Documentary Storytelling

This lecture was delivered by Dr Claire Henry as part of Massey University‘s support of the Wellington Media Studies teacher cluster. Previously they have hosted workshops on journalism in the smartphone era and teaching script writing. The focus was on the form of Documentary and how this may be translated to students and the specifics challenges they might face in attempting this style of film making.

Introduction to Documentary as a Storytelling Form

Documentary has a fluid narrative approach, where production is an ongoing and dynamic process. Story shaping occurs during pre-production, production and post-production significantly more than narrative features which rely heavily on the pre-production process. Many characteristics of good storytelling in fictional films are shared with documentary including the role of exposition and use of narrative questions to engage a viewer.

Audience and Distribution

Documentary filmmakers need to consider the audience and distribution early – helps maintain focus of the story and give motivation for the production team. Useful to ask:

  • How does their film contribute the wider community?
  • Where will it be screened and to who?
  • What impact can documentaries have and what impact would they like theirs to have?

These considerations affect decisions such as duration and format as well as guide the storytelling process.

Collecting and Sifting for Stories

Look for ways to tell the story through more than just talking heads. A dynamc process of research could include newspaper, internet, family stories, myths and legends etc. Sift to find both an apparent subject, and a deeper subject – something that is a broader issue, something bigger. When presenting this information, ethical questions can be uncovered– how to raise the stakes? How to make the story fit the 3 act structure? Useful resource that explores these ideas is Michael Rabiger’s book, Directing the Documentary.

Narrative Perspective in Documentary220px-nanook_of_the_north

  • POV – single character – Nanook, Basterdy
  • Multiple characters – Up, Capturing the Friedmans
  • Omniscient – The War Game Peter Jenkins – complex far reaching ideas
  • Personal – Stories we tell, Cameraperson (connection to the stylistic trend of a personal voice and presence in the film, technology ubiquity, home videos)

Pre-production: Planning Models and Documents

  • Concept – the ideas (why, what, effect) in 100 words
  • Research – pre-interviews; books, articles, newspapers etc. Other docos, research the form as well as the info
  • Proposal/Treatment – an explanation of the documentary you intend to make – what will be shot and why, and how it will be arranged to make a particular statement
  • Pitch
  • Script
  • Short list
  • Storyboarding


  • Some docos scripted in advance
  • A scriptwriter may be call in after a production to write a script from the footage
  • There may be no script and the edit is based on a proposal, treatment, or the director’s vision
  • Pre script vs post script – same format, revised with new info
  • 3 column script – simple/effective (narration, visuals, sound)

Challenges for students

  • Collaboration – newly formed group could collectively write a collaborative contract outlining
    • 1. project statement,
    • 2. group goals,
    • 3. group governance (specific roles ad responsibilities, meeting place and times)
    • 4. conflict and resolution procedures.
  • Technical and logistic issues
  • Unpredictable subject, weather, outcomes… Good project planning and contingency plans required + flexibility and problem solving skills.

One thought on “Documentary Storytelling

  1. Pingback: Film Genre – Westerns – Chicargill's Media Musings

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