6 Ways to Open your Documentary Film

Hope you find this helpful in both planning and editing your documentary.  Look forward to seeing you here in San Francisco for one of our workshops.

Aron Ranen  Instructor DVworkshops
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SIX DOCUMENTARY OPENINGS  from DVworkshops.com class material
  • The film opens right in the middle of full scale action.  This can be a television news report, your subject in the middle of a altercation, an arrest, a birth, a wedding, a sales call, a radio talk show..a dramatic moment from your footage, perhaps the best stuff you have.
  • Many fiction movies open with dramatic cold openings..grab your attention... then work backwards in the story telling.  You can use this in documentary.
  • When you are watching your footage, DO NOT get stuck in the LOGIC mode..be open to the ENTERTAINMENT MODE.  Don't bury your best stuff at the end of your film..just because it doesn't make "logical sense" to put it up front..TRY IT.... YOU CAN DO IT!
  • It is easy to "back story" out of a cold opening, you simply entertain your audience with your story question...How did this character/subject end up in this situation?...During this movie you will show us... and we will watch...to see the answer to your story question.
( Moving this scene from the middle of the film to the open helped set up my story question)

In Summary. A cold opens acts as an attention grabber and It offers you an opportunity to put your best material up front.
  • "Sound-ups" are quick interview clips, from a number of different people... at the top of your film....Some editors like to intersperse images/music between these interview segments. 
  • For Example.  Your documentary has five main subjects..you grab an on-camera Interview clip from each person, than edit them one after another....some editors may place images/sound between them to allow "breathing room" between each person's statement.
  • Many editors don't even show the faces of these quick sound bites, they just layer the interview clip's audio under other images (scenic images, an event unfolding etc..).
In Summary, Sound-Ups are a great way to introduce your story AND the characters in your documentary..use this if you have great on-camera personalities, and/or amazing verbal content.
  • In class I joke about this...calling it the DIRTY RIVER OPENING...because you can take a helicopter shot of a dirty river...throw music and titles over it...and people love it.
  • Never underestimate the power of the image...if your film has stunning visuals, or deep emotional shots... opening with music, and visuals will set your mood and story question expectations.
  • Footage slowed down can be very effective in these openings...dissolving your text over this....XYZ Productions presents....A film by....Directed by......all over nice Slo-Mo images.
In Summary,  Displaying your graphics & titles over images and music works 99% of the time..but try other stuff too.

  • Don't want to give away your movie at the beginning?
  • ..you can seduce people into your story question.  Like an outstretched hand gesturing for the viewer to come forward....you begin with slow fade up from black.. reveal a glimpse of an image, fade to black again.. than slowly fade up to another detail... without showing the big picture..than you reveal the full scene.. and you have successfully drawn the viewer in... with out using a hammer approach.
  • For example you can begin with details from a fashion show...heels on the carpet...a spray of hair relaxer....nervous hands in a close up...then close up of a hand on the sound board as it pumps up the volume and you reveal the models coming out on the catwalk.
  • FOR EXAMPLE In the documentary MAYA LIN:  A STRONG CLEAR VISION , which examines the architect of tithe Vietnam memorial.  The director Freida Lee Mock creates a emotional open with slow mo close ups of people crying.. flowers in hands....men on crutches. people hugging, a finger on the memorial...than it reveals the wide shot of the memorial itself

In Summary, The slow reveal is a way to seduce your viewer into your documentary instead of using a hammer approach....BUT REMEMBER BOTH WORK..  it all depends on how you want to treat the documentary material. 

  5. Quote at the beginningled

  • Using simple white text on black background is an elegant way to begin a documentary.  A famous or obscure quote can immediately set the stage for your documentary , and it gets the viewer involved RIGHT AWAY...which is a good thing...
  • What makes this effective is the viewer hears their own inner voice as they are reading it.
  • You can combine this opening with the four above and it works well with all of them.  Think about it...is there a quote you think sets up your movie's Story Question.
In Summary, using a witty, thoughtful or emotional quote can help involve the viewer  from the first seconds of your film, and help establish the story question.


  • Jammed packed with cliches, these mindless dribbles of script keep giving documentary as an art form a bad name.  Scripted in florescent lit office buildings in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley, these underpaid documentary producer / writers  struggle just not to offend anyone... and keep logic on their side...4 people may review their work, and anything original is generally shunned.
  • Narration often begins 1 and a half seconds into the program (after title sequence).  In a matter of fact way it DESCRIBES EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE SEEING ON THE SCREEN...we call it hear/see documentary writing.  It is often combined with Sound-ups.
  • When scripting these the narration is on the left side of the page, and the producer notes the corresponding images on the right...Than crews are hired to shoot footage and interviews to fit the script. Archivists play a large role in helping acquire footage to fit the needs of these scripts.
In Summary, cable TV is a beast that devours programs.  Los Angeles production companies churn this material out..it is easier/cost effective to match visuals to a script than to find a story after months or years of shooting.

  1. Cold Open
  2. Sound-Ups
  3. Visual Montage
  4. Slow Reveal
  5. Quote
  6. Cable TV Open
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