Monday, January 9, 2012

On Making a Documentary

Documentary film in Zanzibar Tanzania
Image by Zanzibar Car Hire via Flickr
Of course, documentaries have a certain way of manifesting themselves. You have some common elements - a very high-quality, "I hear it like it's right there"-effect audio voiceover, lots of miscellaneous shots of the interviewees walking around and doing other inane things like lifting their finger or raising an eyebrow, random music cues done to make the best out of long-winded shots that are necessary for the documentary to have any point as an informative piece ... well, you get the idea.

When I did my first-ever, almost feature length documentary - A Serpent's Tale, a documentary my school's band and color guard, I had a lot of moments in which making the film didn't feel the same way making a documentary should feel. Having worked on other (however, shorter) documentary style pieces since then, I've found that making a documentary should be like writing a term paper - you go through the motions of ensuring your information is correct, accurately and concisely presented, and most of all well organized and interesting; and after that you start chopping up your voiceover and playing with music cues and video FX in order to spice up those staid scenes or in order to add some welcome flair to what is otherwise a research paper on a television screen.
Image by diogro via Flickr

But when I was making A Serpent's Tale, I felt like I'd skipped that first part and gone straight to the second: in other words, I was in that "how do I make this fun and cool to watch on a TV screen" part way before I was supposed to. Namely, it was because, by the documentary being focused on a non-concrete subject (try the illegal immigration situation in the United States versus just "South Miami Senior High School Band and Color Guard"), going through the motions of presenting valid and well-told information wasn't really supposed to crop up to begin with. Call it a poor choice of documentary subject, or perhaps a poor level of storytelling prowess ... either way, I'm glad that I stuck it through to the end in order to be able to have this realization now.
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