1) Not asking a question or choosing a theme
I think the biggest mistake people make is going ahead with making a documentary just on the basis that they have found a subject that interests them. This can sometimes result in a great film, but rarely. A documentary has to ask a question or have a big theme. By “big theme” I don’t mean it’s got to be worthy – another documentary no-no that I’ll get to later—I just mean its got to have a driving force of some sort. Before filming, ask yourself, what question am I asking and how does this film express my worldview?
2) Choosing a ‘worthy’ subject
People who decide to go off and make a documentary on the basis that the subject is ‘worthy’ get themselves into a tricky spot. You might find that a righteous topic is so widely researched that there aren’t many new upheavals to make. You also might find that the footage doesn’t create an entertaining feature. Interesting, worthy documentaries might work for a TV insert or news piece but are unlikely to make a great film.
3) Using poor technique to recreate events
When watching TV documentaries, one of my biggest Room 101s is when directors try to portray a past event by going all low-resolution and throwing the camera around or wheeling in bad actors and making them go out of focus. There’s more to drama reconstruction than the blurry, home movie look.
For great drama reconstruction watch Man On Wire (which also benefits from some extraordinary archive film footage).
4) Using bad music
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The soundtrack of your documentary can really make or break its mood. Don’t trust the guy that you just met who offers to write an entire score for your film. You, the director, should have your own strong ideas of how the music will function in the film. From there, it’s your responsibility to choose the right person for the job, someone who understands your ideas and has the knowledge and talent to make those ideas come to life.
5) Filming without a vision
At the end of a day a great documentary has to have a strong vision, and that vision informs every creative and editorial step along the way. Like mentioned before, your music guy has to share your vision; so does everyone else in the process. Only when everyone is on the same page can the documentary achieve its intended goals.