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The Makings of a Great Documentary Film

Creating an entertaining documentary is a challenging (yet rewarding) experience for filmmakers, especially for those looking to engage viewers with a topic that’s usually forgotten or ignored. While thought-provoking documentaries have the potential to go viral and cause a societal reaction (I’m looking at you, Making a Murderer), a dull documentary will send viewers straight to the off button on their T.V. remote or out of the movie theater doors. As a filmmaker, it’s crucial to consider the key elements that make up an excellent documentary to create excitement and discussion among your audience. Here are a few ways you can do that below.

Do Your Homework

A good documentary is nothing without solid facts and hard evidence. Make sure that you’ve crossed your T’s, dotted your I’s, and have verified everything. There’s nothing worse than promoting a documentary that’s supposed to be factual, only to hurt your reputation for having not double-checked what an interviewer or narrator claimed to be true.

Evoke Passion

It’s important to remember that even when viewers are open to the idea of watching a documentary, they still want to be entertained. Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore reminds filmmakers that viewers “don’t want to be lectured,” making it vital to evoke passion and energy within any documentary. Keep in mind that your audience wants an escape from their everyday lives, and to present them with material that’s depressing or bogged down with facts isn’t fair. Don’t do that to your audience.

Bring energy and focus into each shot to thoroughly engage your audience.
Bring energy and focus into each shot to thoroughly engage your audience.

Use Interesting and Applicable Characters

Don’t interview a victim’s uncle’s brother’s neighbor just because they were willing to sit down with your crew and answer a few questions. Provide your viewers with quality interviews that reveal inside information about the main topic or highlighted character, and only use characters that are intriguing or directly involved in the issue at hand. It’s also a good idea to include an expert on your documentary’s subject to add depth and authenticity to your film.

Choose the Right Music

The music you choose for your documentary is crucial, as it will set the mood for your viewers and will either draw your audience into the plot or push them away entirely. Make sure that you consider the era of your topic when picking out a soundtrack and whether or not you want to include popular music from that time. When choosing where to place individual songs with the film, be aware of what you want your audience to feel at that particular moment. The use of silence is also equally effective, depending on the topic at hand, and can be used when displaying ending text in the last shots of your film.

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