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Old March 17th, 2008, 02:34 PM   #1
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To narrate or not to narrate?

To narrate or not to narrate?

Is it ideal that a documentary let the camera and editing do the talking? I'm debating whether or not we should utilize narration for a documentary we are developing. We are currently developing the script and outline for required shots.

Any inputs are appreciated.
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Old March 17th, 2008, 03:02 PM   #2
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It's a stylistic choice. For me, the answer is yes. I prefer to let the camera, editing and content speak for itself, with as little voiceover and narration as possible. This includes NOT including the interviewer or the interviewer's questions. That's just one approach. Might not be right for your subject or your style.

What sort of doc appeals to you? Ken Burns uses plenty of narration and voiceover, and it certainly works for him. Watch some docs that appeal to you and think about how your subject is best presented. Does it need voiceover continuously? Sparingly? Intermittently? Never? All of these are valid approaches.
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Old March 17th, 2008, 04:32 PM   #3
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This is a question that's almost impossible to answer in the abstract - in the absence of any hint of the topic and the kind of access to people or process that you might have.

Like Richard, I have a preference for letting a process unfold and let the subjects and/or the process speak for themselves. However, it's not always possible and such an approach can lead to a piece that takes some time to unfold and develop -- not something that current audiences are will to sit still for.
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Old March 17th, 2008, 04:35 PM   #4
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Even if you want to maintain the "true to life" feel of letting the camera and editing do the talking, remember that you are editing for the viewer's beneft - not yours. As someone how did the shooting and the editing, you are intimate with the story.

Try it on a dis-interested person and see if they "get" what you are trying to say. Sometimes a little narration can tie pieces of the story together quickly and easily whereas it will take a long time to relay the story through your on-cam interviews!
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Old March 17th, 2008, 05:07 PM   #5
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Thanks

Richard, Peter, Mike thanks for your inputs.

I really enjoy docs that let the camera and content do the talking and that's what I'd like to do, but I have some obstacles. I'm working on a mini-documentary and am shooting for a 20 minute film. The subject is homeless families and children in my community and the charitable organizations that support them.

Now that you mention it, Peter, I can see where it could take time for the story to unfold without narration and I don't have a lot of time with a 20 to 30 minute film.

I will be interviewing the people in charge of the homeless shelter, the advocates for children, a school social worker, local law enforcement, and a couple of local school administrators and teachers. I will also be speaking on camera with some homeless people who are staying at the shelter and some homeless children whose identities will be safe. I plan to get some "man on the street" interviews as well.

I'm hoping I will get enough footage to lend a good 20 minute mini-doc that will flow well and, more importantly, impact the local community in a good way. I've been advised by a local, experienced producer, who has been involved with several documentaries, that renting equipment for four days and planning the filming accordingly is possible. Right now, time is on my side and I'm sure I'll need it as I haven't tried anything like this before.

Again, thanks for your help.
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Old March 17th, 2008, 05:29 PM   #6
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Again, its a personal stylistic choice, but these are the parameters that I'd address if I were you.

WHO'S story is it? Seems like its the people who are homeless. Though it could be the story of the people who are helping them, or whatever. But it seems from your description, that the homeless should speak for themselves... it will be the most powerful statement. This means speaking 'in verite' - catching their conversations and thoughts on the fly, it could also mean interviewing them for statements 'on camera' IE to the camera or an interviewer. In my approach, if the interviewer is not PART OF THE STORY (in your case, someone who is directly affecting their plight) then I'd leave the questions off camera, and simply ask them to respond in complete sentences. For instance;

Q: How long have you been homeless?

A: I was evicted from my home six months ago.


NOT

Q: How long have you been homeless?

A: Six months.

You can see how the statement in the first example, stands on its own, and can be cut behind the footage of the person settling into the shelter or walking down the street, or directly from the 'talking head'. The line 'six months' is useless without the question. So be sure to prep the subjects with the explanaition that the questions will not be heard, and to phrase their answer so that it includes the questions. I give the example - "If I ask you what your favorite color is, your answer would be - My favorite color is blue - NOT simply the word Blue" Don't be afraid to ask them to re-answer if they miss that element. Sometimes their second answer will be smoother, more detailed after they've had a run at it.

Normally, when I cut a piece together, I aim for whats called a "Radio Cut" first. I simply cut together the pieces I've shot based ENTIRELY upon the audio. Sounds funny, I know - but it's a standard Doc approach. LISTEN to your doc - is it 'telling' you what you need to know? Then look at the pictures, can you cut B-Roll into this long description, and make it more interesting? Can you cut some Verite in between these speeches, to give them more emphasis.

Once you've done that, you will know better if you need to add voiceover to clear up some points. You might need a simple intro and outro. "In our community X number of people go homeless each year ... this is their story" and wind up with a call to action "You can help by donating ...." My feeling is its really a lot better if the subjects can tell the story without an annonymous voiceover.. .but it's sometimes not always the case.

Good luck.
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Old March 17th, 2008, 05:43 PM   #7
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Again, Richard's advice is bang on. If you take time to think through the questions you are going to ask and learn to ask the right kind of follow-ups you can script a person's responses in a way that is truthful, but also easier to edit into a story. If you can, do pre-interviews to build a relationship.

To use Richard's example . . . instead of asking "how long have you been homeless?" you might instead ask the person to "tell me about the last home you lived in". Some element of time would have to be part of an answer to the question, plus you'd be more likely to get all kinds of evocative detail.
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Old March 17th, 2008, 09:22 PM   #8
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Awesome again.

I've read elsewhere to get descriptive answers, but you've re-emphasized the point. I can see where there may be some areas where narration may be needed, but I'd like the homeless and their supporters stories speak for themselves.

I'm sure there are some books out there that could give me some guidance to being an effective interviewer as well. I'll search for those.

Some key leaders in the community are really pumped about this effort and it's added a ton of pressure. I just want to do what I can to maybe help a little and everyone's advice is much appreciated.
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