thing in the world. You just go where something interesting is happen-
ing, turn on the camera, and record it.
being shot. His three-hundred-plus frames of Super-8 film have proba-
history of nonfiction film.
town, or a wildfire wiping out million-dollar homes, you can be on TV.
special interest video festivals.
But 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
with the speakers. That’s called preaching to the choir.
Making a successful documentary film or video requires much more.
Il starts at the camera. You have to have good footage—visual evidence
MAKING DOCUMENTARY FILMS AND VIDEOS
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.
Lack 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.
Half 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 doc-
umentary, 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 his-
torian who specialized in oral histories.
Two problems there: First, a static interview is visually boring. Noth-
ing 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 of-
ten 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.
In 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
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 begirihlH
about making a documentary, it could have been far better.
And that’s how this book got started.
About This Book
This book is written for the person who wants to make a documentary,
for whatever reason, and especially for those interested in recording be-
havior out there in the real world, either for production of a documen-
tary or for research of some sort.
It brings into focus what I have learned from making and watching
documentaries and from trying to help others organize the documen-
taries they’ve shot. It’s based on a lifetime of love for the nonfiction film
in all its permutations.
I have loved making documentaries from the first time I sat down at
an editing table and spliced selected pieces of film into a visual state-
ment. 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 au-
dience exactly what you intended.
What You Won’t Find Here
This 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 men-
tioned 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 communi-
Most 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 documen-
tarian shoots (or wishes he or she had shot) that counts.
This is also not a book about how to make moneymaking documen-
taries. 1 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 do.
And What You Will Find
This is a book about thinking your way through the documentary pro-
cess. 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 some-
one, 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 rep-
resentative, 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
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 vi-
sual argument to your audience
lip,Ills, the sound equipment, and the camera, people assume you know
what you're doing. Even if it’s your first documentary, you are automati-
i ally accorded the status of professional. That’s pretty heady stuff.
Bui a documentarian must never forget that the end of this exciting
pmi css is a program that an audience is going to look at—without any
< spl.mation 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
So 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.
Much of what 1 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.
WHAT IS A DOCUMENTARY?
I’ve spent my professional life working from a kind of opera-
tional definition of documentary films that 1 got by osmosis from my
friend and teacher Sol Worth. Sol loved films, and he worked with a big-
tent definition. He was willing to accept as a documentary almost any-
thing that wasn’t clearly a work of fiction. I don’t go quite that far.
It Is an Act of Communication
Like Sol, I start from the position that a documentary film must be an
act of communication between the filmmaker and the audience. A doc-
umentary can also fall into other categories—-work of art, investigative
report, personal memoir-—but it should first be judged on how effec-
tively it has accomplished the task of communicating with the audience.
If a documentary fails to communicate, it’s not doing its job.
It Tells the Truth
Equally important, a documentary must be grounded in truth, so that
one of these conditions will obtain:
• What it presents is true, in the sense that its truth is documented
and can be verified.
• The documentary itself is a quest for the truth, and it honestly
presents its findings as evidence for the viewer to evaluate.
• It purports to show events or behavior as they happen, and there-
fore shows an accurate and honest analog of the events or behavior
In the first edition of this book, 1 dealt with the issue ot truth in ctocu-'
mentary mainly in terms of the tension between truth and reality, some-
thing I go into in more detail in chapter 13 of this edition. When I wrote
the first edition, the line between documentary and propaganda seemed
reasonably clear. I expected that the makers of historical and biographical
documentaries would base their works on documentable facts or reason-
able historical speculation that was clearly labeled as such. I was mainly
concerned that filmmakers documenting the present would fall into the
trap of thinking that what was real was true, or that sound bites could be
used as evidence of the truth of whatever the speaker was saying.
Today, truth in documentary is something that every viewer should
worry about and every documentarian should practice conscientiously. I
am convinced that truth is the ethical and moral imperative that sets
documentary filmmaking apart from other kinds of film and video proj-
ects. When truth is sacrificed—for whatever reason—the result may be
video pamphleteering or public relations or just plain propaganda. But it
is not a documentary.
Problems with truth can also be a combination of ignorance and lazi-
ness. Every week I get e-mails—you probably do, too—with the latest
(■•rumor or urban legend. They may tell about something bad about to
happen (Congress is about to tax e-mails on the Internet in order to re-
coup lost postage costs) or they show someone from “the other side” in a
had light or make someone from “our side” look good. There are several
websites such as TruthorFiction.com where one can check out these
e-rumors quickly and easily, but the senders never do. They just click on
lorward and send them on. And if they are willing to accept this sort of
silliness uncritically in an e-mail from an anonymous source, how much
more likely are they (and we) to accept as truthful the assertions pre-
sented in a documentary film?
What Everyone Knows
You and I are far too sophisticated to be taken in by silly e-mails. But
what about the things we know are true—because everyone we know
agrees they arc true?
Such as? Well, most people on the religious right know that the
Supreme Court outlawed prayer in public schools. (It didn’t.) And most
people on the liberal left know that President Reagan’s tax cuts didn’t
increase revenue to the government. (They did.) That’s old stuff, of
course, but the point is that we all carry around some unexamined no-
tions that we accept as true. And if you start from one of these and look
only for evidence to support it, while ignoring—or failing to seek out—
any evidence to the contrary, you aren’t trying to learn the truth.
For example, a documentarian asked my partner and me to view and
comment on a twelve-minute promotional cut of a film he was working
on about the cost and availability of health care in America. We did, and
sent him a four-page analysis, which said, in part:
The biggest problem is that you present no evidence. . . . Interviews
are not proof. They are only visual evidence of the fact that the person
shown said the words that are spoken, but tell us nothing about the
truth value of the words. ... In the highly partisan political climate to-
day, statements of politicians and activists are always highly suspect,
because we know they will spin the facts to fit their political positions.
Among the sound bites were two dealing with the profits of health care
providers. The first was by the health columnist of a major newspaper,
who said, “If you have a system where you have to produce a 20 percent
rate of return on your investment from Wall Street, then something is go-
ing to have to go. And what that is is patient care, because the patient is
the most vulnerable person, and the least able to fight for themselves.”
The second came from an academic activist speaking at a rally. She
said, "Doctors and nurses know just as clearly that the unbridled greed
of a corporate-driven health care system is killing our patients and
squeezing every ounce of humanity out of the U.S. health care system,
and we aren’t going to take it anymore, either.”
Relating to these in our comments, we wrote:
We’d like to know at what point in time health insurers were racking
up 20 percent profits. If it’s now, we’d like some company names so
we could buy their stock. The evidence for or against this assertion of
20 percent profits is readily available. Public companies have to file
quarterly financial statements and annual reports. Any reasonably
competent stock analysts should be able to go through that data and
analyze what's really happening.
I don’t know if health ca:
vent return on investment a
know a documentarian has
this case to determine: (1) if the assertion is true; and (2) if it turns out
Io he true, whether this is necessarily a bad thing. Since the economics
of health care are an important part of the documentary, a responsible
documentarian probably should include evidence from economists
about the effect of profits on prices. This is Economics 101: As profits
in a specific field go up, other providers will enter that field, creating in-
creased competition that brings prices down.
Making a documentary about health care—or any topic—requires
knowing a lot more about the topic than just the names of some author-
ities to interview. That’s one of the reasons excellent documentaries are
sometimes made by people with no film experience, but who are experts
oil the subject of the film.
The rest of us have to make a commitment to learning what the truth
actually is. And that is surely going to involve many interviews, if only
for research purposes. If the subject is at all controversial, the film must
Include interviews with the best available representatives from all sides
of the issue.
It Makes a Visual Argument
Ideally, a documentary will make its case with a structured argument
composed of visual evidence. Film and video are visual media, and their
purpose in a documentary is to show the viewer things he or she either
hasn’t seen or hasn’t previously paid attention to.
The organization of the documentary argument will include an early
indication of where the film is going, a presentation of evidence—the
truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—and a summing up
and resolution of the issues raised in the film.
Regrettably, too many documentarians, rather than going out and
finding compelling images that show an audience what the subject is all
about, are content to show interview after interview in which people tell
what they think, believe, know, or in the best TV tradition, what they
feel about the topic.
Throughout its history, the documentary has followed two different ap-
proaches. One is behavioral and anthropological—showing people, in-
stitutions, and cultures as they are, or at least as they seem when a
camera is pointed at them. The other is historical and biographical—
trying to bring to life on film or video significant people and events from
Robert Flaherty took his camera into the frozen arctic in the early
1920s to observe behavior for Nanook of the North. At about the same
time, in the Soviet Union, Sergei Eisenstein was “documenting’’ the his-
tory of the Bolshevik Revolution with reenactment films such as Battle-
ship Potemkin and October: Ten Days That Shook the World.
John Huston’s combat cameramen shot San Pietro as the battle hap-
pened in World War II Italy. Marcel Ophuls went back to re-create the
sense of that tragic time in occupied France in The Sorrow and the Pity
through interviews conducted two decades after the war.
Hoop Dreams followed the lives and athletic careers of two young bas-
ketball players as they unfolded before the camera over a period of sev-
eral years. Baseball: A Film by Ken Bums used interviews with players,
fans, and friends of the filmmaker, along with photographs and stock
footage, to portray the director’s lengthy view of the history of the sport.
The Hobart Shakespeareans showed a single fifth-grade class, led by a
brilliant teacher, as they worked their way through an academic year.
The French Revolution used reenactment, realistic locations, and, of
course, many interviews with experts to distill the essence of an earth-
shaking event into less than two hours.
Nanook, San Pietro, Hoop Dreams, and The Hobart Shakespeareans
are behavioral. Potemkin, The Sorrow and the Pity, Baseball, and The
French Revolution are historical.
These two basic approaches to the nonfiction film—recording the
present and recalling the past—have existed within a wide range of vari-
ations from the earliest days of documentary.
Recording the Present
Documentaries recording the present are filmed as the activities they
record unfold in real time. This is the genre known variously as cinema
It may also be a more formal process of creating a record of things as
Recalling the Past
I listory and biography fall easily into the genre of documentaries recall-
ing the past, which also includes investigation of past events. Today,
television and the education market make these prime areas for docu-
Past and Present Combined
Obviously, some documentaries will combine past and present, visiting
past occurrences as a way of understanding—or influencing—events in
the present. This is what James Burke did brilliantly in the documentary
series Connections—taking seemingly unrelated events out of the past
and showing how they are tied together in present-day phenomena.
In the unfinished film I mentioned about health care in America, the
filmmakers trace the evolution of health care in the twentieth century
from the kindly old doctor who made house calls—whom most of us
know only through movies of the 1930s and '40s—to the much more
impersonal managed health care system of today. The filmmakers show
that an important development occurred during World War II. Because
of wartime wage and price controls, employers were unable to raise
wages to attract workers, but they gained government permission to of-
fer health care as a fringe benefit for their employees. That historic
change from individual responsibility to the expectation that a third
party—employer or government—would provide health care led to the
current situation explored by this documentary.
Every documentary is—or should be—a rigorous search for the truth.
Digging for all the facts. Evaluating the evidence. And presenting a set
of well-thought-out conclusions. The excellent documentary The Sink-
ing City of Venice on NOVA starts its investigation with the observable
fact that the city is flooded by the sea more often at the present time