Project 16 – Documentary Research

The last exercise was to do with following the structure of Hollywood type movies or those with a three act structure. This exercise focuses on documentaries. We seem to be having a documentary week in our family as there are a lot on TV at the moment so I found myself studying and analysing at ten at night. Bizzarely my mind seems to be quite active then so I made the most of it.

There are several types of documentaries the course tell us.

True life stories – these are documentaries which often include acted reconstructions of the event such as ‘Jane was walking to work when the tsunami struck’ then showing Jane looking alarmed with a voice over. They usually focus on human interest stories.

Investigative reports – such as the Horizon programmes looking into certain topics of all genres. For instance Are E-Cigarettes more harmful than standard cigarettes? There are examples of peoples stories, clinical trials, debates and in this example the presenter even tried E-Cigarettes for several weeks to see the repercussions on his body. There never really is a final outcome though. Such as in this where they didn’t really know the answer and would have to trial it for much longer. But these reports are very informative, fascinating and contain an abundance of information.

Observational Documentary – At first I wasn’t too sure as to what this type of documentary was. I found this quote though “Observational documentaries attempt to simply and spontaneously observe lived life with a minimum of intervention…The films aimed for immediacy, intimacy, and revelation of individual human character in ordinary life situations.”  This made me think of the documentary Child of our Time, a huge project following 25 children who were all born at the turn of the century from birth onwards. “The aim of the series is to build up a coherent and scientifically accurate picture of how the genes and the environment of growing children interact to make a fully formed adult” It’s a fascinating series and would be also described as both a telling and a showing documentary but mostly showing.

After reading the course I did some research to discover other types of documentary.

It turns out the concept of types of documentaries was formed by the American Theorist Bill Nichols who created six modes of documentaries.

Poetic. Observational.Participatory. Expository. Reflexive. Performative.

The Poetic Documentary

“Instead of using traditional linear continuity to create story structure, the poetic documentary filmmaker arrives at its point by arranging footage in an order to evoke an audience association through tone, rhythm, or spatial juxtaposition.”

Poetic documentaries are usually those that have some importance to the presenter, film makers or characters.

As the name suggests, they are rather poetic creations, the photography is artistic and creative and music is used to enhance mood and emotion. There is no continuity editing. I didn’t know there was a name for this type of documentary so admit it took a bit of time watching some to determine their main features. I would say they are the equivalent of a song in film terms, showing an insight into the world in beautiful imagery and rhymic quality, there is no linear narrative but songs and poems can be used to enhance feelings.

attempt to create a feeling rather than a truth.

Observational documentaries.

These are the atypical, fly on the wall where the filmmakers react to the moment without prior planning or preparation. It often feels exactly like a fly on the wall that takes off buzzing judging by the shaky footage in scenes of motion. The viewer can feel the energy of the scene. Used in programmes such as Catfish, Big Brother and in a spin off type, The Only Way is Essex.

However it is also used in more intelligent documentaries such as nature programmes, though I wouldn’t call it unscripted, filmmakers must react to their current situation which is why it is in this category.


A documentary where the film maker engages directly with the interviewee. It feels more raw and less scripted.


Probably one of the most common documentary devices. and when one thinks of a documentary it usually is this format. The viewer is given information and the footage proves this. The viewer can form their own opinion but as the narrator is already doing this it is more often that not one to relax with.

It uses photos, films and objects  to document true life events such as in Coast. Some feel however that they only present one version of the truth and often one sided.


The film maker engages with their subjects in this type of documentary thus paving the way for the narrative.. It can be seen as a making of, a behind the scenes. In Nature documentaries it is now common to include ten minutes or so of how a certain part of the documentary was filmed. It provides an insight for behind the scenes and how it was filmed.

A powerful example is Stories We Tell


Where the film maker is the main character. My friend Patrick Corr’s movies could be classed in this mode. The film maker directly engages with the viewer and you are shown a glimpse into their world whether they are climbing a mountain or exploring incredible new worlds.

It was really fascinating investigating into all the different modes of documentary. It took quite a while to watch the videos and get a feeling of what it takes but I’m glad I did.





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