Codes And Conventions Of Documentary

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  • 1. Codes and conventions of documentary What makes a documentary a documentary?
  • 2. Voiceover
    • The voiceover will usually be authoritative in some way, encouraging the audience to think that they either have some kind of specialist knowledge or, as in the case of people like Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield: ‘the right’ opinions that people should pay attention to.
  • 3. ‘ Real’ footage of events
    • Documentary is essentially seen as ‘non-fiction’ although there are debates around this.
    • However, a convention of documentary is that all events presented to us are to be seen as ‘real’ by the audience.
    • Documentarians often go to great lengths to convince us that the footage is real and unaltered in anyway, although editing and voiceover can affect the ‘reality’ we, as viewers, see.
  • 4. Technicality of realism
    • Including ‘natural’ sound and lighting (note Nick Broomfield’s use of this in ‘Biggie and Tupac’ when they ‘run out’ of sound!)
  • 5. Archive footage/stills
    • To aid authenticity and to add further information which the film maker may be unable to obtain themselves.
  • 6. Interviews with ‘experts’
    • Used to authenticate the views expressed in the documentary. Sometimes, they will disagree with the message of the documentary, although the film maker will usually disprove them in some way.
  • 7. Use of text/titles
    • Text   watch out for the use of words on screen to anchor images in time and space.  Labels, dates etc tend to be believed unquestioningly and are a quick and cheap way of conveying information.
  • 8. Sound
    • Sound  Listen out for the use of non-diegetic sound.  Has music been added?  Why what effects does it have?  Is sound used as a bridge between scenes and if so what meanings are made?  
    • For example look at “Supersize me” – how does the use of childish music undermine McDonalds?
  • 9. Set - ups
    • Not just reconstructions of events that happened in the past but also setting up 'typical' scenes.  So if you want to quickly convey 'classroom' you might ask a class to put their hands up like there's a lesson going on and the teacher's just asked a question.  Strictly speaking what you're showing is not 'true' the teacher didn't ask a question, but it is a way of cheaply getting footage a crew might have had to wait fifteen minutes for if they had just waited for it to happen 'naturally'.   There is an issue here however because if crews make a habit of using set ups they will only be using images of 'reality' that audiences already recognise (confirming stereotypes perhaps) and producing fresh images/ ideas about 'reality' will be impossible.  There's a sort of vicious cycle here.  If I show you radically different images from inside a school you may reject them as atypical or 'unreal' but if I can only offer you a 'reality' you already know about how can I change your opinions?
  • 10. Visual Coding
    • Visual Coding Things like mise en scene and props.  Is that doctor any less a doctor if she's not in a white coat and wearing a stethoscope?  Has someone been ambushed in the street to make them look shifty?