Documentary makers know that there's more to the art then just letting the camera roll. There are strategies to employ, and in choosing the right ones, there are mistakes to be made. Don't get stuck in one (or more!) of the 5 mistakes documentary makers make:

1) Not asking a question or choosing a theme

I think the biggest mistake people make is going ahead with making a documentary just on the basis that they have found a subject that interests them. This can sometimes result in a great film, but rarely. A documentary has to ask a question or have a big theme. By “big theme” I don’t mean it’s got to be worthy – another documentary no-no that I’ll get to later—I just mean its got to have a driving force of some sort. Before filming, ask yourself, what question am I asking and how does this film express my worldview?

  2) Choosing a ‘worthy’ subject

People who decide to go off and make a documentary on the basis that the subject is ‘worthy’ get themselves into a tricky spot. You might find that a righteous topic is so widely researched that there aren’t many new upheavals to make. You also might find that the footage doesn’t create an entertaining feature. Interesting, worthy documentaries might work for a TV insert or news piece but are unlikely to make a great film.

3) Using poor technique to recreate events

When watching TV documentaries, one of my biggest Room 101s is when directors try to portray a past event by going all low-resolution and throwing the camera around or wheeling in bad actors and making them go out of focus. There’s more to drama reconstruction than the blurry, home movie look.

For great drama reconstruction watch Man On Wire (which also benefits from some extraordinary archive film footage).

4) Using bad music

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The soundtrack of your documentary can really make or break its mood. Don’t trust the guy that you just met who offers to write an entire score for your film. You, the director, should have your own strong ideas of how the music will function in the film. From there, it’s your responsibility to choose the right person for the job, someone who understands your ideas and has the knowledge and talent to make those ideas come to life.

5) Filming without a vision

At the end of a day a great documentary has to have a strong vision, and that vision informs every creative and editorial step along the way. Like mentioned before, your music guy has to share your vision; so does everyone else in the process. Only when everyone is on the same page can the documentary achieve its intended goals.

Col Spector
Col Spector is an award-winning director who began his career producing and directing documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4. These include “Just Enough Distance” “The Lost Supper” "The Real Alan Clark", and “Trouble At The House.”

He then went on to write and direct the short comedy drama “New Year’s Eve” (starring Stephen Mangan & Keira Knightley) before making his feature debut with the low-budget unromantic comedy “Someone Else” (starring Stephen Mangan & Susan Lynch) which was distributed by Soda Pictures in the UK and the IFC/Sundance Channel in the US. His second feature, the relationship comedy Honeymooner (starring Gerard Kearns) was also distributed in the UK by Soda Pictures and recently broadcast on BBC1. He is currently in pre-production on a new dramedy feature.

Col teaches the popular Documentary Foundation Certificate at Raindance, and runs a bespoke documentary consultancy service for professional and non-professional documentary-makers. To see how Col Spector could help you with your film and to read some testimonials from filmmakers who have used his service go to www.thedocumentaryconsultant.com.