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11 Tips for Making a Mockumentary

Michael Maher

A mockumentary, a combination of mock and documentary, tells comedic storylines in a straightforward manner. Here are 11 tips to help you make a mockumentary.

Image: This is Spinal Tap via MGM

Many filmmakers begin their careers making some sort of documentary film. Documentaries are a great way to learn storytelling and the basics of video production. A documentary film is also created with a very limited staff, many times just one person shooting and editing.

A great way to transition from unscripted material to a scripted feature is making a mockumentary. A mockumentary will give directors a chance to direct talent, while trying to maintain a written story. The same techniques are used in “found footage” horror films. In this post, we will be focusing on the mock by looking at comedies only. Let’s turn it up to 11 and get rockin’.

1. Find an Odd Subject

This part should be the most fun, yet most difficult. If you think a topic is too over the top, odds are that it isn’t. Mockumentary films have spawned from April Fool’s Day pranks. So don’t be afraid to do something absurd.

April 1st, 1957 – The BBC current affairs program Panorama aired a three-minute hoax entitled Spaghetti Tree. At the time, spaghetti was not a commonly known food in the UK. The piece showed a family in Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from the spaghetti tree. The piece resulted in viewers calling the BBC for directions to grow their own spaghetti trees.

2. Try to Use Only One Camera

This isn’t a major feature with tons of angles. Treat this like any tight-budgeted documentary. If you can pull of a mockumentary with only one camera, that’s the best option. Using two cameras is ok, as it allows editors to cut when there is a lull in the story. Also, if an improv scene drags on, the editor can cut to a reaction shot or another angle to remove the unnecessary dialogue. Don’t use more than two cameras, as that will ruin the feel of the film. 

3. Handheld or Shaky Footage Is OK, If Not the Standard

A mockumentary keeps the feel of a standard documentary, in which the camera operator is typically using an over-the-shoulder camera. Thus, it’s totally normal to see some shake and zoom in footage. Feel free to leave the tripod in the car.

This shot from Brüno follows the main character from the barracks to outside. The camera runs alongside him the entire time.

4. Use Natural or Minimal Lighting

Don’t spend too much time perfectly lighting a set, you want the feel of a traditional news interview. Since over-the-shoulder cameras are most often used in mockumentaries, it’s very common to just use an on-camera light.

What better way to avoid light than by telling the story of vampires living together. In What We Do In the Shadows, the sets are very dimly lit. An on-camera light will be put on a character’s face, and then accented with some back lighting.

5. If Following a Band, Have Great Music

If you are planning to make a musical mockumentary, know that the standards are very high. Some of the best mockumentary films follow bands. They can follow real bands, like the Beatle’s in A Hard Day’s Night. That film influenced the knock off bands The Rutles in All You Need is Cash as well as The Monkees.

Perhaps the greatest known mockumentary follows the titular band in This is Spinal Tap. In fact, the British metal band was so great, the actors would later reprise their roles to go on tour. The film really revolutionized the mockumentary. It also launched the career of Christopher Guest. Guest had written the film, and would soon begin directing his own pictures.

6. Don’t Be Afraid to Improvise

Perhaps the most famous mockumentary filmmaker is Christopher Guest. (He actually hates the term mockumentary.) Guest is a tremendous improviser, having tested his skills on The National Lampoon Radio Hour and Saturday Night Live. He and Eugene Levy would build the framework for a story, and then let the cast of improvers run away with the idea.

7. Put on a Show

Most often, Christopher Guest’s films revolve around the idea of putting on a show. That idea spawned several great mockumentary films. It introduced the stage antics in This is Spinal Tap. Waiting for Guffman tells the story of putting on a musical. Best in Show follows a national dog competition. A Mighty Wind focuses on a folk band performing a reunion show.

8. Exaggerate Relatable Cliches

A great way to help the audience connect with your film is to put in characters they can relate to. The success of The Office (including the UK, US, and other versions) can be tied to the fact that the audience could relate to working in an office place. They were familiar with the idea of an annoying manager or lazy coworker. What The Office did was push the envelope of those character.

9. Interview Actual People Instead of Actors

Want to add some great candid interviews? Don’t even use actors. Sacha Baron Cohen notoriously used this technique in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of KazakhstanBrüno, and The Dictator. Cohen would go out of the way to fake production documents to gain access to events or land interviews on local news stations.

10. Don’t Overuse Talking Head Interviews

Overusing interviews can make the story drag. Try to only use the interviews to put an emphasis on a situation. See how this Parks and Recreation interview just pushes the prior setup forward, rather than setting up another concept.

If the story just isn’t moving along, you can also try using voice-over narration. Woody Allen hired legendary narrator Jackson Beck to provide the voice-over in Take the Money and Run.

11. Have Simple Sets

You want to keep the look of a traditional documentary. Incorporate actual places, like you would in an normal interview. This clip from Best in Show all takes place in a house. The interview itself is conducted on a bench in front of a window.

Did we leave off any important tips? What’s your favorite mockumentary? Let us know in the comments below.