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5 Quick Tricks to Fix a Boring Documentary Project

Jourdan Aldredge

If you find yourself working on a documentary project that’s starting to get boring, here are some quick tricks to help you get back on track.

To anyone reading this who immediately wants to point out that documentaries — by nature — are inherently boring, you’re wrong. Yes, documentaries can tackle very serious issues. They can be complex, nuanced, and evolved. They can be long, slow, and even exhaustive. But they should never be boring!

The primary goal of any good documentary is — first and foremost — to inform. However, to inform an audience well, you have to put something together that has all the elements of compelling entertainment. And, since documentaries are a genre of filmmaking, many of the same tricks and techniques that apply to narrative storytelling can also apply here.

Let’s take a look at how to approach the issue.

Work on the Story and Structure

Architects Discussing Ideas

Make sure to have a strong structure to your storyline. (Image by GaudiLab.)

I’d have to say, from working on a few documentaries (and watching many more) over the years, the majority of the issues with a “boring” documentary come from problems with the story and structure. The same is true with many narrative film projects, as well. But, it’s doubly true for documentaries, which rely so much more on these elements.

Whether you’re just starting out on your project or are deep in the editing process, you should ask yourself the following: If you were to sit down with a pen and paper, could you write (or sketch) out the entire story and structure of your film?

If not, why not? Just taking a moment to focus on the overarching narrative can help immensely. From there, it becomes a trick of conveying that story to the audience. And, the following tips can help you do that.

Animate or Illustrate When Needed

The idea of adding custom illustrations or animations to a documentary project can be very appealing to documentary filmmakers. This is especially true for documentaries that are overly reliant on interviews with little action or B-roll. In many ways, it’s almost like the magical touch, at times, because you can showcase visual (and often informative) information that you might never have had the opportunity to film.

However, overusing animations or illustrations is something to avoid — and it can become expensive and time-consuming, depending on the number and quality of the illustrations and animations.

Add Movement and Transitions

In addition to animating or illustrating B-roll or specific scenes, other smaller editing tricks can actually be quite helpful for speeding up sequences and making the general tone and style a bit more appealing. For your standard static interview shots, consider adding more angles or movement — whether that means sliders, dollies, or even just adding some subtle movement in post. A little bit of motion can go a long way.

Transitions can also become droll, after a while. As long as you do it tastefully and without creating a distraction, you can always add different transition elements in your shot compositions or in the edit. (Here are some cool transition packs to check out for Premiere Pro.)

Alternate Means of Exposition

Another issue you often find with boring documentaries is simply too much exposition. Yes, exposition is an important part of storytelling, but just because you want your documentary to be informative doesn’t mean you need to be all-encompassing right off the bat. Consider letting the mystery of your story develop in some areas.

Sometimes, all you need to make a compelling documentary is a few sentences over a black screen to provide all the exposition you actually need. Other things like lower thirds, narration, or interviews can provide the rest.

Make Those Tough Cuts

Editors Working on a Project

When editing your documentary, a shorter film can be more entertaining and informative. (Image by Sutipond Somnam.)

Finally, from a filmmaking perspective, documentaries are notorious for requiring tons and tons of filming and footage. And, because of the amount of time documentarians spend shooting and compiling all this footage for the edit, it can be that much harder to make the judicious decisions about what to cut and how long the final version should be.

And, while we’d all love to be shooting ten-part docu-series projects like Ken Burns, most documentary projects are either feature-length or much shorter, for online viewing.

At the end of the day, you’d much rather someone watch your film and say “I wish that was longer” than “I wish that was shorter.” And, in today’s age of readily available content online, there’s no reason why you can’t make a project shorter, then offer more content later, if there’s a demand from your audience.

Cover image by Photostriker.

For more documentary filmmaking tips, tricks, and resources, check out these articles:

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