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The Five Elements of Documentary

1) Interviews

2) Cutaways

3) "Chill Footage"

4) Process Footage

5) Archive

1) Interviews

Frame the person using negative space, have them fill roughly 1/3 of the screen, on the left or right side. Make sure their "Gaze" is into the Negative space.

Leave room behind the subject, never interview someone right in front of a wall. Leave 4-15 feet between the subject and the wall, you will notice the person's shadow disappear from the wall. Watch out for reflections in people's glasses ,turn them away from facing the window to solve the problem.

The Background influences the way the person is perceived. When I walk in to shoot an interview, the first thing I do is look for a background that will reveal something about my subject. Build your questions from people's answers. repeat their last few words, ask "open ended questions" ( ones that can not be answered with a "Yes" or "No". For example, "Can you describe?", or "tell me about this...".

2) Cutaways

Cutaways: These are "Stand-alone" shots, similar to still photography.

Shoot tons of Cutaways, and you life will be easier in the editing room.. Cutaways can be store signs, close ups of ashtrays, a clock on the wall, people's faces, a candle, a shot of a highway. I always get shots of the exteriors of every place I film, and some neighborhood shots. I try and treat my cutaways like still photographs. This is the time you can squeeze some visual poetry out of documentary. Always keep your eyes open for little "shots" that evoke something about the truth of the situation you are filming. Hold your shots still..don't move the camera....you will make it "move" in the editing process by cutting many of these together. Record 8-12 seconds for each shot.

There are three basic types of Cutaways that I suggest you always search for.

  1. Story Telling Shots- Images of "Welcome to " signs, exterior shots of houses where interviews were filmed, Images of your character entering and leaving a building, Wide shots of Cities or towns from ontop of a hill or large building. These will allow you to tell your story with out always having to use a narrator ..That's why I call them story telling Cutaways.
  2. Emotional Cutaways- Since film has the unique ability to make people feel...the way to construct emotional sequences is to first film shots that have emotional content built into them. For example a solitary man sitting on a park bench...two people walking hand in hand...A close up of a hand while they are praying...shot of a candle ....incense burning...people hugging...
  3. General Coverage- These are very important..if you are filming a race car contest...you had better get shots of people watching the race...cheering...the hot dog stand...people lined up to get in...Ushers tearing ticket stubs at the entrance (close-ups)...people cooking out in the middle of the raceway...a close op of flags, loudspeakers and race track signage. You will need all of these....get lot's of general coverage shots or you will be sorry.
  4. GET CLOSE UPS- The theory of film editing includes the definition of what makes a good edit (Visual not content). Theory is that you can not edit together two wide shots filmed from the same angle, same for medium shots...you need to insert a couple of Close ups between these shots in order not to make the edit appear as a "Jump Cut"...of course people break this rule ( French filmmaker Goodard), but I highly recommend covering yourself by filming lots of Close ups.

3) "Chill Footage"  cinema verite

Chill Footage is just a funny name for "Observational Footage". It is often called Cinema Verite.

At DVworkshops we call it Chill Footage because we just want you to Chill and not talk to your subject...just follow them around with your camera...as they interact with the world around them Tell your subjects to "Pretend I am not here".

This observational material helps you uncover the "Emotional "part of your subject's Character

There are three basic elements of Character, and Chill footage is helpful in revealing the EMOTIONAL part of your character. You see it in the way they try and get what they want from those around them.

In our courses we discuss "Lean-in" footage vs." Lean-back footage".

Interviews tend to be Lean-back or "Passive Material"

CHILL FOOTAGE is Lean-in or  "Active Material"

Chill Footage forces the viewer to "Lean-in" to see what is happening in the scene.  IF YOU ONLY FILM INTERVIEWS AND CUTAWAYS YOUR FILM COULD GET BORING.  By Mixing Lean-in with Lean-Back Footage it helps you change the Modality of the Experience for the viewer

Process Footage

Process Footage: This is when you film the making of your documentary. Think of it like combing the Behind The Scenes footage of your film with the Documentary itself.You can be on-camera ( like the guy in Super Size Me or Michael Moore)...perhaps we just hear your off-screen voice, with a glimpse of you thru- out the film. If you need shots of you on location, give the camera to a "civilian" for a few minutes .

Nick Broomfield is a documentary filmmaker that uses a lot of Process footage. Rent Hedi Fliess, Hollywood Madam, or his best , but hard to find documentary "The Leader, his Driver, and his Wife". Werner Herzog also makes great films in this style, "Little Dieter needs to fly" is worth renting to see how his style is differnet from Michael Moore's. A great example of Process footage "The Gleamers and I"..by Agnes Varda,,(pictured above) she is an awesome filmmaker. Film the Making of your film, shoot when you are walking up to someone's door (for real, don't fake it). Film The Process.


5) Archive
. Government agencies have free footage Click here to read our past newsletter about Archive Sources and Links

Always ask people you are filming for photographs and old video of them etc....Scaning is the best way to import them into a digital editing system, but you can get a shot with your DV and HDV camera that can later be made into a still frame, and panned and zoomed through (aka Ken Burns style). Also if you are making a film about a controversial subject, try contacting local news stations to see if they have any old news stories that you can use.

The National Archives in College Park, Maryland is one of the world's best resources. I spent 3 days there gathering footage for my NASA documentary,and Found valuable Footage shot by the Nazis that I later used in my film.

Five Elements of Documentary are:
  • Interviews.
  • Cutaways.
  • Chill Footage...
  • Process Footage...
  • Archive...


You should also be thinking about Music and graphics for your edit. Keep these in your mind, then you will have focus and meaning in your documentary filmmaking approach.

DVworkshops offers Hands-on training using the 5 elements of Documentary in our 6-Day and 4-Day Courses in Los Angeles


The Five elements of Documentary
While making your Documentary, get CLOSE-UPS, you will need them! Here are Five Elements of Documentary that every director can use as a guide.: 1) Interviews. 2) Cutaways 3) Chill Footage. 4) Process Footage. 5) Archive material. Of course you should always think about music and Graphics.

Link to DVworkshops Calendar



Sample includes:

  • How to film an interview
  • Understanding Negative Space
  • Correct framing
  • Best Microphones
  • How to use a lapel or Lavalier microphone
  • Intro to Zebras

75-minutes $49.95

Please click here to View Chapter Outlines



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