Documentaries Defined

Documentary filmmaking is the art of capturing reality on film or video. It's a big responsibility, and with it comes great power. When you can show your audience something that is based in reality, the opportunities for deep emotional connection and profound learning abound.

There are many different ways to approach the craft of documentary, but generally it can be categorized into three different modes or forms:

1. Expository
Expository documentaries employ voice-over narration and interviews to disseminate information, and often, argue a point. This is the form of documentary you're probably most familiar with. A majority of the docs that receive theatrical distribution and Oscar nods these days fall under this category. (Give some classic examples)

There are a lot of great expository documentaries on Vimeo! The Documentary Film and the Socially Minded Documentaries channels are both great resources to get your non-fiction fix.

2. Observational
Observational documentaries eschew interviews, voice-over narration and a soundtrack, and instead present footage of real life as it unfolds. The effect is a documentary that tends to show, not tell, and invites each viewer to draw his or her own conclusions from the film. Also referred to as direct cinema, this form of documentary emerged in the 1960s, with the advent of lighter weight, shoulder mounted film cameras and sync-sound recorders. A classic example of direct cinema is the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, made by legendary documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles.

There aren't too many pure observational documentaries being made these days. For an exquisite example of modern day vérité, check out the trailer for Zachary Levy's Strongman, a beautifully intimate and human portrait of strongman Stanless Steel:



3. Experimental
If it doesn't fit into one of the above categories, let's call it experimental. This category includes documentaries that don't follow a typical narrative structure, incorporate elements of fiction, or take a more poetic or avant-garde approach. As long as it documents real life, it's a documentary! This includes Vimeo favorites, like the vidblog, 5x5 and Me Right Now. Didn't think your latest vidblog was a documentary? Well when you consider that Joris Ivens' 1929 film Rain is cited as a classic example of poetic documentary, you might just reconsider!

There are so many avenues you can take with experimental documentary. Check out Drew Xanthopoulos's Western Brothers' Adventure Story for some inspiration to think outside the box.

***Portrait
Technically the portrait documentary would fall under the expository category, but there are so many Vimeans out there making beautiful portraits of their super cool and creative friends that this deserves a category of its own, at least on Vimeo. The portrait documentary combine shots of the creation process with interviews and voice-over to present an intimate portrait of an individual and showcase his or her craft.

The Handmade Portraits videos from Etsy are prime examples of the portrait documentary. So is this delicious doc on the bread at Tartine Bakery by 4SP Films:

For more great documentaries, check out the documentary shortlist from our own 2010 Vimeo Festival and Awards. It wasn't easy to choose a winner, but here's a clip of the presentation for best documentary award.


The winner, Last Minutes with Oden, is a compelling look into the unique and beautiful relationship between a man and his beloved dog. Using a simple but revealing shooting style with a candid voice over, you can't help but be pulled into the very emotional storyline.

Documentaries are as varied as life itself so there's bound to be a style that suits you and a story that you want to share. Remember, there's a world of documentary out there that goes far beyond the science videos you watched in middle school biology, so go forth and discover the truth with your cameras!

Category:
Behind The Scenes
DSLR
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Lesson Summary

Curious about documentaries but a little fuzzy on the definition? Understanding the different forms of documentary filmmaking can improve your craft as a video creator, and broaden your horizons as a viewer.

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