Documentaries follow 3 basic formulas. For some examples of documentary community videos and where you can see them on the Internet, see the appendix. Here we will explain the types:
In its purest form the crew do not interact at all with the subject. The most common forms are nature programmes. The observational documentary was first made possible by the introduction of lightweight cameras and portable sound-recording systems in the 1960s. This allows the crew to move quickly and stick close to the subject.
The observational documentary refuses the use of a narrator explaining events, preferring to allow the visual material to ‘tell its own story’. It creates the impression that events are unfolding ‘naturally’ in front of the camera.
In ‘direct cinema’, the documentary makers attempt to remain invisible, observing but never interfering with the action. In ‘cinema verite’ mode, the presence of a camera and crew is recognised by the participants, who may be asked to answer questions from the crew or to address the camera directly (for example, TV programmes like ‘Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares’ or ‘Wife Swap’). Here the subjects speak directly to the camera or crew about their feelings.
As the conventions of the observational documentary were adapted in the work of television documentary makers in the 1970s, the mode was often referred to as fly-on-the-wall, emphasising the privileged position of the audience. In other words, we are witnesses to a situation to which we would not normally have access.
The current trend for ‘docusoaps’ is one illustration of the adaptation of documentary techniques for the medium of television; the participants of programmes such as ‘Airport’ are filmed in their homes and workplaces as though they are carrying on with normal life. It is their ‘normal’ lives that we are interested in. Occasionally the participants will acknowledge the presence of the crew by talking directly to the interviewer or camera, serving to give us public access to their private thoughts and viewpoints.
Interviews, voice-overs, even confrontation can come together in this format. When it has a strong point of view, it is called political documentary.
This type of documentary often uses a narrator to address the audience directly and to present an explanation, interpreting what they are seeing on screen. This is one of the oldest forms of documentary and one of the most established conventions. Programmes such as Big Brother still use this type of voice-over narration, in order to interpret and explain the material we are watching. Whether or not the narrator is ever seen, we are expected to trust the narration as the truth about the subject or the best interpretation of it.
On occasions, the narration of a documentary is shared between a number of people, as experts, witnesses or participants, or ‘talking heads’, as they are known. This approach is often used in programmes such as BBC’s ‘One Life‘ and also programmes like ‘Crimewatch’, where a number of different perspectives on a single incident are available.
Uses reconstructions to tell the ‘truth’, common in disaster or history documentaries where actual footage is unavailable.
This is one of the most controversial areas of documentary and one of the most difficult to define. This mode generally involves the dramatic reconstruction of real events, using actors (or occasionally the original participants) employing the style and form of fictional film or television.
It is generally used when there is no way of gaining access to original material or when there is a need to make that material more persuasive or more striking. This mode can be used in small sequences to illustrate or support wider concerns of the documentary (the dramatic reconstructions of ‘Crimewatch’, for example) or can constitute the whole programme. Drama-documentaries have always been controversial because of the ways in which they openly mix fact and fiction in order to gain an audience.