Technical Elements of a Documentary

Here is some research of the technical elements of a documentary. The technical elements include:

  • Camerawork
  • Editing
  • Sound
  • Mise-en-scene
  • Title opening sequences

The Camera Operator
The Camera Operator works alongside the Director, taking instruction from them and functions as an integral part of the production team, often physically linked to the Sound Recordist via the XLR cable that connects the mic to the main camera.
Pre-Production:
You will need to:

  • Work with the Director in order to fully understand their intentions and vision for the proposed documentary
  • Understand the overall style of the documentary and the resultant camerawork required by the Director
  • Attend production meetings and familiarise yourself with the associated production documentation such as treatment, scripts and storyboards
  • Shoot a test piece with the Director and crew if required
  • Ensure that you have arranged for the appropriate equipment and stock for filming

Production:
You will need to:

  • Care for and set up and operate all the camera equipment
  • Ensure cameras set ups match if using more than one camera
  • Understand and if possible predict your Director’s needs in terms of camera and shot composition
  • Creatively and technically advise or support the Director when appropriate
  • Ensure that set up for the camera and the style for shooting is maintained throughout

Recording Visuals:
There is a widespread perception that the majority of documentaries rely on a hand-held, jerky camera style, but even a cursory examination of them will show that this is a fallacy. Your camera should always be mounted on a tripod with a good fluid head unless your style of documentary calls for hand-held or shoulder mounted shots. If you do choose such shots, it should be the result of careful consideration early on in pre-production, based on your research around a wide range of documentaries and, finally, appropriate to your idea. For example, if the majority of the camera shots are shoulder mounted, loose and constantly on the move, you would really need to justify why you chose to film that way, for what purpose and how this affects the viewer and the dynamic of the overall documentary.

Lighting:
Another key role for the Camera Operator, in a small crew, is lighting. Given that documentary is about representing ‘the real’, your audience will tolerate a range and discontinuity of lighting that they would not accept in other types of video such as, for example, a drama. So, in lighting your documentary, you will normally be using ambient light as your main source of light. However, you will have an idea of whether any additional lighting might be needed. The main place that this is likely to be needed is when conducting interviews.

Editing:
Film editing is part of the creative post-production process of filmmaking. The term film editing is derived from the traditional process of working with film, but now it increasingly involves the use of digital technology.

The film editor works with the raw footage, selecting shots and combining them into sequences to create a finished motion picture. Film editing is described as an art or skill, the only art that is unique to cinema, separating filmmaking from other art forms that preceded it, although there are close parallels to the editing process in other art forms like poetry or novel writing. Film editing is often referred to as the “invisible art” because when it is well-practiced, the viewer can become so engaged that he or she is not even aware of the editor’s work. On its most fundamental level, film editing is the art, technique, and practice of assembling shots into a coherent sequence. The job of an editor isn’t simply to mechanically put pieces of a film together, cut off film slates, or edit dialogue scenes. A film editor must creatively work with the layers of images, story, dialogue, music, pacing, as well as the actors’ performances to effectively “re-imagine” and even rewrite the film to craft a cohesive whole. Editors usually play a dynamic role in the making of a film.

The Sound Recordist’s Job
One of the first jobs of the Sound Recordist is to isolate exactly what kind of kit will be needed to record good sound in the circumstances in which you will be recording it. So, you will need to give consideration to both microphones and auxiliary kit.

The first rule of sound recording is, as you already know, never use the camera microphone: the sound is likely to be unusable. With this in mind, you will need to think carefully about what type of microphone you use for each part of your documentary. Depending on the type of documentary you are producing, you may need to consider using a selection and combination of microphone: rifle and tie-clip microphones for interviews and omni-directional microphones for wildtrack. Taking a selection of microphones with you will prove very useful and provide you with a number of options, particularly if on location. For example, if your set-up time is limited, then a rifle microphone on a fishpole may serve as the quickest and most effective means of recording, whereas if you have ample time to set up, then a tie-clip mic may prove to be your best option. The important thing is to consider your recording circumstances and have the right microphones to hand for each situation. If you are using more than one microphone at any one time, you should use a location sound mixer to balance the sound.

When conducting sound recording for voice recording such as interviews, always check sound levels first: they should peak at -20dB. If the background noise is too loud, adjust the recording level on the camera or sound mixer, move the microphone closer to the speaker or ask them to talk louder. If all else fails, accept defeat and move to another location or visually demonstrate why it is so noisy by having your presenter stand in front of the offending busy road or cut to passing traffic as an explanation. 

As with your previous videos, you will need to collect two to three minutes worth of wildtrack, for each location that you shoot in. This ambient sound from each location can later be looped and used in the edit. For example, if you record interviews in an office building with office workers in the background, it is important that the sounds and general acoustics of that space are recorded as it can be added at the post-production stage to both fill in any gaps in the interviews but also to provide a more general feeling of the ambience of the office.

Mise-en-scène:
Mise-en-scène is a French term and originates in the theatre. It literally means, “put in the scene.” For film, it has a broader meaning, and refers to almost everything that goes into the composition of the shot, including the composition itself: framing, movement of the camera and characters, lighting, set design and general visual, environment, even sound as it helps elaborate the composition.

Title Opening Sequences:
A title sequence is the method by which films or television programs present their title, key production and cast members, or both, utilising conceptual visuals and sound. It usually follows but should not be confused with the opening credits, which are generally nothing more than a series of superimposed text.

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