Video Production

Putting theory into practice

by Steve Dawkins and Ian Wynd

Documentary production roles and responsibilities

Back to production roles and responsibilities
The main responsibility of the Director is to come up with the overall vision for the documentary. This should largely be decided at the pre-production stage. It then requires you to translate this vision into actual shot material. It is your job to ensure that the material you and your team shoot is technically and creatively of a high standard, is truthful, fair, entertaining and is of interest in terms of subject matter or narrative.

Michael Rabiger 10: “The documentary director is essentially someone who:
  • Investigates significant people, topics, or aspects of life
  • Does what is necessary to record whatever is essential and meaningful
  • Lives to expose underlying truths and conflicts in contemporary life
  • Has empathy for humankind and develops a humane understanding of each new world
  • Orchestrates footage to make a story that is cinematically and dramatically satisfying
  • Can deeply engage an audience in mind and feelings"​
You will need to:
  • Explore potential subjects, concepts or ideas for documentary
  • Lead the research and development of the above with your team
  • Develop and further research the strongest ideas
  • Select and develop one inspired documentary idea
  • Share your vision with the production team
  • Discuss and explore your proposed documentary style in terms of recorded visuals, audio and editing
  • Working with the PA produce all associated pre-production materials associated with the proposed documentary inc treatment, scripts, locations, contributors, project management plan, costs
  • Oversee production of thumbnails or storyboards if necessary
  • Working with the PA organise all necessary production meetings
  • Working with the PA organise all necessary production meetings
  • Instigate and co-ordinate with the PA all aspects of pre-production
  • Work closely with your PA, Camera Operator, Sound Recordist and Editor to ensure they share your vision and develop and contribute to it
  • Shoot a test piece with the crew if required
  • communicate effectively with everyone
You will need to:
  • Co-ordinate and direct effectively your AP, camera and sound crew to make sure that they all allow for your creative vision to be realised
  • Work closely with the Camera Operator and ensure they understand or anticipate your requirements
  • Co-ordinate and direct the interviews and all other recording
  • Have full control over the entire process of recording in terms of creativity, technical aspects, content and professional practice
  • Take responsibility for everything that is recorded and for each location recording
  • Listen and watch for unplanned recording opportunities, making sure you and the team are constantly alert to what is happening around you
  • Seize the unexpected opportunities for recording additional material and follow up potential leads if feasible
  • Always record with editing in mind
  • Communicate effectively with everyone
  • Ensure that you and your team follow safe working practices
  • Ensure the shot material is logged and stored correctly and safely
Ensure that after each day’s filming you and the crew view the footage for the following reasons:
  • to check all the material to see if there is anything missing
  • to see if there is anything that, for whatever reason, is of a poor quality and needs to be re-shot
  • to address any technical or creative problems before it is too late
  • to compare and contrast the material shot and put your mind at rest regarding camera set up and shot style when using more than one camera
In terms of the non-interview footage, in addition to the usual rules of composition, your key considerations are around the effectiveness of each shot. So, as a Director, working alongside your Camera Operator, you need to think about the following:The subject and general composition of every shot
The overall content and background of each shot. Failing to think about this could mean that you have inadvertently failed to consider something that could either undermine the shot you require or, in extreme circumstances, land you in trouble. For example, if your documentary is about shops selling out-of-date food and you have a supermarket in the background, the audience could infer that this is one of the shops. If it is not, you could open yourself up to potentially costly legal action.
The mise-en-scène: that is, what you could add to the shot to help support the shot or to create additional meaning. As with any production, you have the power to construct what the audience see. As we saw above, though, unlike other productions, you have to give consideration to how far you can ‘creatively treat actuality’ before it cease to be reality.For interviews, you need to think carefully about how you frame your interviewee. Traditionally there are certain accepted ways of framing the subject:
If using one camera.A two-shot with both interviewee and interviewer in shot. This is often the worst shot as, if it is poorly composed, both will be in profile and, as a result, the audience will not be able to see the eyes and mouth of either or both. It can be used as an establishing shot in studio interview.Much better is:Interviewee only: This can either be composed on- axis with the subject looking directly at the camera or off-axis looking past the camera to the interviewer out of the frame. The camera would normally be on the subject’s eyeline.
Over- the-shoulder-two-shot ‘favouring’ the interviewee: This is a standard shot, especially in investigative documentary. It mainly frames the interviewee but also part of the interviewers body, thus providing a sense of their physical relation.With two cameras, it is possible to set up one on the interviewee and one on interviewer and ‘cross shoot’. This can look much better and is easier. You will also need to listen very carefully to what interviewees are saying in order to be able to pursue lines of further questioning that will result in interesting and engaging material to edit with

Filming to Edit
Whatever they are filming, a good Director and crew should always be consciously planning for the edit while they film. This is where having even a rudimentary storyboard will help. So, an interview with a war veteran will be much enhanced through the use of cutaways and inserts which will help to tell the story. Some may be able to be shot at the location, especially if this is his or her house - a close up of their medals, a photograph on the mantelpiece of them in uniform, a close up of their hands as they turn their wedding ring, a faded newspaper cutting retained by them – while other may be obtained after the interview; for example, archive footage or a shot of the local war memorial. Cutting to such footage during an interview will afford you the opportunity to cut around a poor edit or jump cut.

Post –Production
You will need to:
  • Ensure all recorded material and associated paperwork is passed from the PA onto the Editor
  • Watch all the recorded material with the Editor and discuss and explore the new directions and possibilities that this material now proposes for your documentary
  • Agree on which material to continue to work with in the edit
  • Let the Editor do their thing supported by you
  • Periodically or when called for assist and support the editing process
  • Initiate and arrange viewings at key points in the edit
  • Ensure that as far as possible you and the Editor are working to the same plan in terms of content and style throughout the editing process
  • Give the Editor room to develop narrative or threads within the emerging documentary
  • Work with the PA to tie up any loose ends from production such as payments or thank yousback to top
The Camera Operator
The Camera Operator works alongside the Director, taking instruction from them and functions as an integral part of the production team, often physically linked to the Sound Recordist via the XLR cable that connects the mic to the main camera.

You will need to:
  • Work with the Director in order to fully understand their intentions and vision for the proposed documentary
  • Understand the overall style of the documentary and the resultant camerawork required by the Director
  • Attend production meetings and familiarise yourself with the associated production documentation such as treatment, scripts and storyboards
  • Shoot a test piece with the Director and crew if required
  • Ensure that you have arranged for the appropriate equipment and stock for filming
You will need to:
  • Care for and set up and operate all the camera equipment
  • Ensure cameras set ups match if using more than one camera
  • Understand and if possible predict your Director’s needs in terms of camera and shot composition
  • Creatively and technically advise or support the Director when appropriate
  • Ensure that set up for the camera and the style for shooting is maintained throughout
Recording Visuals
There is a widespread perception that the majority of documentaries rely on a hand-held, jerky camera style but even a cursory examination of them will show that this is a fallacy. Your camera should always be mounted on a tripod with a good fluid head unless your style of documentary calls for hand-held or shoulder mounted shots. If you do choose such shots, it should be the result of careful consideration early on in pre-production, based on your research around a wide range of documentaries and, finally, appropriate to your idea. For example, if the majority of the camera shots are shoulder mounted, loose and constantly on the move, you would really need to justify why you chose to film that way, for what purpose and how this affects the viewer and the dynamic of the overall documentary.

Another key role for the Camera Operator in a small crew is lighting. Given that documentary is about representing ‘the real’, your audience will tolerate a range and discontinuity of lighting that they would not accept in other types of video such as, for example, a drama. So, in lighting your documentary, you will normally be using ambient light as your main source of light.

From your recces, though, you will have an idea of whether any additional lighting might be needed. The main place that this is likely to be needed is when conducting interviews. The normal set-up for these is to use the three-point lighting setup that we showed you in Chapter 4. This is only of any real use when the production team have an allocated area to set up the interviews in. Certain types of documentary require the use of a single battery powered lamp sometimes called a sunspot which can be attached to the top of the camera and which will emit light in the direction that the camera is pointing. The light tends to be a little harsh but can be tempered by the use of a diffuser which will soften it. Controllability of lighting can be somewhat limited for documentary, but should not be ignored. Careful consideration of lighting and a subsequent plan will ensure that there is continuity of lighting throughout the documentary. As with sound you will need to address the issue of lighting design.

back to top

The Sound Recordist’s Job
One of the first jobs of the Sound Recordist is to isolate exactly what kind of kit will be needed to record good sound in the circumstances in which you will be recording it. So, you will need to give consideration to both microphones and auxiliary kit.

The first rule of sound recording is, as you already know, never use the camera microphone: the sound is likely to be unusable. With this in mind, you will need to think carefully about what type of microphone you use for each part of your documentary. Depending on the type of documentary you are producing, you may need to consider using a selection and combination of microphone: rifle and tie-clip microphones for interviews and omni-directional microphones for wildtrack. Although certain decisions can be made as the result of your recce, taking a selection of microphones with you will prove very useful and provide you with a number of options, particularly if on location. For example, if your set-up time is limited, then a rifle microphone on a fishpole may serve as the quickest and most effective means of recording whereas if you have ample time to set up, then a tie-clip mic may prove to be your best option. The important thing is to consider your recording circumstances and have the right microphones to hand for each situation. If you are using more than one microphone at any one time, you should use a location sound mixer to balance the sound.

Recording sound for documentary can be very different to other types of recording. Documentary represents one of the few situations where the crew may well have to record whilst on the move. They may have no real control over what is happening and must react to the circumstances around them. A busy or moving subject may not necessarily wish to stop and afford the crew the opportunity to set up an interview and may need to be interviewed on the move. This involves the Sound Recordist and Camera Operators working together so that neither is in the other’s way and so that the microphone remains constantly out of shot whilst being as close to the interviewee as possible in order to obtain the best quality sound. This type of choreography between sound, camera, Director and interviewee is not easy and takes practice to successfully achieve as the Sound Recordist must be aware of and anticipate the movements of both the Camera Operator and the subject.

When conducting sound recording for voice recording such as interviews, always check sound levels first: they should peak at -20dB. If the background noise is too loud, adjust the recording level on the camera or sound mixer, move the microphone closer to the speaker or ask them to talk louder. If all this fails, accept defeat and move to another location or visually demonstrate why it is so noisy be having your presenter stand in front of the offending busy road or cut to passing traffic as an explanation.

As with your previous videos, you will need to collect two to three minutes worth of wildtrack or atmos, for each location that you shoot in. This ambient sound from each location can later be looped and used in the edit. For example, if you record interviews in an office building with office workers in the background, it is important that the sounds and general acoustics of that space are recorded as it can be added at the post-production stage to both fill in any gaps in the interviews but also to provide a more general feeling of the ambience of the office.

Again as with previous videos, you will have considered sound fully at the pre-production stage and so should already be conscious of the sort of sound that you want for your documentary. Make sure that you get all the sound that you need and keep your ears open for sound that you did not consider earlier in the process. Consider what types of sound, not just in terms of the spoken word, would support the documentary and how it would affect the audience. This consideration and preplanning should help you produce a sound plan or design for your documentary.

back to top

The Production Assistant’s Job
The Production Assistant is one of the most important people in a documentary crew. Their primary role is to support the director and to do anything that helps the Director to move the production forwards.

One of the key roles of the Production Assistant is to make sure that all the necessary production documentation is kept: primarily, log sheets and release forms.

It is vital that you keep an accurate log as you shoot, especially if you have more than one crew working. The log sheet must be detailed, showing all the necessary key data: crew, location, date, time, tape number, a description of what was recorded, the number of takes, the timecode for each shot and any comments. It is the PA’s job to store these sheets carefully as they will be needed later.

Other essential documentation includes release forms for those who participated in the documentary. This is a form that gives your group permission to use the contribution of the person in the finished documentary. Without such a form for each contributor, you may not be able to broadcast or screen your documentary. Copies of release forms are easily available on the internet. Make sure that they are completed properly, even though you may be rushed and busy doing other, seemingly more important, things. On the shoot in Spain we ended up with rather a lot of these which we stored carefully, but when it came to using the information to write letters of thanks to all the contributors we found that although participants had signed the forms and written their addresses, in some cases we were unable to read them.

back to top
<< back