I recently acted as a creative consultant on a friend’s feature documentary. In doing so, I came up with EATS, a set of considerations to help make a strong doc. (I was hungry when I originally wrote this, so I imagine that factored into the acronym.) I do not profess to be an expert in documentary filmmaking, but with my previous experiences as a festival screener and in consideration of some of the most successful and enjoyable documentaries I have seen, I believe these four elements are necessary. What are your thoughts? Feel free to comment below.
- Expertise — Who are the people being interviewed in the documentary? Are they random people off the street or credited individuals who can offer a level of expertise and insights about the subject matter (i.e., professors, scientists, religious leaders, politicians, authors, etc.)? Depending on the subject matter, on-the-street interviews may be appropriate, but they should act as supplemental to expert interviews, helping to highlight particular points. Worth checking out: Inside Job (2010, dir. Charles Ferguson)
- Access — What level of access do you have with the subject matter? Are you documenting your story from the outside or inside? For example, if the topic of the documentary is insider secrets of the Pentagon, do you have access to the Department of Defense officials and official documents? This goes partly hand-in-hand with Expertise. Worth checking out: Kissinger (2011, dir. Adrian Pennick)
- Texture (multi-media) — Depending on what works for your particular story, consider adding any of the following media types to help add different elements to create and maintain visual and auditory interest among the audience: sit-down interviews, video footage (e.g., archival, behind the scenes, home movies, etc.), photos, audio clips, music, animation, creative titles/graphics. Use several of these to avoid a “monochromatic” film that might just bore people. These definitely help to color your story and provide the audience with a full picture. Worth checking out: Bowling for Columbine (2002, dir. Michael Moore)
Filmmaker Michael Moore added this comedic animated film, entitled “A Brief History of the USA,” to his serious documentary Bowling for Columbine, adding an element to the film that helped tell the story in an unexpected way.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGYFRzf2Xww]
- Story — Even though it’s a documentary, there should still be a clear narrative story that’s being told. Is the story clear and well organized with a defined beginning, middle, and end? Are some of the standard storytelling techniques being employed (where appropriate), such as raising the stakes, conflict, a ticking clock, etc.? Worth checking out: Waiting for “Superman” (2010, dir. Davis Guggenheim)