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Action, Reaction, Reveal — How to Create Better Documentaries

Zach Ramelan

Creating a compelling documentary means elevating emotions and drawing the viewer into your subject. Here’s a three-step strategy for how to do just that.

Elevating emotions in a documentary can sometimes be a bit of a struggle. When I used to go on shoots, I wondered if what I was capturing would work for the edit. Was there too much B-roll of this and not enough A-Roll of that? I found when I stepped into the editing room (a.k.a my parent’s basement), I often lacked sufficient footage to build a compelling, complete narrative. After many incomplete projects and learning the hard way, I developed a three-step strategy that has not only improved my filmmaking game, it has also ensured that what I’m capturing will work for the edit. I call this action, reaction, reveal.


Step one is to capture footage that best represents action in the moment. If it’s a travel video, it could be coverage of walking, hiking, biking, flying — basically anything with movement. These are the details that create motion in the story. This is where you’ll begin building the experience for your viewers.



The reaction is one of the essential pillars of this structure. Your goal is simple: capture the response of your subjects. This can include facial expressions, body language, or dialogue. Think of a scene playing out on Christmas morning: children are opening presents and emoting a ton of excitement. The most important thing to film at this very moment is their raw and real reaction to opening the gifts. This is because you can usually capture the action after the reaction, and most times, it’s less critical.

As storytellers, it’s our goal to connect an audience to the narrative we’re sharing, and the best way to do so is through relatable themes like facial expressions and emotion. The only exception to this approach is when the action is unrepeatable (i.e., an explosion going off). In this case, try your hardest to find a second camera so that you can film both at the same time.



I’ve found that some of the most rewarding footage in a sequence is the reveal. It’s finally showing that thing your character was reacting to — like a ripped-open gift on Christmas morning. Above all else, your reveal is the payoff, and if you pace your action and reaction well, this will be the explosive moment that ignites an audience’s emotion. When filming, you can almost always capture the reveal last on your shot list. Save it to the end and make sure to get those actions and reactions first!

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