Documentaries 101
What is a documentary film?

Documentaries 101: What Is A Documentary?

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. 

Definition: documentary


1. Consisting of, concerning, or based on documents.

2. Presenting facts objectively without editorializing or inserting fictional matter, as in a book or film.

n., pl. -ries.

A work, such as a film or television program, presenting political, social, or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner and often consisting of actual news films or interviews accompanied by narration.

- The American Heritage® Dictionary

Let's Go To The Movies!

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?

Key Features of Award-Winning Documentaries 

Documentary vs Feature Film

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.  

7 Day Documentary Crash Course

Why is it film if it’s video?

Documentaries 101

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. 

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