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Education and Outreach|American Heritage Center

Wyoming History Day: Pointers for a Successful Documentary

  • Pre-production is the most important aspect of the documentary
  • Thorough research is the foundation of your presentation
  • Begin by selecting a topic that is related to the annual theme
  • Conduct secondary research to narrow your topic and define your thesis
  • Research all available primary sources and use them to analyze and interpret your thesis
  • Keep track of your research and visual sources – you’ll need to know where you found things
  • Collect a variety of visual images for your presentation – it’s better to have more than you need
  • The script comes first – audio shapes the selection of visual images
  • Be sure your script allows for an explanation of the causes and consequences of your topic
  • Use a storyboard to plan the relationship between audio and visual
  • Use your narration and visual images to illustrate the intellectual, physical, social, and cultural setting of your topic
  • Good sound quality is essential – the viewer must be able to hear and understand
  • Use plug-in microphones for interviews to get the best sound quality
  • Practice with your technology – learn how to shoot, edit, scan, mix and record before you begin production

Key Elements of a Documentary Presentation

Narration     

  • Can be either on-screen or voice over
  • The narrator sets up interpretive points, carries the story

Talking Heads    

  • Expert commentators or oral interviews
  • Don't overuse talking heads
  • It is the narrator's job to make all of the elements of the presentation fit together

Location Shots    

  • Historic sites related to the topic
  • Places without direct historic significance can be used for interpretive effect   

Still Shots    

  • Pictures of pictures
  • Panning and zooming can be used to motion to these segments

Video or Film Clips    

  • Clips are segments selected from previously produced works of video or film
  • Students must be very careful when using these sources
  • Excerpts must be presented as part of a student narrative and not lifted "as is" from the original work
  • Archival footage can be taken from other productions and given new narration
  • The Video Encyclopedia of the Twentieth Century is an excellent source which contains public domain footage of many historic events

Music    

  • Music can add important dramatic overtones
  • Don't overuse
  • Music cannot replace narration
  • Be careful of sound levels, it is very difficult to understand narration over music with vocals
  • Use a variety of musical selections - repeating the same segment too many times distracts the audience
  • Try to find music related to the topic and/or time period
  • It is not necessary to have background music for the entire presentation - music should be added only to areas where it will enhance the narration

Graphics    

  • Use for opening titles and closing credits
  • Identify talking heads
  • Highlight elements of a photograph
  • Point out places on a map
  • Transcribe text for the viewer to read
  • Create custom text or statistical charts

Dramatization

  • The technique of re-creation of historical events should be used sparingly
  • A performance on tape is not an effective use of the documentary category

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