I have always been drawn to documentaries, not only because they provide an opportunity to understand and connect with the world, they encourage discussions about real life issues and challenge stereotypes.
As a BBC journalist I have been fortunate enough to produce and present documentaries. Most recently for BBC Three, Secrets of Sugar Baby Dating. I learnt some really useful tips along the way which I would like to share.
For me, the first thing you need to make a documentary is a worthwhile topic. I know this may seem obvious, but it is a lot trickier than you may think. Sometimes documentaries are known for being about relatively obscure ideas. And that’s okay. Or they can be controversial, raising ethical and moral challenges as well as legal ones. These are my personal favourite documentaries, they create strong opposing views and start conversations, whether that be at home or on social media.
Or you may want to explore an issue that will resonate and mean something to your audience. You want to take them on a journey and provoking emotions are key to capturing people’s hearts. Before you start ask yourself, do you have enough aspects to make the viewer question their preconceived ideas and really capture their attention?
Another key element for making a documentary is the team around you. I had an experienced director and producers who helped navigate, challenge and motivate me to do better. It’s important to remember documentaries can be intense as you have to immerse yourself in one topic. It becomes your life for however many months or years, so you want to do it justice as you only get one shot to get it right.
One piece of advice to ensure you get as close to perfection as you can, is film more than you need! That’s what we did – don’t be disillusioned by the fact you won’t use everything you film, but something you did record that doesn’t make the cut may have steered you into a different direction you didn’t consider. I believe there’s always productivity in every encounter.
The heart of any documentary begins with the people willing to share their personal stories. When you are starting you can have the most experienced production team, a comprehensive structure, but without real people there’s nothing to film. You need captivating characters to bring your story to life.
When I make documentaries, I never take for granted how much I am expecting of people to let me into their most personal moments, whether that be for TV, Radio or Online. That’s why making those initial research calls and scoping out what each person would bring to the story is crucial. Different perspectives are key and that leads me to another skill, interview techniques. As a presenter it’s extremely important, you could have a great contributor but if you don’t ask the right questions in that moment, or haven’t done enough prior research, you could lose that moment of gold.
That’s why preparation and building a relationship with the people you are going to interview is important. Your interviewees aren’t always media trained, so you may have to do most of the work for them. By that I mean making notes when you have your research chats, it seems like minutiae at the time but it can potentially make or break your interview. The contributor can say the most brilliant anecdotes on the phone, but on the day of the interview with a camera in their face and a producer watching them, they could completely change and become shy and withdrawn. That’s where your notes come in and save the day, they allow you to coax things out of your guest, that they may otherwise have forgotten to say.
The last piece of advice I would like to disperse, is don’t be so hard on yourself! You may not achieve every single thing you set out for, whether it be that perfect shot or your dream interviewee, but in hindsight every interaction teaches you something, so I never see disappointment as failure.
Tiffany Sweeney is an award-winning investigative journalist, documentary maker, and presenter for the BBC.