Keeping your documentary short… short


Documentary short film

Photo by Orin Zebest

What happens when a documentary is supposed to be short (under 40 minutes), but research and filming have resulted in hours of complex material that you think might work as a documentary feature, if not a multipart series?  Here are some tips for staying on track.

Remember that a short film is not simply a time-limited version of a full-length film; it is its own creative form. (The best analogy would be to short stories and novels. While they use the same basic elements of storytelling, anyone who’s tried to write both knows that short stories are a separate creative form, with unique challenges).

Make choices. Of the many pieces of your topic you’ve discovered and filmed, which—if you had to pick ONE—would you most like to make a short film about?  Which would you actually enjoy watching? If there is an overall idea or issue that you want to explore, does one story or thread do this better than others? Is one more memorable, or more likely to get people talking? A powerful, focused short often has more impact than a lengthier film that covers everything in part, but nothing in depth.

Do the short film now, knowing that you can still do the feature later. Maybe the short film can help you to raise awareness/funds/interest in the longer film; maybe it can even be a chapter in the longer version. But do the best short film you can—don’t simply make a mini-version or a trailer of the longer film.

Consider a range of structural possibilities. With any film, but especially shorter ones, three-act structure isn’t your only option. Watch and map short films that you enjoy watching, to see both the content and the craft. Here are some places to watch documentary shorts online, see which ones work for you, and try to figure out the structure:

National Film Board of Canada:

PBS’s Independent Lens:

PBS’s POV (some but not all of the films are shorts):

Understand that even the feature-length version of your story will necessitate difficult choices and streamlining. Super Size Me and Inconvenient Truth, for example, explore complex issues of science and health, but they follow basic narrative arcs that motivate and allow for meaningful complexity (as opposed to clutter).  Good filmmaking is always about making choices.

Recognize that no single film—long or short—can do everything.  Let the film do what films do best, and then share the balance of your research through other, more appropriate means, whether that’s companion websites or blogs, print materials, community or classroom outreach, additional short films, or something else. The film gets the conversation started; it doesn’t have to answer all the questions.

Excerpted from Documentary Storytelling: by Sheila Curran Bernard, © 2010 Elsevier Inc. All rights Reserved.

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