How To Make Your Documentary Film Standout

Want your documentary film to stand out? We’ve put together a list of ways in which we think we can help it do just that! Also these ideas can probably be employed to produce a better trailer or fundraising film too.


1. Aerial Shots

As much as I, in some ways, wanted to avoid putting this on the list, for fear of everyone going out and buying a drone and filling every other frame of their film with these shots, it would be irresponsible of me not to acknowledge the power of aerials. Nowadays to us independent filmmakers, more commonly known as drone shots. We’ve all seen them now, even the giant news corporations like the BBC or Al Jazeera have drone teams that use these shots in order to make their news reports more impressive.

The aerial shot has been made accessible to us documentary filmmakers, just like the wide sweeping landscape shots or crane movements that had once been reserved for bigger budget Hollywood movies. And there’s just something about an aerial shot that, when done right, and employed in the right fashion in one’s film, can really give the feeling of the film (and its content) being bigger in scope.

Now, when not done right, or when it’s used for a large percentage of a film, it can often give the opposite effect. It can be that the filmmaker is a bit of an amateur who believes that he and his $800 drone, doing overhead shots of sexy beaches and young white people partying on Thai islands, is far more important than whatever story he was supposedly promising to tell you. You know what I call those? Travel videos. Not documentary films. And there’s a great place for those kinds of videos. And it’s not on Netflix or the cinema. Or your documentary grant application. It’s called Youtube. And if you’re a fan of these videos, well, that’s totally fine, and you’re in luck, as there are about 3 million to choose from.

So make sure when you want to have aerials in your film or your fundraising piece that you are very intentional when, where, and how you place them. Do not overtax your film with these impressive shots, otherwise, they’ll by virtue of oversaturation, risk losing their impressiveness.

Also, consider simply hiring someone to get the kinds of shots that you want, instead of going out and buying your own drone. I know that may not sound as fun or glorifying as whizzing around with your quad copter getting all of those amazing looking 4k shots. But the truth of the matter is, if you don’t have the time that’s required to learn how to properly fly a drone and collect beautiful aerials, you might be sorely disappointed at the results when you take a look at your dailies. It’s not nearly as straightforward as you might think. It might, in fact, be more time efficient and cost effective to hire out a professional to collect those drone shots for you. Oh, and should you ever need someone in Asia to do this, let me know, I’ve an amazing aerials cinematographer for you. His name is Patrick and he did the aerials for Elvis of Cambodia!


2. Original Score

My second suggestion for Making Your Documentary Standout deals with music for your film. It’s true that there are plenty of inexpensive and even some free options available out there –and I’ve used plenty over the years on smaller projects or pieces – but I’m going to argue that you look into getting original score made for your film.

I cannot overstate how this will set your doc film apart from others.

Too many employ the copyright free route (I talk about the various differences and uses of public domain, royalty-free, and creative commons here), but having your own original music that is specifically made for the scenes of your film can truly separate your film from the others.

I remember when I was doing the final edit for Journey to Kathmandu and I was placing original score, which was created by Portland Oregonian musicians Samuel Ross and Jared Jensen, into my timeline. I was essentially replacing temporary tracks that I’d had in various forms of the edit for about three years. When I was doing this and watching scenes with the proper score in place, it knocked my documentary filmmaking socks off.

My film was suddenly transformed into something for more impressive, far more, dare I say filmic, than even I’d ever hoped for. Some of the visuals practically leapt off the screen and into my heart. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? But as much as I sound like I’m over-dramatizing this, I truly was blow away by the emotional weight that the original score had given my baby.

There’s just something about having an original score made for your visuals and your story, that is one of the most refreshing and brilliant (not to mention underappreciated) aspects of your documentary film.

Think how those long takes in Koyaanisqatsi might be without those organ notes of Philip Glass. Or how the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir might be without the magic of Max Richter.

For more, check out our episode with film music composer Peter Broderick.


3. Depth of Field in Interview

This is a bit more specific that some of the above. It’s about depth of field in your interviews. I’ve already talked about the importance of the documentary interview and ways in which to make it better (podcast episode and blog article) so I won’t bore you with re-hashing it here. Instead I wanted to give you something a bit more detailed, and that I know will help visually set your film apart from others.

When you can – and you should really try and do this is often as possible, though with more roving camera cinema verite stuff it’s going to be less appropriate – you should always try and achieve some depth of field in your interviews.

Even if you think that you’ll only see the visual portion from the interview a small amount in the actual film, depth of field will separate your interview from a lot of documentary interviews because, for one, a number of documentaries are still being shot with fixed lens cameras, like hand held camcorders or even the older more expensive prosumer cameras which all cameras that do not have the option of interchangeable lenses. Of course, dslr cameras have really changed the landscape with their ability to interchange lenses at will, but nonetheless it’s important to remember that regardless of your camera or lens capabilities you should always try and purposely play with depth of field.

For example, in many of my earlier docs, because I was using a prosumer camera like the SONY V1U or the Panasonic HVX 200, I didn’t easily have the option of using different lenses with different focal lengths – unless I wanted to buy an add-on adaptor like the Letus35 Ultimate Lens Adaptor – so I had to get creative. There some different ways to achieve depth of field when using a camera with a fixed lens, but generally, I simply tried to make sure that my subject was a decent distance from a cool and appropriate-looking background and then I would open up my fstops all the way. Of course, if you were outside in order to do this, you would have to put on some ND filters, otherwise you would simply have an over exposed image.

With a camera that gives you the option of interchanging lenses, your work is a little easier, because you have different focal lengths of lenses to choose from. Do you want to use a 35mm? 50mm? A 70mm? But really, the idea is still the same, when it comes to your fstops. The more you open them up, the more separation you create with your subject and anything in the foreground and background.

And that, of course is ultimately, the whole idea by creating this really nice looking depth of field. You’re trying to make it so that everything is not in focus. You’re trying to give weight and importance to your interview subject. In particular with camcorders and other fixed lens-type cameras, unless you do some of the above, you will get that pretty flat all-in-focus look that can make your interviews and your interviewees a bit less impressive.

Give depth of field to your interviews also just gives a more professional, more polished, more filmic look period. In cinema, we are accustomed to not seeing everything in focus – unless of course it’s a landscape shot or something – we are accustomed to the director or the DP showing us what they want us to see. It’s all part of the language of cinema, right? So employing these same ideas and techniques in your documentaries is simply using the language of cinema… and therefore you’ll hopefully be achieving similar results.


4. Make a Shot List

Next on the list is making a shot list – through your research of your film and its subject and through meeting some of its key players, through the manifesting that’s done behind your eyelids a la famous editor Walter Murch’s approach of editing a film, you will surely have come up with some pretty killer ideas for shots.

Write them down. And as soon as you think of them. No matter where you are. Because nine times out of ten, when you’re out somewhere and you’re thinking about your film, its often times attached to an ingenious idea for a shot. And if you don’t write it down, you may forget this bit of amazingness. So start making a list of these shots.

And yes, of course, many of your shots are going to be sparked by interviews conducted with your main subjects, but we have a word for that… Broll. I’m not necessarily talking about Broll here.

I’m talking about the kinds of epic shots that are going to best tell the emotional core of your story and can be used in their own sequences – perhaps even in a metaphorical way, seemingly unattached to an actual story thread from your film.

These might be moving shots, achieved with a Fisher dolly and tracks or something more portable like a pocket dolly. Or maybe its a crane shot that starts up higher on a building and lands on a person. Or maybe there’s no movement at all. Perhaps it’s a lockoff timelapse of a brilliant desert beneath a New Mexico sky. Whatever the case, planning shots beforehand allows you the ability to really ponder the look and feel of your film, as opposed to the typical way of shooting an interview and then grabbing Broll based on content of that interview.


5. Pre-script Your Characters

The final recommendation that I have for making your documentary film standout is probably going to surprise you. It deals with scriptwriting. And the approach of scripting out your characters before you actually find them. I know, it sounds counter-intuitive to the process of which most of us documentary filmmakers are familiar with: simply grabbing your camera and getting out there to find the story.

I mean, yes, we generally have an idea for a documentary film before we start shooting it, but I’m talking about actually figuring out the kinds of characters or the archetypes, if you will, beforehand, a sort of guide-sheet that will then allow you to find the people who will best fit those archetypes. It’s sometimes the nature of documentary filmmaking, as I said, to simply pick up the camera and start rolling on people and places, in hopes of discovering the story and the story’s characters in this fashion. But I’m suggesting that if you can build out the characters beforehand, you will actually save yourself in inordinate amount of time filming. Not to mention drive space. Which means money. And time in the editing room. Which means money.

A typical way in which I might do this – and we definitely have done this with our current project Elvis of Cambodia – is to, through the time and effort put into research and maybe carving out what we anticipate the film might be about – is to get some idea of the key players involved with the topic of our film. And from there, starting to figure out what the protagonists and antagonists might be like that are involved in the film’s subject. What are the story archetypes that might give your film a more interesting feel to it.

Simply put: what might the bad guys and the good guys and the really interesting guys and the quirky guys… what might they look like in your film and its story? And then from there, you can go back to your list of people that you’ve earmarked as the key players in your film’s subject matter and see if you can’t get a match. Once you’ve pared this list down, you can then begin meeting with and filming your characters. Hopefully, this will save you time and money that would have otherwise been spent simply going out with your camera and searching for the characters who would best tell your story concept.


How do you plan to make your documentary film stand out? What tips, tricks and techniques do you enjoy using to give your film an extra sense of style and professionalism? Let us know 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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