International School History - Documentary Film Making in the History Classroom

A history student's guide to documentary film making techniques.

Why important?

A documentary film is a film that presents information about factual rather than fictional topics. These films have a variety of aims: to inform viewers, to convey opinions or to create public interest. With the exception of historical feature films, documentary films influence the way the public understand the past more than any other medium, including school history lessons. Over the last 20 years the number of historical documentaries produced has increased significantly and television has struggled to satisfy the public appetite for stories about the past. But also in the last 20 years, historical documentary production has become increasingly sophisticated in order to meet the rising expectations of the public and the needs of competing satellite TV channels. Historical documentary is big business and the educational goals are constantly under threat from the need to entertain. A number of common techniques or conventions are used in documentaries to achieve these aims. As a history student you need to stop simply watching documentaries and instead start to ‘read’ them, understanding how they are made.

1. The exposition 2. Actuality Footage 3. Narration 4. Oral History
5. Archive material 6. Reconstructions 7. Music 8. Graphics and CGI


In a documentary, the exposition occurs at the beginning of the film and introduces the important themes of the film. It is important because it creates the viewer's first impression and introduces the content. Historical documentary exposition very often raise a question to be answered or a problem to be solved by the film. It is common for the documentary to challenge an established ‘orthodox’ view of an event, or to present a case based on newly uncovered evidence. Dramatic segments of the documentary are specially chosen in order to catch the viewer’s attention at the very beginning.

Actuality Footage

Actuality is the term for film footage of real life events, places and people. In a traditional documentary this might be a presenter talking to camera or interviewed experts (‘talking heads’). Increasingly documentaries have to include film footage (in glorious HD and 3D of course) that has been shot in foreign locations, from the air, up a mountain or underwater. Because the audience now sits in front of sophisticated home cinema entertainment system, the film maker is obliged to give even greater consideration to the aesthetics of every shot. The key question has to be: ‘will this look good?’


Narration in a documentary is a scripted commentary spoken while the camera is filming, or added to the soundtrack during the production. Through this the filmmaker can speak directly to the viewer, offering information, explanations and opinions. This is unusual in feature (fictional) films, but very common in documentary. It can be done either though a presenter talking to camera (‘on-screen dialogue’) or through an anonymous, unseen (‘voice of god’) narration.

Interviews (Talking heads)  - Oral History and Expert Historians

The interview is a traditional documentary technique. It allows people being filmed to speak directly about events (talking heads), prompted by the questions asked by the filmmaker. The setting of the interview is carefully chosen to reinforce the message of the interview. Expert historians are a common feature of historical documentaries and are typically filmed in front of book cases or at historical sites. The setting reinforces the authority of the views expressed. Interviews in a documentary give the viewer a sense that the documentary maker’s views are mutually shared by another person or source, and thus more valid. To achieve this, much detail from what may be a one-hour interview has been edited out, so that clips of only a few minutes are shown. The interviewer will only ask questions that support the main theme presented within the documentary, and thus the viewer is given the impression that this is the only view.

Archival footage

Archival, or stock footage, is material obtained from a film library or archive and inserted into a documentary to show historical events or to add detail without the need for additional filming. This can include still images as well as archive film. Archival footage is particularly important to historical documentary film making. The concept can also be extended to include the photography of historical material from archives which are used to illustrate a documentary film.


Reconstructions are a relatively recent addition to documentary film. They are artificial scenes of an event which has been reconstructed and acted out on film based on information of the event. Reconstructions have become an almost essential element of documentary film and can even make up the entire filmed footage of the documentary. (e.g. Days that Shook the World, BBC, 2003) Reconstructions generally provide factual information and give the viewer a sense of realism, as if the event really happened in front of them live. This can be very powerful and/or entertaining. Film makers often (but not always) indicate that the footage is not real by using techniques such as blurring, distortion, lighting effects, changes in camera level, and colour enhancement within the footage. Reconstructions are one of the most expensive aspects of modern documentary film making.


Like feature style reconstructions, music is increasingly important in popular documentaries. Soundtracks can provide a musical context for the history and can also provide incidental music to help fix the emotional tone of the message being conveyed. Incidental music is often ‘background’ music, and adds atmosphere to the action. It may take the form of something as simple as a low, ominous tone suggesting an impending startling event or to enhance the depiction of a story-advancing sequence.

Graphics and CGI (Computer Generated Imagery)

For obvious reasons of technological development, graphical images and special effects are increasingly important in documentary film. Traditionally this might have been in the form of a map illustrating geographical context or a hand built model. Today viewers have come to expect sophisticated CGI reconstruction of towns that may never have existed (see Atlantis opposite) or battlefields fully equipped with thousands of fighting soldiers. CGI also adds significantly to the cost of film production.