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The Historical Development of Style in Documentary Films

How documentary styles have evolved through the decades

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Documentary style has constantly evolved and redefined itself. Ever since the earliest films were made, filmmakers have invented new technologies and storytelling solutions that have, in turn, suggested additional and more innovative possibilities to younger filmmakers who have seen and learned from the work of their elders.

Early French Shorts

Before 1900, films were extremely short--a minute or less--and really just captured moving images in a single event or scene. Moving pictures were seen as such a novelty, their mere existence was enough to enrapture viewers. The best examples of these black and white documentaries is the fascinating footage of the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, shot at their studio in Lyons, France.

Seminal Styles

In 1914, two seminal documentaries indicated the development of divergent styles in longer form: storytelling documentaries. Edward S. Curtis used reenactments to show ’true’ Native American life in In the Land of The Headhunters, while footage actually shot on location revealed the hardships endured by the cast of The Rescue of the Stephansson Arctic Expedition.

Setting the Scene

Reenactment and setting the scene was commonplace in early documentaries. In his famous Nanook of the North (1922), Robert J. Flaherty shot on location, but frequently censored the behavior of his subjects and even had them build an igloo without a roof so he could get sufficient light and space for his camera work.

Newsreels

Early newsreels, too, featured reenactments. A cameraman would arrive on the scene after the battle was won--or lost--and re-stage battle scenes so he could film them as news clips.

Kino Pravda

Kino Pravda (Cinema Truth) describes Dziga Vertov’s 1920s newsreel series. Vertov believed the camera could see and capture reality more accurately than the human eye, and used varied lenses, time lapse, shot and counter shot, slow, fast and stop motion to capture the cinematic reality of a moment in time.

Propaganda

Films were used as outright propaganda during the 1930s and 40s war years, when Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, which stirred Nazis to their fevered adoration of Adolph Hitler, was countered by Frank Capra's Why We Fight newsreels, which were produced to sway Americans to go to war.

Cinema Vérité

Taking advantage of technological developments in image and sound recording equipment, the French Cinéma vérité, similar in name to Kino Pravda, took documentary filmmaking to a new level of realism by using handheld cameras on location to capture events as they occurred. No more staged battle scenes. Cinema vérité shows you the real thing.

Direct Cinema

The North American variation of Cinema vérité, known as the Direct Cinema style, was developed and preferred by trend-setting filmmakers Michel Brault, Pierre Perrault, Richard Leacock, Frederick Wiseman and Albert and David Maysles.

Various Takes on Direct Cinema

Following the Direct Cinema style, most filmmakers shoot for reality, but contemporary directors are generally divided into two groups--those who, like Michael Moore, enter the story and influence its outcome, or those who, like D.A. Pennebaker, remain objective observers who watch and film as their story develops.

Still in Vogue

The Direct Cinema style, still in vogue, usually involves following a person or group through an event--often a crisis--using handheld cameras to capture the subject's reactions as the situation unfolds. Voice over narration and sit down interviews are used very sparingly. In making these films, directors often shoot many hour of film, which must then be edited to concisely tell the story. In contemporary documentary filmmaking, editing is often as important as shooting, but great editors--like Nancy Baker, who shaped Harlan County USA--rarely get the credit they deserve.

Power of Persuasion

The propaganda potential of documentary film is still a factor in contemporary nonfiction films, especially those dealing with political hot potatoes. For example, most films shown at the annual Human Rights Watch International Film Festival have strong social and political messages for viewers.

Big Budget Small Budget

Commercially successful documentaries such as Super Size Me, March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth have given nonfiction features a much broader reach--and yielded bigger budgets for some documentary filmmakers. On the other hand, very affordable digital recording equipment now makes it possible for almost anyone to make a documentary, which guarantees a proliferation of nonfiction films--which will undoubtedly give rise to the development of new and highly individual styles of documentary filmmaking.

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