? Share with us in the comments below.


Host and TDL Founder, Chris G Parkhurst

Chris is a documentary filmmaker and the founder and host of The Documentary Life, a platform which aims to inform and inspire documentary filmmakers from around the globe.

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