The documentary director has all the duties of a director in scripted film-making, but often works with constraints others don't have to deal with. Generally, he doesn't have a full script or storyboard, is not working with professional actors, and doesn't have the luxury of repeated takes, since many documentaries are meant to capture action as it happens. His role includes central duties in pre-production, the actual filming, and the laborious editing and post-production work.
The director is usually involved in the very earliest planning stages for the production. This may include identifying issues to be covered; researching and contacting appropriate sources; deciding on filming locations that will help tell the story; identifying significant events that are scheduled to occur during filming; overseeing scripts and storyboards; recruiting a crew; developing a filming style; gathering and gaining clearance for archival sources such as film clips and historical documents; communicating a clear vision for the film to the crew and developing a detailed budget for the film. She may also be responsible for shooting a brief scene to give investors and participants a taste of the projected tone and content of the film.
The director is ultimately responsible for everything that happens during filming. This includes overseeing the dressing of sets; setting up cameras and angles; overseeing the sound recording to make sure it is of adequate quality; being ready to change plans instantly if something unexpected arises; overseeing the safety of all; making certain transportation and housing issues are confirmed; pre-interviewing participants to be ready to emphasize significant information; chairing daily meetings and showings of the daily filming for discussion; and ensuring that all activities and film are logged accurately for the editing process. Some directors may conduct interviews either on or off screen, and should collaborate with the producers to ensure that all interviews are conducted ethically and honestly.
Filming to Edit
Documentaries are usually shot for a fraction of the cost of a Hollywood feature film and are often far less predictable. One of a documentary director's most important roles is to film with editing in mind, both to prevent waste and to make the editing process easier and less expensive. This is sometimes called editing in the camera. The director develops, with the writers and art director, a loose storyboard of the film, then frames shots and segments that follow each thumbnail in the storyboard. That way, film can be assembled in order easily, simplifying the editing process.
Generally, the documentary director oversees the actual editing of the film by viewing all footage with film editors and discussing what should stay and what should go, as well as variations from the storyboard brought on by unexpected events or footage that is far more compelling than what was planned and which may suggest a new direction. The director will then view scenes assembled by the editors and approve or disapprove them and will usually directly oversee the final assembly of the finished film. She may also produce a trailer for theatrical distribution, oversee and approve promotional materials such as posters and ads, and meet with movie critics and reporters to publicize the film.
Pete Hisey has been a writer and editor for over 25 years, primarily in the business-to-business field. He has expertise in many areas, including retail, consumer electronics, banking, dining, agriculture and entertainment media.