There are lots of different techniques which a documentary can employ. One style is expository which is characterised by a ‘voice-of-god’ narration which addresses the viewer directly. The meaning of the images are anchored by the voice-over and states the texts preferred meaning. This type of documentary is usually centred on a problem which needs solving.
Another style is Observational which is often known as “fly-on-the-wall”, it began with the direct cinema techniques. Through this, lightweight camera equipment was used in order to allow crews to film right in the middle of the action which created more drama and excitement.
Observational narrative avoids commentary or voice-over and the camera is as unobtrusive as possible. The techniques used are indirect address to the audience, meaning it is not initially directed at the audience. Diegetic sound is also used in relatively long takes in order to demonstrate that nothing has been cut out. This type of documentary tends to focus on specific individuals meaning events tend to unfold in front of the camera with the film-makers having no knowledge of the outcome.
The problem with this style of documentary is that it is impossible to create a genuine ‘window on the world’ because the presence of a camera in the situation affects the people who are being observed causing them to act differently around the camera. Also, the director can make editing choices which mean that observational documentary is as full of bias as any other form of documentary.
Ducosoaps are a development of the observational genre making them a hugely popular hybrid. What sets ducosoaps apart from their predecessors is their prioritisation of entertainment over social commentary. This type of documentary was made possible due to lightweight camera equipment meaning that the intrusion is minimal and forces the film-maker to become part of the story.
Ducosoaps have an episodic, soap-like structure, with several interweaving plot lines. Each of the plot lines involve different characters, of which normally consist of about 3 minutes air time before moving onto the next. The shallowness of the genre has prompted criticism. They are interested in the ordinary but reach a level of success which they create and promote ‘stars’. This particular genre tells us nothing about society, it only tells us about individuals who are very aware that they are on television.
In some cases, it has been known for characters to become famous, such as the singer Jane MacDonald who went on to host her own television show on BBC1 which led to her becoming a very successful recording artist.
An example of a reality television programme which is well known is Big Brother which has become a huge success worldwide. Factual television is now characterised by a high degree of hybridisation between different programme types. This may sometimes be referred to as ‘infotainment’ which is a combination of entertainment and the provision of useful information. Throughout British television schedules, factual programming increased between 1989 and 1999.
The well-known term ‘reality TV’ has become used to describe the most high-impact of the new factual television. This term was first applied to news magazine programmes based around emergency services activities. It has then gone on to describe talk shows, docusoaps and ‘constructed’ documentaries.
Since the first wave of factual programming based on the emergency services, the term ‘reality TV’ has widened. It is now used popularly to describe programmes of which use ordinary people filmed in a first person confessional style. It would seem that in an image-saturated culture there is desire for visual realism.
This style of documentary acknowledges the presence of the camera and crew. The easily portable equipment used meant that post-dubbing was no longer required and allowed the film maker to speak directly to his/ her subjects; this was generally in the form of an interview. This means that the focus is on the exchange of information rather than the creation of an objective view.
Audiences may read interactive documentaries as being more honest and real as they do not disguise the camera and crew. However, this is a manipulation to the audience as the interviewer sets the agenda by asking ‘loaded’ questions and choosing who to interview.
Reconstruction and re-enactments are just as old as documentary itself. Drama documentaries arouse much debate because unless based on transcripts, they are even more open to bias and interpretation than other forms of documentaries.
Reconstruction continues to play a role within much documentary programming.
'docudrama'-fictional story that uses techniques of documentary to reinforce its claim for realism.
'dramadoc'-documentary reconstruction of actual events using techniques taken from fiction cinema.
The purpose and effect of the techniques used is more important than the labelling.
An example of a current affairs style documentary is Newsnight. the meaning of current affairs is that this type of documentary debates the news itself. These are journalist-led programmes, which have the aim of addressing the news and political agenda in more depth that the news bulletins allow. The emphasis is on the investigatory and the political, seeking out atrocity and political scandal.
Documentary footage is rarely broadcasted without being edited showing that the documentary subjects are in the film-maker's hands and things may be changed according to situations they may be put in. It could become a problem if the film-maker doesn't balance their responsibilities to those who appear in the programme.
Editing is an area of difficulty because any documentary can only be a representation of a particular subject.
Factual accuracy is vital for current affairs documentaries: responsibility to the audience outweighs responsibility to the subjects of the programme.
The relationship between programme makers and their subjects varies: they can be reporting on their subjects, investigating them, or observing them.
BBC and ITC guidelines affect the final edit of any programme.