Capture the stories that matter to you with this quick guide to on-the-go documentary film. We’ll cover storytelling, footage, audio, equipment, and more.
If 2020 is the year you set out to make a documentary, you’re not alone. With the world in the grip of a pandemic and civil unrest erupting across America, there are more stories to be told than ever before. Future historians, students, and citizens will look to the art, writing, music, and films we make about these times. And the beauty of documentary film is that it doesn’t require a huge budget — simply a commitment to storytelling.
Documentaries can be one of the most complicated types of films to make. They require about ten times more footage than a normal narrative feature. Plus, they take longer to make, since they’re often following events that play out over a long period of time. And the editing process, including sorting, cutting, and properly sourcing all the footage, is daunting to say the least.
But as new formats and channels for documenting and sharing real-world events continue to develop, the process for documentary film is evolving. Depending on the story you’re telling, the means of production could be simplified, making it more accessible and a lot faster to produce your work.
This list breaks down how to approach fast-moving documentary projects — the ones where you need to be out filming, yesterday, and whose contents require a quick turnaround so you can get it in the hands of audiences while the topic is salient and action can be taken. These are the resources, pieces of equipment, and general information you need to help with nailing a quick, record-it-all documentary shoot.
What Type of Documentary Are You Making?
You’ve got your vision. You’ve got a rough outline. Maybe you’ve even storyboarded exactly how you want the film to go. But, there are always twists and turns while producing a documentary. The very nature of documentary film makes it unpredictable. You can never know how subjects will act while you have a camera in front of them. Even more, you can never be certain how an event will play out. This is why it’s important to know what type of documentary film you’re making, as the format will guide you through the unknowns of dealing with real people in real situations.
There are several genres of documentary film that direct the flow of the action, the imagery, the narrative styles, and more. These include:
- Poetic – Abstract, loose, and often experimental, these docs are more concerned with creating a feeling.
- Expository – Meant to inform or persuade, these documentaries usually feature the “Voice of God” narration style.
- Observational – These documentaries don’t aim to refute any one side of a story; instead they offer first-hand, often private looks into the story and its characters.
- Participatory – In these films, the filmmaker gets involved in the story, though there’s some debate as to whether all documentaries aren’t participatory.
- Reflexive – The filmmaker and the filmmaking process is the sole focus of these documentaries.
- Performative – This genre explores larger historical and political stories through subject experience, creating an emotional connection between the two.
If you know you want to achieve a certain tone or mood, or you want to communicate a certain message, be sure to watch other documentary films and read up on what makes them so effective — including their commitment to one of these genres. (Learn more about the six types of documentary film in this full breakdown.)
For example, you might want a more traditional, talking heads, Ken Burns-esque aesthetic. It’s important to study up on what that means, and how to pull off all the effects and cinematography techniques needed. If you’re interested in a cinema vérité approach instead, check out our tutorial on how to shoot these types of scenes in a safe and efficient way.
How to Record Your Documentary
Narrative films that have casts and crews are built around meticulously planned-out shoots. However, this isn’t the case with documentary film. You’ll most likely be on your own for much of the work.
Given the spur-of-the-moment nature of capturing organic moments for your documentary, you’ll need to be ready at a moment’s notice. That being said, you’ll be running camera and audio by yourself. If you’re nervous about going it alone, check out Lewis McGregor’s stellar audio tips for when you’re climbing the mountain solo.
Just like collecting footage, recording audio for your doc can come with some challenges. There’s so much you’re going to record, so make sure you prioritize organization at the outset or you’ll lose your mind trying find certain sound bites as you piece the film together. Quickly label the audio you collect, and don’t be vague. I can’t tell you how many times I stared at a list of audio clips with different dates labeled as “(Name) Story #1,” leaving me to scrub through endless files until I find the exact clip I was looking for.
If you’re taking a cinema vérité approach to your documentary, you might find yourself in the thick of an unfolding story without any of your pro equipment.
In this situation, just use your phone. The audio recorders on our phones are way more capable than you’d think, and if you just need a quick little recording it will do the trick. Also if you’re wondering how you can hide a lav on your subject quickly, check out the video below:
Lighting and Framing
Once you have your subjects all mic’d up, or you have your boom securely positioned for the shoot, how do you go about lighting, positioning, and filming these scenes?
Let’s start with interviews. This is the most important aspect of your documentary and will benefit from following traditional cinematography rules.
Documentaries are traditionally full of interviews. Think of these interviews as a substitute for dialogue in a narrative film. The responses and conversations you capture on camera will propel your story forward as you piece it all together in the edit.
So, how do you shoot these interviews? Well first you need a tripod, a lav or boom mic, and a few lights. In the video above, Todd Blankenship shows us how to effectively light your subject for these interviews, and gives some recommendations for lights you can use.
Three-point lighting setup is your go-to answer to the question: how should my interviews look? As seen in the image above, the key light provides the most illumination on your subject, the fill light “fills” in the shadows cast from the key light, and the back light separates your subject from the background.
Need a tripod for your interview? Check out our full list of the best options in 2020 below:
Getting the Shot
Okay, so you’ve shot your interviews. You’ve collected the bulk of your story and you’re ready to get out there and shoot B-roll or just general coverage of your subject. What do you bring? What lenses do you use? Let’s take a look at what you should consider for a light, efficient shoot for your doc.
You might find yourself on a shoot without any resources whatsoever. As in, you’re filming outdoors or just by yourself. Its no secret that shooting a project indoors, in a controlled, comfortable studio setup is much different from hauling your gear around outside, especially if you’re nowhere near a power supply.
Well, there are a couple of tactics you can employ. First, shoot wide and shoot slow. This will reduce the need for steady, tripod required shots, and will also allow you to not have to spend as much time recording. If you’re just picking up B-roll for a segment or recreation, shoot at a higher frame rate to drag the footage out in your doc. You won’t have to spend as much time on the day, and it will also look cool in your final edit.
Second tip, ditch the gimbal. Now I know this might seem counter intuitive given I just mentioned you’ll want to shoot slow motion. But, that’s where the wide lens comes into play. Shooting wide reduces shake for your shot. If you’re using the handle on top of your camera, a shoulder rig, or even just holding the body, you can move slow and pull off a steady shot.
The point I’m trying to make is, you want to minimize gear as much as possible. Your body will thank you later. Also, the less gear you have the less time it takes to set up for a shot, and documentaries are all about being ready at any moment.
Choosing the Right Locations
You’ve got your camera set, plus you know what and how you’re going to shoot. You’ve mapped out audio and any problems that might arise during the day. So, how do you pick the right location? And if you have the right location, can you even shoot there?
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of run-and-gun style shooting is knowing what you can actually shoot and what you need certain permits for. We actually wrote a post with every release template you might need, from model to location, you can check it out below.
Picking the Right Gear
Like any type of video production, you really want to look at exactly what you need before diving into choosing the perfect camera. So, don’t just buy the most attractive or trendy camera right now. Instead choose something that will benefit you out in the field. Something easy-to-use while also giving you what you need.
We’ve broken down types of mics, lenses, and cameras for your documentary before, which you can check out below:
- Choosing the Right Gear for your Documentary Project
- Is The Canon C500 Mark II The Best Documentary Camera?
- 5 Essential Tools for Your Documentary Camera Package
But for now I’m going to list two cameras that I believe would be great documentary-friendly cameras to use for your next film.
There’s a reason this camera is so popular. In short, it can do it all. So why documentaries? Well, the image quality for what you’re paying simply can’t be beat.
One complaint you might hear is the lack of internal 10-bit recording, limiting you to 8-bit, but you’ll just have to consider how you’re delivering this project. Here’s a brief look at the 10-bit vs 8-bit dilemma and on how to figure out what codecs you need and what will help you with capturing the best image you can.
But in every other aspect, this camera blows out the competition with two built-in SLR slots, two SD card slots, and built-in ND filters help tremendously with avoiding bringing additional gear. The body is also actually a smaller manageable size compared to other cinema cameras available now.
Operating just below the C200, I’ve chosen to include the GH5 as a perfect solo shooter companion for its size, capability and the fact that its a tank. On top of its ability to shoot 4K 60p, the GH5 is a micro-four thirds build with a 20.3MP sensor, which in my opinion opens up a lot of options for lenses and cross-camera usage if you’re currently using a BMPCC4K or an other type of micro-four thirds camera and want to keep your lenses. It’s also apparently freeze proof, as well as dust and splash resistant. So, that’s cool. This makes the Lumix GH5 perfect for anybody having to film in unfavorable conditions.
Accessories You Need
Perhaps the two most important pieces of equipment besides your camera and microphone? Camera bag and hard drives. With hundreds of bags available, where do you begin to know whats actually going to be dependable without completely bankrupting you (because holy cow can bags get expensive). Basically you want light, durable, and weatherproof. There are a lot of boxes to check off before you feel safe carrying something around to every shoot.
Our recent guide breaks down how many cameras these bags can fit, as well as leftover space for what else you might need for an on-the-go shoot:
Once you have all of this packaged safely in a bag, you’re still responsible for getting the footage from the shoot to your hard drive and onto your computer. First, consider if you want a solid-state drive or an HDD. These are basically just two different types of drives that run in two different ways.
In my opinion, solid-state drives are safer and faster for your footage. There’s also objectively less of a risk for a SSD to crash than it happening to the disk in the HDDs. But some of the classic LaCie drives also have yet to fail me. So, here are two external hard drives I recommend trying:
For a full list of the best drives to consider based on storage, speed, and price, check out our breakdown below:
Documentary filmmaking can feel like climbing Everest. Its hard to see the summit but you know it’s there. Just keep filming, keep collecting soundbites, and try your best to keep your footage organized!
Cover image via Jonas Torres.
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