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.
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
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.
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