As a type of film or television develops, makers find certain techniques that become useful or effective in creating texts. These techniques get used again and again, and eventually they are associated with and are used to define certain types of texts. The techniques then become known as conventions.
Documentary has its fair share of conventions, which we can recognize in such mockumentaries as This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, for these films call heightened attention to the conventions in order to make fun of them.
Below is a list of some conventions in documentary, along with some example works. Note that not all documentaries possess all of these traits.
Archival Footage and Photographs
Archival materials include old photographs, newsreel footage, and even shots from fiction films. For example, The Atomic Cafe makes exclusive use of archival footage from the 1940s and 1950s to spoof Americans’ Cold War fear of an atomic bomb, and Feed culls footage from the 1992 primaries coverage and outtakes to show presidential hopefuls being anything but presidential. The Civil War employs an endless number of still photographs.
Talking heads are people interviewed to explain or comment on the text’s subject. These people usually are shown in their offices (sometimes with a wall of books behind them) or in their homes. For example, Hearts and Minds includes interviews with both American and Vietnamese people to offer their perspectives on the war. Vernon, Florida also makes use of an interesting selection of talking heads.
A wobbly camera is often attributed to documentary. As cameras became more portable and more affordable, filmmakers did more on-location shooting, and keeping the camera steady was somewhat difficult when it came to following the action. Steadicam, a camera stabilizing system, aids in correcting what some perceive as a problem. The fiction film The Blair Witch Project makes use of the jiggly camera as a means of reinforcing its documentary-like style.
Voiceover narration occurs when a voice is heard on the soundtrack without a matching source in the image. In other words we hear the voice speak but we cannot see the speaker utter the words. The voice often explains or comments on the visuals. Early documentary made extensive use of this convention, including Pare Lorentz’s When the Plow Broke the Plains and The River. A more contemporary example is Ansel Adams.
A re-enactment stages real events that already have occurred. Sometimes they include the people who experienced the events orginally, but more often they incorporate actors playing parts. The Thin Blue Line makes extensive use of this convention to assist in making its argument. Most documentary makers prefer shoot events when and where they actually occur.
For the most part, the people we see in a documentary are real people. We can assume that if we went to Flint, Michigan, we may meet the “Pets or Meat” lady from Roger & Me. Or if we went to Texas, we may meet the people participating in the content to win a new truck in Hands on a Hard Body.