A documentary is a "reality-based" movie.
Documentary film is a broad term to describe a non-fiction movie that, in some way, tries to capture, recreate or "document" reality.
Documentaries are often used to reveal an unusual, interesting or unknown angle.
It is a genre of movie making that uses video & film scenes, photographs and/or sound of real people and real events which when edited together creates a particular story, viewpoint, message or experience.
Documentaries can be funny, poignant, disturbing, ironic, absurd, inspirational, amusing, shocking or any combination.
Traditionally, documentaries are 30-minutes to 2 hours in length (to fit within a television schedule or for theatrical release). However, documentaries are often shorter in length, especially in recent years with the advent of the Internet and web video. Learn what is a mini-documentary.
Want to learn the SECRET to making great documentaries?
You may be wondering how a documentary is different from a feature film. Although each genre is constantly evolving, there are a few key differences.
"Real People" vs. Actors -- In general, documentaries use real people in real life situations to tell a story, whereas a feature film uses actors. Of course documentaries sometime include "reenactments" using actors to recreate a scene and feature films can use "clips of real events". But in general, this is a key distinction.
Real Life vs. Fantasy -- In general, documentaries are meant to capture in some way "real life" whereas a feature film creates a whole new world that may or may not be based on real events or real people. The difference here is fact vs. fiction.
Cost -- Documentaries tend to be far less expensive to produce than a feature film. With a feature film, there are often elaborate sets, costumes, actors, exotic locations, spectacular effects, etc which can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Whereas a documentary is often much less complex. Again, these are general statements because with improving technology and lower costs for movie-making equipment, there are some feature films being made really cheap these days. Check out these iPhone movies.
When I first began making documentaries, I wondered why a documentary was sometimes referred to as a film or movie even though documentaries are often shot on video. I asked this of a friend of mine who’s a professor of film at NYU and she explained that a "film" or "movie" is a general term to describe the art form of a "moving picture". Aha! In any case, making a "film" sounds much cooler than making a "video", right?
Check out this wonderful little movie below ("Mankind Is No Island") that was shot entirely on a cell phone.