Eight Things You’ll Spot in Every Documentary

In order to make sure that the shooting style is consistent across the series (we’re using four different directors spread across the eight episodes!), the Series Director asked me to find examples of different scenes that you would find in a typical documentary. I realised that I had essentially compiled a list of what you need to shoot to make a high-end presenter-led documentary! So here they are – and look out for each one next time you watch factual TV…

  1. The Two-Way Interview. This is where the presenter introduces and then interviews someone, such as an expert or witness. Check out my blog post ‘How to Film an Interview’ for more on that.
  2. The Talking Head Interview. This is just a mid-shot of an expert making a relevant point, with a ‘name tag’ appearing at the bottom of the screen.
  3. Two Way Archaeological Investigation. The presenter is taken around an archaeological site, or shown an object of interest, while a resident expert explains the significance of that object or place.
  4. Walking Piece to Camera (PTC) Exploring a Site. This is where the presenter explores a site or shows an object and explains it by themselves.
  5. Walking PTC Storytelling. The presenter walks through a neutral or themed location (e.g. along a path, in front of some ancient-looking columns, down a corridor flanked by statues etc.) while they tell a part of the story of the documentary.
  6. Static PTC. The presenter is sitting down, or standing still, telling us another part of the story, or making an important point.
  7. Presenter on a Journey. This is quite self-explanatory – short sequences of the presenter in a car, on a boat, in a helicopter, cycling – whatever you like – to show them on their way from one location to another. This is particularly important if your documentary takes you to locations all around the world – although it’s perfectly fine to snap from the presenter in front of the Parthenon to a sewer in Tunisia, sometimes it can feel like a sudden and disjointed transition. This helps to smooth it out, and allows for some explanatory narration over the scenic shot.
  8. Wallpaper Shots. These are non-sync (not talking) shots of the presenter walking along, or big sweeping landscape shots, or aerial drone footage, or close-ups (cutaways) of objects, flowers, road signs, whatever you need to fill in some narration time, or just some contemplating time in your documentary. Remember, you can never have too many of these!

The last two in this checklist are often called B-roll. Sometimes they’re shot by a different cameraman or director, and you can have a bit more fun with these – make them pretty, artistic, effective. They’re just as important for building the story as the talking shots – because, as we saw in a previous blog, one image can speak a thousand words.

I’m thinking of making a few of my own short films over the next year, so I’ll make sure I capture these eight different types of sequences when I’m shooting them!

Eight Things You’ll Spot in Every Documentary