by Simon Todd, Lead Cinematographer
The documentary film making style is among one of the most versatile across so many video formats, from corporate internal communications to social media advertising, and long form story packages for broadcast media all the way up to feature length masterpieces. I believe that its versatility comes from the way information is communicated so concisely and accurately whilst allowing for a wide variety of creative styles. It doesn't have to be a cut-and-dry information overload, but if that's what you want then it can do that too!
When I talk about "documentary style" what do I actually mean? Well, generally speaking the basic structure involves one or more subjects being interviewed on camera, with overlay footage (footage that is literally layered over the interview clips in the editing timeline) relating to what the subject is talking about. That isn't to say that this is the only type of documentary you can make, but it's one of the more common styles and is really very effective. Other styles include following a documentary film maker or reporter as he or she explores the topic of the film and we as the audience learn about the story as they do (think Louis Theroux). This type often includes voice-over recording during post production by the very film maker who we've been following, or other styles could have no interviews and be driven purely by a disembodied voice-over and a strong visual story telling element.
Whichever style of documentary you opt for one theme remains consistent - a clear communication of information told by the interview subjects in their own words. There's no second guessing what the meaning or the subtext is. Unlike creative narrative (or even some creative advertising) there's usually very little visual metaphor going on, subtle art direction elements or lighting set ups to create meaning, often it's very straight to the point. Don't get me wrong, documentaries are an art form in their own right and the production process is still very detailed however it's easier for it to be more efficient.
Which brings me to my next point, that this style of video production is often more cost effective for businesses. The interview elements are the only really big set ups for the production in terms of lighting and set dressing. Almost all of the overlay footage can be naturally lit, "as is" because you're documenting this person's daily life (perhaps just a couple of lights or a reflector may be required). This means that you can shoot more content in a shorter amount of time than other styles giving you a more fleshed out and visually appealing product for less money.
But just because a short doco can be shot on a tighter budget doesn't mean that you have to skimp on quality. If anything, with proper detailed pre-production planning, the greater ease of documentary shooting can allow your creative team the time to craft some truly breathtaking visuals. However this video style also allows for a mixture of high quality camera footage as well as found footage or "file vision", video that was shot years ago on a consumer level camcorder but is powerful in its own right from a story telling perspective (think Amy or All This Mayhem).
Clearly I'm a little biased to shooting in a documentary format, and obviously it doesn't suit every project, be it corporate, commercial or creative. If you're wondering whether or not the next video you want to make could be filmed like this, then check out the below examples to get a better feel for this style of production and what it may be able to achieve for you or your company.