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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


  • 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 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


  • 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


  • 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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