Elements of a Documentary Film

By Thomas James ; Updated September 15, 2017
Documentaries are factual television shows or films.

Documentary films are nonfiction motion pictures that describe some real-life issue or subject. They can be made both for broadcast on television and for showing in movie theaters. Documentaries can provide an objective description of something or a polemic argument in favor of a particular viewpoint. Examples of documentary films include wild life documentaries and historical documentaries.

Narration

Narration is the verbal description of what is happening in a documentary film and is performed by a narrator. In historical documentaries, the narrator tells the story of the historical event or period that forms the subject of the documentary. In nature documentaries, the narrator describes the animals on the screen and provides context and background information on their behavior. The narration can be delivered through a voice over, by a narrator visible on-screen or some combination of both. Good documentary film narration has a clear, logical structure that helps the viewer better understand the subject of the documentary.

Interviews

Interviews are used to provide context, eyewitness statements and expert knowledge to the documentary. In documentary films, they usually consist of the interviewee visible on-screen answering questions delivered by an off-screen interviewer, who may also be the narrator of the documentary. Interviewees are often depicted sitting in their offices or homes, looking into negative space and not directly at the camera. Interviews are edited so that the statements made by the interviewees fit into the logical structure of the narration of the documentary.

Location Shots

Location shots are used in documentary films when discussing a particular place. In historical documentaries, location shots may show the place where particular events took place. These might be overlaid by computer generated reconstructions of what the location looked like in the past. Location shots are often used at the beginning of a documentary film to provide a context for the start of the narrative.

Music and Sound

Music can be used to add drama and emotional tone to documentary films. In historical documentaries music from the relevant period is often used. Music can also be used to generate a sense of irony. Sound is an integral part of many sections of a documentary film. It is important that the narrator's and interviewee's voice levels are at an appropriate level and quality.

Graphics

Graphics consist of anything that appears on the screen that was not actually filmed. They are widely used in documentary films. The opening titles and credits will make use of graphics, as will subtitles and translated text. Graphics are also used to explain complex ideas in a visual diagrammatic form. Computer-generated graphics are often used in documentaries to create images that would otherwise not be available to film, such as ancient buildings that have since been demolished and extinct animals.

Archive Footage

Archive or stock footage is film shot for purposes other than the particular documentary film in which it is shown. It is often used to portray famous historical events or to give a sense of context of a particular historical period. Archive footage is often cheaper for the documentary maker to procure than original film and interviews.

About the Author

Thomas James has been writing professionally since 2008. His work has appeared on the science-fiction blog Futurismic. He writes about technology, economics, management, science fiction, politics and philosophy. James graduated from Trinity Catholic School and holds A-levels in physics, maths, chemistry and an AS-level in English language.