Short Ideas Blog Post 17 on the factual genre

Defining Genres — Factual


Documentary, editorial and journalism videos use the real world as subject with varying degrees of objectivity. I would shy away from journalism proper, as this is a very specific tradition with a burden of balanced perspective that is probably best left to someone trained in that area. Documentaries wear a veneer of objectivity but make no claims of a fair and balanced perspective, opting for “a truth” rather than “the truth”, and we accept that the filmmaker is telling a story from a certain perspective with an objective to fulfil. This is arguably the same scenario as journalism, as shaking oneself of one’s own bias is an extremely difficult task, but that’s a discussion for another place. Editorial work is wholeheartedly subjective and offers a lot of creative freedom, as it is unabashedly a particular person’s perspective on a subject.

These factual variants do share an approach to material, however, that has a complex relationship with the script. As with event films, you are likely in a position of limited understanding of what is going to occur, what the scene will look like, or what someone is going to say. You can still prepare a solid treatment that offers a clarity of objective, style and tone that can provide the production with a solid spine.


Research on prospective subjects and scenarios will yield some characteristics that, when tested against your treatment, should reveal where they may be useful in telling the story that you’re trying to tell. You can then develop a series of questions for your interviewee that will help them to express what you’re after or a possible sequence of shots that will portray the scene in a constructive way. Unpredictable situations can often leave a production team realising that they are shooting the middle of a story, while the beginning has eluded them and they are desperately looking for an ending.

This is where a clear treatment and research will help guide what the section could (or should) be about, offering clarity to what kind of introduction to the scenario could be shot to set up the current sequence and a conclusion that would adequately sum it up and hopefully set up the next one. This involves an element of writing on the fly that is perhaps inescapable with real, live situations, but it is achievable if you have prepared the course of your story as much as the particular project allows. (A more detailed discussion of working with interviews to write a script will be in an upcoming post.)

Sidekick Series The Rise of The Cat Tattoo

Following the format of a classic subject–based documentary, this film could easily be much longer if the story warranted it. The piece is well crafted and exhibits the traditional elements of the genre, talking head interviews, b–roll sequences, clearly defined sections and a narrow subject focus.


A subset of the Factual genre is the host driven interview, which could be a long form conversation or press junkets. These can either be researched and prepared, like traditional documentary interviews, or left to the curious mind of the host. Another is the travel film, which we’ll explore in a few examples:

New York City Travel Guide

Documentary in Nepal: Living on a Dollar a Day

Here we have a couple examples of the classic host driven travel film, where someone guides us through and mediates an experience. The level of polish is completely different but the authenticity of the naive “Documentary in Nepal” offers a lot of authentic charm. Part experiential, part historical, these are a sort of tour–guide interpretation of what can be done with the genre. A more modern version follows:

Travel by Michael Flarup

A Walk In Nature

Watchtower of Turkey

Much more lyrical, these films share a factual and stylistic approach to their travel subject matter. The first is still factually–based as it is a document of Michael Flarup’s recent travels. Interestingly, it is the context that clarifies the genre; these films could easily be repurposed with a V/O or end frame card, making them either brand films or commercials.

“A Walk In Nature” focuses more directly on an impressionistic interpretation of the experience. Dalessandri’s film is a highly emotive take on this particular style, with a very personal and immersive take on the travel film. No hosts eating street food here, just a sense of direct, romanticised involvement with the subject.

The Glint

Consider the style of this beautifully shot film in contrast to the preceding travel films. It operates as a brand film because of the audio, but remove it and this is no less a lyrical document than the others. The context is created by the genre to which its elements appeal, cloaking it in that language and informing us how to interpret the whole.







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