Identifying Your Documentary’s Signature Style

Karen Everett September 20, 2011

Developing a style that sets your film apart is key to capturing audience attention in nonfiction.

What separates great documentaries from mediocre ones? A good story, certainly. Or at least a well-designed structure. (If you’re not sure how to tell a good story, get our free article at

But equally important, since film is a visual medium, your documentary’s signature style, or “look,” can make or break its appeal.

If you're like most filmmakers, you’ve probably already adopted some standard stylistic choices including interviews, vérité footage, and possibly title cards.

But how can you create a signature style that will not only make your film stand out for funders, but reinforce your film’s message for viewers?

I recently worked with a filmmaker to brainstorm an animation design that will reinforce the film’s structure. The structure examines one by one various groups of people and how they benefited, or not, from a public housing experiment. (You'll find a similar structural design, complemented by a graphic style, in Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car?)

Look closely at an episode of the successful Eyes on the Prize series, and you'll notice that every interview features a bit of greenery in the frame’s composition. Why? To accent the setting of the civil rights movement, the lush green South.

Consider too the direct camera address used in two vastly different documentaries, Errol Morris's Fog of War and Rhonda Byrne's The Secret. Although the films differ widely in sensibility, they both rely on direct camera address to bridge the distance between public figures and private, everyday viewers. This was a conscious stylistic decision.

Designing your film’s stylistic palette requires focused concentration and brainstorming sessions with your creative team. Be patient. A signature style often takes several months to develop.

In my six-month 'Inner Circle" program, filmmakers have the luxury of six "mastermind" sessions and three in-depth story consultations to develop a strategic stylistic look (and sometimes soundscape) for their works-in-progress.

While not all filmmakers choose to collaborate on a stylistic strategy, the results can set your film apart.  Imagine last year’s Oscar-winning film The Cove without the night-time photography and the fixed, wide-angle, hidden camera shots.  Can you envision a Werner Herzog film without its rhapsodic soliloquies?

How would such theatrical features as Man on Wire or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room fared at the box office without elaborately directed re-enactments?

When considering stylistic choices, choose strategies that support your film’s message. For example, in Sing Faster, director Jon Else use time lapse photography and two-way radio “wild sound” to convey the stagehand’s extraordinary, labor-intensive undertaking in building an epic eight-hour opera production.

Chicago Ten used groundbreaking, realistic rotoscoping animation to portray a famous 1969 court case, for which no footage existed, only transcripts.

American Teen used a different style of whimsical animation to convey the fantasy life of adolescents.

Finally, don't forget your audio design. Strive to make it unique. MTV's Lauren Lazin conceived of Tupac: Resurrection as relying solely on the voice of the famous rapper himself, which showcased his poetic language.

As you ponder your film’s signature style, start by asking, what message do you want to stress through my film’s stylistic choices?