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.
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

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.

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.

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 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.


Documentary Modes

In his 2001 book, Introduction to Documentary (Indiana University Press), Bill Nichols defines the following six modes of documentary. Modes in this instance refers to way the documentary actually speaks to the audience this is called ‘mode of address’.
Below are the different types of documentary modes;

The Poetic Mode:
This specific mode of documentary moves away from the “objective” reality of a given situation or people to grasp at an inner “truth” that can only be grasped by poetical manipulation.

The Expository Mode:
This mode is what we most identify with the documentary, It “emphasizes verbal commentary and argumentative logic”, often using a narrator and assumes a logical argument and a “right” and “proper” answer using direct address and offering a preferred meaning.

The Observational Mode:
The observational mode is best exemplified by the Cinema Verite or Direct Cinema movement which emerged in the late 1950s/early 1960s. It attempted to capture, as accurately as possibly, objective reality with filmmaker as neutral observer.

The Participatory Mode:
Unlike the observational mode, the participatory mode welcomes direct engagement between filmmaker and subject(s). The filmmaker becomes part of the events being recorded. The filmmakers impact on the events being recorded is acknowledged and os often celebrated.

The Reflexive Mode:
The Reflexive Mode acknowledges the constructed nature of documentary and flaunts it, conveying to people that this is not necessarily “truth” but a reconstruction of it, “a” truth, not “the” truth.

The Performative Mode:
The performance mode of documentary emphasises the subjective nature of the documentarian, as well as acknowledging the subjective reading of the audience, notions of objectivity are replaced by “evocation and affect”.



For our documentary, we will be interviewing teenagers using the questionnaire below:

We will ask then in total 8 questions, which will help to give us an idea about todays society and their thoughts.

Possible interview questions:

I will interview 3 or 4 teenagers for their opinion on this topic.

I would record the teenager’s thoughts of stereotyping their generation, and/or ask them if they would stand up to it or just deal with their image.

I will ask them what they think the stereotypical teenagers are and would they agree.

  • Is it fair to judge and age group who are going through a lot of change and so quickly?
  • Do you think that teenagers play up to their stereotypes?
  • Is it time for teenagers to stand up?

The questions below are the final questions we will be asking to use in our documentary.

My aim:

The aim for my documentary is to find out why todays society targets teenagers more than any other age group. This is also asking a question I will consider when asking my interviewees.

Stereotypes – Teenagers




Question 1: Do you think that teenagers play up to their stereotypes?

Question 2: Is it fair to judge the younger generation?

Question 3: Do you think you’re a stereotypical teenager?

Question 4: What do you think a stereotypical teenager is?

Question 5: Why do you judge the younger generation, if you do?

Question 6: Why do you think that teenagers have stereotypes?

Question 7: Why do you think that teenagers are judged by these stereotypes?

Question 8: Is it time for teenagers to stand up?

Why do people stereotype?

Why do people stereotype?

We wanted to know why people stereotype certain groups; this is the research we found.

People stereotype because the human brain likes order and attempts to see patterns in disorderly situations. It is much more comfortable with routine and instructions that allow certain outcomes then it is to challenge our own minds. People can also become lazy and not make any effort to change their outlook.

Stereotyping is a form of prejudice and pre-judging. This usually occurs because people take the experiences they’ve had to assume the way they expect someone to behave based on what they know and what the person looks like. Some people are just plain ignorant to accept the differences within people.

To change our outlooks would be to look far within and this can be frightening for many.
People stereotype by projecting certain traits unto others.

For example: The assumption by the ignorant that women like shopping or that men like football. There is no evidence to suggest that women like shopping and that men like football.

Some people like football and some people like to shop. Others do not like football and others do not like to shop. Our minds try to create differences and in those differences, we can feel separate and therefore whole or even better than others.
It makes us feel special because we aren’t like “them”.

I am not arguing that there aren’t teenagers like that our there, but the fact that one teenager has spoiled the image of every other teenager. As I am a teenager, I find it annoying when we all are stereotyped and I think that there are a lot other teenagers that can relate to this image and have been victims of stereotyping.

Research on Stereotypes

Research on Stereotypes:

This is to help us understand what a stereotype is and we decided to spend some time to research the definition.

A stereotype is a simplified and fixed idea of how people belonging to a group behave and is usually based on a opinion rather than the evidence.

One advantage of a stereotype is that it enables us to respond rapidly to situations because we may have had a similar experience before.

One disadvantage is that it makes us ignore differences between individuals; therefore we think things about people that might not be true (i.e. make generalizations).

The use of stereotypes is a major way in which we simplify our social world; since they reduce the amount of processing (i.e. thinking) we have to do when we meet a new person.

By stereotyping we infer that a person has a whole range of characteristics and abilities that we assume all members of that group have. Stereotypes lead to social categorization, which is one of the reasons for prejudice attitudes (i.e. “them” and “us” mentality) which leads to in-groups and out-groups.

Most stereotypes probably tend to convey a negative impression.  Positive examples would include judges (the phrase “sober as a judge” would suggest this is a stereotype with a very respectable set of characteristics), overweight people (who are often seen as “jolly”) and television news readers (usually seen as highly dependable, respectable and impartial).  Negative stereotypes seem far more common.

Unity Research

So for this project, we had to pick a topic within the Unity and Diversity topic, we have chosen Stereotypical Teenagers. Our documentary is based around Unity and Diversity within NHC.

What I found out about Unity;

  • Unity is about understanding within the community.
  • Everyone should be treated with respect. “Treat everyone how you wish to be treated.”
  • Unity is about you having a say in the kind of community you want to be part of.

What I found out about Diversity;

  • The concept of Diversity encompasses acceptance and respect.  It means understanding that each individual is unique and recognising our individual differences.
  • These can be along; dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social economic status, age, and physical abilities, religious and political beliefs or other Ideologies.
  • It is exploration of these differences in a safe, positive and nurturing environment
  • It’s about understanding each other and moving beyond simple tolerance to embracing and celebrating the rich dimensions of diversity contained in each individual.

We had to research both Unity and Diversity for part of our research. I feel that to understand what both Unity and Diversity is, you can get a better feel to what our documentary contains.