May 9, 2012
Elements of Film
The Documentary Film
Documentary filmmaking can be an extremely powerful tool in forwarding thoughts, opinions, passions and causes. Documentaries are all about filming reality in a way that allows others to be able to project themselves into the lives and stories and others and see a world they might not have seen otherwise. A good documentary can change one’s life and thinking forever; it can cause someone to find a life passion; it can ignite a passion for a social cause that in turn changes the world. Documentaries are an important art and the elements that go into the film are what make it powerful. A good documenter knows what questions to ask, what shots are important and what music score will make each scene as powerful as possible. In this paper I will outline some of these elements that go into making a great documentary and the ways in which documenters utilize these elements.
The first aspect of a documentary that we will explore is the knowledge of the documenter in what shots the movie will need to be the most powerful and the determination to get these shots no matter the cost. Getting the right shots for a documentary involves both determination and luck. In many cases documenters stumble upon brilliant shots that could not be planned. Raw emotion cannot be planned and that is what makes it strong. Powerful shots are sometimes happenstance but determination is a big part of what gets shots that are needed for these movies. Often times the stories being told are stories that are not approved on by the subjects and therefore an amount of risk goes into the filming of the most shocking and powerful shots. Documenters must have vigor for their film that gives them the resolve to take the risk to get the shots that will ignite the passion into the audience. Without this determination the film cannot excite the audience in the way that is needed to make the film a success.
In the documentary The Cove, the shot that makes the entire movie and made it the powerful movie it was took months of preparation and planning. This movie dealt with the dolphin trade in Japan, and because the money from the dolphins is such a large part of the economy of very powerful people it would be a difficult task for the documenters to get a shot of the hidden and protected cove in which the mass slaughter of dolphin was taking place. The makers of the movie knew the consequences they faced if they were caught filming the cove but their determination and resolve pushed them to get this powerful shot. The crew snuck into the guarded, fenced off area in the dead of night and planted cameras all around the perimeter of the cove as well as underwater cameras and audio. These cameras caught the first ever video of the slaughter that was taking place in this cove every year. The shots of the blood red water and panicked dolphin trashing around desperately trying to escape their immanent fate tightens the skin and sends chills down your spine. A shot like this could never had happened if the crew were not determined to bring this cause to the public no matter the consequences. This shot alone got the attention of millions and furthered the cause of stopping the dolphin trade around the world.
In contrast the film Knuckle was a story stumbled onto by the director, Ian Palmer. This documentary is a powerful story of two travelling Irish clans that are in a bitter feud that has been furthered by generations of bare-knuckle street fights. Palmer’s discovery of this story was purely happenstance when a friend of his offered him a job filming the wedding of a Quinn McDonagh. Palmer heard of the feud for the first time then and became enthralled. He began filming the fights and the story of the feud unfolded in front of him within 12 years of his filming. The film demonstrates the intensity of the family connection in Ireland and how the prorogation of violence can continue throughout generations to a point were no one knows what the violence is for they just know that the other clan is their enemy. Palmer’s stumbling onto this story started as pure luck and became an excellent story with a strong message.
Another important element that goes into making a great documentary is the ability of the documenter to know what questions to ask to elicit the emotion they need to have the audience connect with the story and subjects. A documenter cannot be afraid to ask tough questions but at the same time must be able to connect with the subject in a way that allows them to trust the director and feel comfortable divulging intimate details that they may have never admitted before. This is not easy and takes a certain type of personality. If the documenter can connect to their subject the subject will be more relaxed and truthful on camera. This truth will be conveyed to the audience and in turn cause the audience to better connect to the subjects and therefore the story.
In the film Facing the Habit, Magnolia Martin is able to earn the trust of heroin addict and former millionaire Dave. Earning this trust allows Martin to gain an intimate view into the life of a drug addict before, during, and after treatment. The trust earned by Martin ensures that Dave is comfortable sharing every bit of his life and therefore can tell the real life raw pain of addiction. In the film Dave reveals stories, struggles and his most vulnerable moments to the camera and gives the audience a rare insight into the world of addiction.
The score or soundtrack of a documentary is often overlooked but is a crucial element to making a film. The right score can make the shape, mood, pace and emotion of a film. When scenes are paired with music that cause a visceral response the scene is much stronger and more effective in conveying the emotion of the situation to the audience. The relationship between the composer and the filmmaker is very important to the film. The documenter must be able to explain what they want to show in the scene and the composer must be able to compliment that creative vision with the score that will best demonstrate the emotion.
Man on Wire is an excellent example of successful use of score to portray emotions in a documentary. Every scene in this movie is perfectly matched to the situation and gives the film extra emotion. One scene in particular has an excellent use of score. In the scene in which Philippe Petit is explaining his emotions when first seeing the World Trade Centers the score conveys a feeling of nervousness, hopelessness but at the same time an excitement. Petit says he felt as if his dreams were crushed when he saw the height of the tower, impossible, impossible he says but he had an unexplainable feeling to touch the tower. This music adds to the drama of the scene and almost makes you feel what Petit was feeling. Throughout the movie the music is composed perfectly in line with the situations and give the film added drama. The scene below is another great example of the musical pairing in the movie. The music is loud and dramatic giving the viewer a feeling of trouble and uneasiness as the police officers are waiting for Petit to exit the tightrope.
Having the right shots, asking the right questions and matching your film with the correct score are three crucial elements that can make a documentary powerful. When documenters are able to utilize these elements successfully the product is a film that can change lives and minds. Documentaries that portray the story successfully can bring their audience into the story in a way that allows them to empathize with people that they have never met and would have never thought of empathizing with. Documentaries tell the reality of worlds that some people would never be to expose to otherwise and therefore they have the ability to open minds.