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Documentary-Style Filmmaking: Profiling People

Profiling individual people and telling their story is a fundamental method of documentary style filmmaking.

In this post, I give you two examples from my own library.  They’re both health stories I made while working as a field producer and health reporter for WSMV-TV in Nashville, TN.

PEOPLE WANT TO WATCH OTHER PEOPLE

To enhance the “watchability” of a video and make it appeal to a broad audience, the standard practice is to profile a person who experienced the subject matter of the story.

In short, you videotape them doing whatever it is they do, and weave it into the final story in a logical way.

On the surface, the story appears to be about them, but the core of the story is really the situation or topic and the person’s experiences become the vehicle by which you tell the story.

This is a great technique, especially when you’re trying to visualize an abstract topic or trying to be more creative with your storytelling.

People respond to people.  So make you story about people no matter the underlying topic.

Audiences respond to emotion, not dry facts.

The best, most entertaining videos are compelling stories of individuals who experienced whatever issue the video is actually about. You film sequences of their activities and turn that into your b-roll for the story.

PROFILING PEOPLE ENHANCES CREATIVE POSSIBILITIES 

The first video in this post is about losing weight.  As you can well imagine, like any health reporter, I’ve written more than once of the subject of weight loss!  I didn’t want to do the same old standard story showing carrot sticks and scales so I profiled Maria, a lifelong obese woman who was very open and honest about her problems.

Weight loss is a complex emotional issue.  What better way to impart that in a short minute and a half video than to intertwine it with the most emotional of all events, a wedding! That’s the emotional hook that brings viewers into the story.

The video clip posted at the top of the page is the full video that ran on the air, but without the anchor intro which, of course, is an integral part of the viewing experience in TV news broadcasting so I apologize for its absence.

VISUALIZING THE ABSTRACT IN A CONCRETE WAY

How do you make a video about an abstract subject like depression?   Sad faces?  Tears.  Maybe, but whose face and tears?  It’s best to tell the story of depression by telling the story of someone who dealt with it.  That’s what I did with the second video in this post, which I named “Garden Grief.”  (Video posted here is just the first half of the story.)

The woman in the story below had suffered from serious depression after enduring a brutal car wreck that killed her friend and left her seriously wounded, both physically and mentally.

She worked out her grief and stress by creating a huge backyard garden overa number of years. So videotaping her on her knees digging in the dirt was logical and pertinent video to weave into the overall story, which was about depression, not gardening.

The video in the weight loss story is a basic sequence of her dressing and preparing for the wedding. I used those sequences as b-roll and wove in the emotional aspects of obesity, which the core subject matter of the story.

Now you can’t tell me that isn’t a better technique than doing the twenty zillionth dieting story showing carrots and scales!

HOW TO MAKE DOCUMENTARY STYLE VIDEOS YOURSELF

In order to do a basic profile story of a person on video, you need a good interview plus video of them doing something. If you are doing a long piece, you can make it more compelling using variety.  Videotape them doing several different activities, not just one.

Interview your subject in more than one location if you have time.  Interviewing them while they are doing something, and not just sitting there, is a good idea although neither of these pieces make much use of that technique.  You’ll probably need a wireless microphone to do that.

Hopefully, whatever video you take is actually related to the subject matter, but if it’s not, no worries.  Sometimes it’s impossible to get the video you really WANT so you have to learn to configure the story around what you have.

The trick is to write the narration in such a way that it makes perfect sense to see whatever video you use.  In the story on Maria getting married, once I established the link between love, weight loss and her wedding, it made perfect sense to see video of her putting on her wedding gown.

In the same manner with the depression story,  close-ups of bird’s nests and wind chimes make sense in context.

When I made the Garden Grief story, I really would have liked to have added some still pictures of the auto accident which lead to her depression.   If you watch the portion of the story I posted, there is no doubt that at the right time, screeching tire sound effects, music and quick shots of the wreck scene would have worked well.

I did not do this because this video was produced in a context of JOURNALISM.  I needed images of the actual wreck, not just any generic wreck.  There was no way I could get them by deadline so I left them out.

If I had not been telling this story in the context of journalism, I would have felt free to use generic wreck shots and sounds. It would have added to the impact of the story, but it would have crossed ethical boundaries of realism in journalism.  Now there is not much ethical journalism going on in America today but that is another post!  I always tried to be strict with the boundaries of journalism, even if that made the story less dramatic.

Neither of these stories is anything outstanding really, rather they are typical of what I used to do on a daily basis.  They are typical of documentary style filmmaking in general but news is produced at a much faster pace than a high-budget corporate video.

No matter what kind of documentary-style videos you want to make, chances are high that profiling people and telling their stories will be one of the best ways for you to accomplish your goal.

PROFESSIONAL DOCUMENTARY MAKING TIPS

I hope you enjoy these examples and can see from them all the different elements it takes to make a quality documentary style video.  Notice the pacing of the editing.  Rarely does any one shot last as long as ten seconds.  There are lots of close-ups.

There are short natural sound breaks between paragraphs of narration. Natural sound is a storytelling element that can be used similarly to punctuation in written storytelling.

The video illustrates the story but really does not match word for word with what the narration is saying.  It is more of association type relationship between the words and the video, not a literal one.

People who have been making video forever (like me) consider this type of relationship between our visuals and our spoken words to be a more creative method that tells a more effective story than matching images to narration precisely.

dog
My sweet doggie, Sandy.

“Say dog, see dog” is the jargon. This means a newbie filmmaker is inclined to show EXACTLY what the narrator is saying in a literal sense. Not t say that method is wrong but higher-level filmmakers would come up with something a bit more creative, like showing something indicative of a dog, like food bowls, bones or chewed up shoes.

Thanks for reading Video Production Tips.  As always, drop me a line if you have questions about online video.

Lorraine Grula

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Lorraine Grula


Lorraine Grula enjoyed a fast-paced, multifaceted career in the television and video business, producing, shooting, writing, and editing documentary-style videos in both news and corporate settings. Later, she got to teach media and video production in two high schools, which then morphed into instructional design and corporate training. Lorraine is now dedicated to sharing her vast knowledge with others who wish to learn the art of video making, with an emphasis on storytelling and creating professional-quality videos for the internet as simply, yet creatively as possible.

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  1. This is great. I have a question for you. There are so many moving pieces in video. Of course, audio of the person speaking, audio of narrator, video, background noises, etc. Sometimes I find it difficult to get my mind around how all of it should look like in the end. What I have been doing lately is just doing the video, splicing out the best parts of the interview, and then working in evereything else around that. How do you organize it all? Do you have a few simple steps that you follow for each documentary shoot that helps to focus your thinking so that you are effecient and so your video ends up flowing well and being impactful in the end?

  2. OK – one simple follow up is how do you choose what your opening video is? For instance, in the video about Maria you start it out with Maria crying. How do you choose your opening? Would I be correct in saying that your conclusions give people a sense of hope because it shows that the situation is resolved; at least in both of these videos the conclusion seems to end any uncertainty and conclude with a problem solved scene.

  3. Hi Matt.
    Great question. Here is the process I always used. Sounds like you are on the right track. Start with the interview. Transcribe it word for word. This is tedious and boring but absolutely necessary. Read it over and listen to it and select the best portions. Paraphrase the other parts and make that your narration base. Add in other facts and details. As you get more adept at storytelling, it will become second nature really to hear in soundbites and formulate the story in your head. As you write the narration, you essentially write something to carry the story to the next soundbite. Remember the basic principles of storytelling, having a beginning, middle and end. The beginning needs to be compelling or no one will stick around for the middle or end. Use short sentences and even sentence fragments freely. Conversational writing for video scripts is WAY different than the way the English professor demands that you write.
    Punctuate with “natural sound,” the off-the-cuff stuff that gets recorded without scripting. Natural sound is often used as a transition or bridge to another subject. Other transition elements include graphics, music, and of course wipes, dissolves and good old fashioned cuts. When trying to decide what to cut and what to leave in, go for the emotionally-laden stuff and skip the details and minutia.
    I hope this helps! Keep making videos!
    Lorraine

  4. Thanks Lorraine. What happens if the person you are interviewing just ends up not being that compelling? Do you ever struggle to find a compelling beginning? What are some of the things that make up a compelling beginning? Do you just end up dropping alot of stories because they end up not really being all that compelling?

    thanks!
    Matt

  5. How did I decide to start with Maria crying? Well…. that was easy. OK, don’t call me mean but: Go for the jugular. Never be shy about that.
    The shot of her crying (a close-up no less) is THE MOST DRAMATIC WAY of communicating the essence and severity of her problem to the viewer. You ALWAYS want your open to be as compelling and dramatic as possible. Just like a classic fairy tale or Hollywood movie, this story about Maria has a happy ending! She walks off into the sunset in a cloud of bubbles giggling! Quite a contrast to the shot of her crying that I began with. Life is wonderful again, time for a commercial!
    In stories like this, a generalized good strategy for an opening is to put together a series of good visuals edited together to the beat of music. I could see an opening like that for your story on the guy who started the gyms. Cut together 7-8 quick close-ups of the guy working out or helping people, pace it with some music, then begin your narration, or use the voice of the subject talking. Lots of profiles like this can be done without any narration at all if your person is an articulate enough speaker. Use their voice in a voice over way, like a narrator. Don’t stay on their face visually the whole time but show b-roll of them doing something.
    Narration is an opportunity to pack a lot of info into a condensed section. Well-written narration will be more condensed than normal people speaking off the cuff, which is what your interview will be.

    I hope this helps!
    Lorraine

  6. If I had a nickle for every non compelling person I ever had to make a story about, well, let’s just say I could go buy a nice big car. Sure some people are boring. If they are THAT dang boring you should realize that in pre-production and not do the story. However it is also true that not every video needs to be heart-racing. I mean I am a real fan of making HONEST videos so I do not want to take a boring person and make them sound like John Wayne, even though I have that power. But adding a dash of pepper to the stew is usually necessary even if your base ingredients are tasty. Video pepper includes music, fast-paced editing, emotion-tugging sounds of all kinds, emotionally laden visuals of all kinds including shots of babies or animals. I am a real believer in the fact that every human on earth has SOMETHING about them that is compelling enough to make a video story. Just gotta dig down and find it.
    Lorraine

  7. Hi Lorraine,

    I know this is a little off topic – but could you point me in the right direction to figure out how to remove background noise. I interviewed someone in a bar and there is so much background noise. I tried to use audacity to remove the noise but it doesn’t work because it messes up the audio that I want to be heard as well as the background noise.

    Do you know of any really good programs for that?

    Thanks!

    Matt

  8. Hi Matt.

    It is REALLY hard to get out background noise like that. Your experience with audacity is pretty typical. Without really sophisticated software, it is very difficult to significantly improve audio that is recorded poorly. It is hard to isolate out just the “noise” and keep the audio you want. It can be done, but even in a program as sophisticated as final cut, it simply does not work all that well.

    Update: After I posted this response, I read a review of some inexpensive software called Izotope Music and Speech Cleaner that seems to work better than most.

    It is always best to record the audio well. When you are in a situation like that, try getting into the most quiet area you can get. Leave the bar and go outside if necessary. Then, make sure the microphone is as close to the mouth of the person speaking as possible. If they speak loudly, it will help lessen the background noise.
    Maybe you could add subtitles.
    Sorry to say that truly improving poorly recorded video or audio is way more difficult than most people think it is.

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