Some Observations from Recent Documentary Viewing

A few weeks back I watched about 45 documentaries in a short time. Part of that viewing was judging for a film festival, and part of that was doing some catchup on recent titles. When watching that many documentaries in such a short period, I noticed some patterns.


Drone footage is fun to create and sometimes fun to watch, but make sure it has something to do with the story you are telling. Two of the films I saw used the footage to set the scene. One included breath-taking views of Canadian forests, while another offered views of a farm-like setting.

While the drone shots also work as establishing shots for new sequences, avoid repeating those same shots. I started counting how many times I had seen a similar shot after a while.


Avoid putting music with lyrics under an interview. Even at a low volume, the clashing of two voices at once is incredibly distracting and undermines the speaker.

Show people doing something, such as artists working on their art if access is available. Balance their doing something with the sit-down interviews. Too many sit-down interviews makes for a very boring film, no matter how compelling and timely the subject.

Group interviews offer an interesting alternative to the usual single-person interview, especially when the conversation gets going. Avoid putting the backs of people’s heads in the frame while someone else is talking. It became distracting and blocked the person speaking.

Also be careful that if people appear together in interviews that both of them speak in balance, if possible. One film featured this couple, and the man did most of the talking throughout the film. Only near the end of the film did the woman speak at all. The imbalance felt weird.


Use the first few minutes to give us a hint as to what your documentary is about and where it is going. With too many documentaries, I wondered where it was going after 20 minutes and even after an entire film in one case. That said, some audiences might be more patient with this wandering approach than I tend to be.

A documentary can be solid in sound, visuals, graphics, music, interviews, and editing, and yet it still can be quite boring. An abundance of celebrities cannot make a boring subject more interesting.

Music Documentaries

Music documentaries often are love letters from fans to the artists, and it is true that much of the film’s audience will be the artists’ fans as well. But if making a music documentary, remember that nonfans also will watch it. Too many of the music documentaries I saw lost sight of that point. As a result, the documentary addressed the fans and insiders and kept the nonfans or general audience in the dark. Make sure to balance the two.

If you have access to film the big concert and use extensive visuals from that concert, do explain why no sound from the concert appears on the soundtrack. Again, weird.

Local Stories

Local stories are important and need to be told. They do have an audience. Festivals can play an important role in bringing these stories to audiences. For examples, they could do special competitions, screening categories, or awards categories.


The finer details of the art of cinematography, such as targeted zooming and precise framing, set some documentaries apart visually. That said, avoid using these techniques just for the sake of doing so. One documentary featured these weird zooms on interview participants’ faces that proved more distracting than visual.

That said, an intimately compelling story created from cell phone and camcorder footage can be just as compelling.

Archival Materials

An interesting approach to archival materials: Show a person interacting with them and commenting on them. That approach was more compelling than just showing them in a montage.


One documentary used on-screen titles to show quotes. While the quotes were interesting unto themselves, their connection with the film remained unclear.

In a story focusing in women and women’s achievements, make sure to include on-screen quotes from women, not just men.


In a room that is likely to echo, please use a lavalier mic whenever possible.


For festival screeners, please turn off the time code and remove your watermarks. If you must have the watermark, put it in a corner. One screener put the watermark in the center upper third of the frame, and the text somewhat amusingly cut across people’s foreheads during interviews. It was rather difficult to concentrate on the serious subject of the film as a result.

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