the outside, making a documentary seems like the easiest thing in the
world. You just go where something interesting is happening, turn on
the camera, and record it.
at that way, the most successful American documentarian would be
Abraham Zapruder, the Dallas garment manufacturer whose home-movie
camera was pointed at President John Kennedy as he was being shot. His
three-hundred-plus frames of Super-8 film have probably been the most
talked about and widely shown bit of footage in the history of
if you can get camcorder shots of a tornado flattening a town, or a
wildfire wiping out million-dollar homes, you can be on TV.
yes, if you can put together a series of interviews with the right
kinds of people sounding concerned about the right kinds of social
problems — from AIDS to zoolatry — you can become the darling of the
special interest video festivals.
unfortunately, reality footage of a tornado isn’t a documentary. It’s a
news clip. And long interviews with earnest proponents of any sort of
social change usually don’t make a documentary, either. What they make
is a dull video sermon, acceptable only to those who already side with
the speakers. That’s called preaching to the choir.
Making a successful documentary film or video requires much more.
starts at the camera. You have to have good footage — visual evidence
that sets forth the statement of the film in visual terms. And you need
more than a simple event. Tornado footage is good, but it is not
sufficient. Just saying, “Look at this destruction that happened!” is
journalism, not documentary. You need a concept that organizes the
material and expresses the point of view of the film. In their VolcanoScapes documentaries
about the destruction of the lovely Hawaii coastal town of Kalapana by
Kilauea volcano, Artemis and Mick Kalber had incredible footage of
homes destroyed by a slow-moving river of lava. And they used it. But
they focused their story on the people who had chosen to live and build
their homes downhill from an active volcano.
are not enough. Interviews may help define the point of view, but they
are usually a terribly cumbersome way to get the documentary idea
across, because they don’t show the topic; they show people talking about the topic. A documentary film needs pictures. For instance, immediately after the opening title, Ken Burns’s The Civil War
shows a series of dramatic photographs of war after a battle. The
camera moves slowly across each photo, letting you know that in this
film much of what you will see will come from still pictures, and you
will be given time to see what is there. On the sound track we hear a
violin — no speech — as the documentarian shows us that the pictures
can speak for themselves.
once worked as house audiovisual guy for a teacher-training project.
When the project put on a conference, I’d take snapshots of each day’s
activities and display them on the bulletin board the next morning. The
teachers told me how much they liked the pictures. And, invariably, the
next thing they’d say was, “What kind of camera did you use?”
As if that mattered.
was a simple, inexpensive, wide-angle-lens, no-frills camera that
recorded what it was pointed at. But it wasn’t the camera that made the
pictures interesting. It was what the people were doing.
A persistent problem for the modern documentary has been the almost mystical belief of many would-be documentarians that the camera
somehow does it all. I vividly recall one academic authority on
documentary who questioned whether I was “in sympathy with the cinéma
vérité filmmaker’s desire to shoot a wealth of footage as a passive
observer, in order to report as self-effacingly as possible as a
no. Because that formulation reduces the documentarian to something of
a media janitor in charge of an image vacuum machine. Just turn on the
machine and it will suck the essence of the event through the lens and
store it on film or video. Then all you have to do is reverse the flow
and blow your film back in the audience’s faces.
If it were only that easy!
I’m in favor of shooting a lot of footage, but always as an active,
decision-making participant in a process of communication that begins
with an idea and ends with an audience. Inexpensive video equipment has
placed the possibility of making a documentary within the reach of
anyone. But the equipment won’t make your footage interesting. And
digital effects and editing systems can’t turn random shots or hours of
talking heads into a dramatic documentary statement.
I began planning the original version of this book in the mid-’90s while working on the script for Defenders of Midway,
a documentary focused on a group of veterans of the famous World War II
naval battle. At the start of that project, UPS delivered to my
apartment two boxes of VHS windowprint dubs covering 120 half-hour
field tapes shot at Midway Atoll. The problems I found with this
footage are typical of the problems to be avoided in making a
Lack of planning
Inadequate visual evidenc
Poor interview technique
Obtrusive crew interference with the people in the video
of the footage was shot by an award-winning commercial director who
wouldn’t dream of shooting a 30-second spot without extensive
preproduction planning. But who, at least from the evidence in his
footage, went off to shoot an hour documentary with little or no
It is precisely when you don’t know what is going to happen that preproduction planning is most important. A
group of veterans had returned to Midway fifty years after the historic
battle. They had been young Marines, sailors, and airmen in 1942. Fifty
years later they were men in their late sixties and seventies who had
come to dedicate a memorial and reminisce with one another. I’m sure
the producers believed that if the video crew just followed these
veterans around and recorded whatever they did and said, they’d have a
great film. And the notes I received from one of the producers suggest
that he believed they had accomplished exactly that. Unfortunately, his
optimism wasn’t borne out in the footage.
of preproduction planning left the project without a unifying concept.
And without that, there was no apparent strategy for gathering visual
evidence related to the theme.
of the tapes were interviews with the veterans. Now, a major problem
with interviews is that they’re about people talking when your goal
should be to show things happening. Still, this was a historical
documentary, and each of these men had a story to tell. Unfortunately
they were asked to tell their stories in a static interview conducted
by a historian who specialized in oral histories.
Two problems there: First, a static interview is visually boring. Nothing happens. It’s a talking head.Plus the interviews were all filmed in the exact same location — like school yearbook pictures.There was no attempt at making them visually informative. Second,
an oral history gathers the facts of a story to be listened to on tape
or to be published. That makes it the exact opposite of a documentary
interview. In an oral history the interviewer usually has a checklist
of items to cover and often will use leading questions, since a yes or
no answer still provides the facts. But showing someone listening to an
interviewer read a question and then answering yes or no — or possibly
just shaking his head — does not make dramatic footage.
other footage, the veterans go on a boat trip to visit Eastern Island,
where several of them had been stationed. And the camera crew goes
along — with the camera operator asking questions, giving directions,
and generally talking all over the sound track. This would have been an
excellent opportunity to do some good on-site interviews as the
veterans reminisced about their service on the island, but that
opportunity was never taken.
In spite of the problems in the footage, Defenders of Midway
ended up a good film, and I’m proud of my part in making it. But if the
producers, and the crew that shot the footage, had known more at the
beginning about making a documentary, it could have been far better.
book is written for the person who wants to make a documentary, for
whatever reason, and especially for those interested in recording
behavior out there in the real world, either for production of a
documentary or for research of some sort.
brings into focus what I have learned from making and watching
documentaries and from trying to help others organize the documentaries
they’ve shot. It’s based on a lifetime of love for the nonfiction film
in all its permutations.
have loved making documentaries from the first time I sat down at an
editing table and spliced selected pieces of film into a visual
statement. I have shot, directed, edited, and written scores of
documentary films and videos. And in the quiet hours of the night while
I cut film or edited video, I’ve thought a lot about what goes into a
successful film. And by “successful” I mean a documentary that
communicates to an audience exactly what you intended.
is not a book about using equipment. For one thing, technology changes
too quickly. A camera or editing system will be the flavor of the month
only until a new one comes along. (On a previous page I mentioned a
$4,000 camera, but by the time you read this there may be an equally
good one available for less.) But more important, I don’t think of
making a documentary as a technical — by which I mean equipment —
problem. It is always, from initial concept to final release, a
of us learn how to operate our technology long before we really have
any clear idea of what we want to do with it. Put another way, we can
get so caught up in the problems of shooting that we forget about
showing. And it is the film the audience sees, not the one the
documentarian shoots (or wishes he or she had shot) that counts.
is also not a book about how to make moneymaking documentaries. I hope
that the book will help you to make a good documentary, and that you
will be rewarded for your effort. But I have to confess that the
financial side of making documentary films is not where my interest
lies. Making a documentary takes far too much time and effort to be
wasted on anything other than a project you are passionately interested
in. “Important” documentaries often become important only after the
fact. Initially, they were just something someone fervently wanted to
This is a book about thinking your way through the documentary process. It starts from the position that truth is the essential element in documentary. And that means documentable, verifiable truth. Recording
a lot of people — even famous people — saying that they do like
something or someone, or that they don’t like something or someone,
proves nothing about the something or someone except that there are people with strong opinions on the topic.
A documentary must always be an analog of the larger truth. When
a film shows something that actually happened, but that is not truly
representative, it may be the truth, but it’s not the whole truth. In
these days of highly partisan, gotcha politics, that’s an important
distinction to remember. Making a documentary requires:
Planning the visual evidence that needs to be recorded
Recognizing it when it occurs
Selecting and organizing what has been recorded to present a visual argument to your audience
a substantial portion of this book is devoted to (1) planning what
you’re going to do before shooting, and (2) after shooting, selecting
and organizing what has been shot into the visual evidence of your film.
of what I have learned about documentary filmmaking has been learned
under pressure — on location with a small budget and a tight schedule,
where every mistake cut deeply. So for every chapter in the book,
somewhere I’ve got a scar.
a documentary is a lot of fun. I’m always up when I set off for a new
location to start a film. There’s a kind of automatic status that goes
along with being a documentarian. When you walk in with the lights, the
sound equipment, and the camera, people assume you know what you’re
doing. Even if it’s your first documentary, you are automatically
accorded the status of professional. That’s pretty heady stuff.
a documentarian must never forget that the end of this exciting process
is a program that an audience is going to look at — without any
explanation from you. The audience will never know how much fun — or
how much trouble — you had in getting the pictures. Nor should they. The audience can be concerned only with the documentary you show them.