April 7, 2017 at 12:22PM, Edited April 7, 12:24PM


Difference between a Documentary Director and a Narrative Director (Aside from content)

Hello everyone!
I've recently gotten accepted at an advanced film course, however the directing classes are full so instead I must choose Documentary directing classes. Aside from content, can anyone tell me if there are major differences between directing a Narrative and a documentary? As in, can a documentary director work easily on fictional short films and feature film?

I am more interested and experienced in feature/short film directing, I don't have any experience with directing documentaries, so i would love it if someone could please clarify it for me.

Thank you!
Have a great day :D


A major difference between directing a narrative and a documentary is that documentaries many times are less controlled environments than narrative films. With a documentary, you are working(usually) with non-actors, and it is from these real people and real events that you must produce a story.

I also think it can be beneficial to take the documentary route versus the narrative, because it will force you to spend time studying and understanding these real people, real stories, which can then help you craft your narrative work to be more realistic.

My favorite films are when I can tell the director really understands or is intrigued by the human condition, and often I look at their portfolios and see that they started as documentary filmmakers.

Anyways, that's just my perspective as a doc filmmaker, hope it helps! Good luck!

April 9, 2017 at 3:53PM

John Haas

Hey John,

That was a fantastic answer! Thank you so much for the advice and the help, I appreciate it!

Have a great day :D

Marwah Ghazi

May 14, 2017 at 11:15PM

Hey Marwah,

John is right about a lot of the differences. I am both, which is to say, a director of both narrative and doc. They are different beasts to be sure. Lotta overlap, but a lot of key differences.

Probably the biggest difference to understand is the workflow difference. A narrative is written up front. The director's job really comes before the shoot, working with the script, planning out the look and feel, making a lot of choices. Their job, on the day, is to communicate those choices to affect that clear vision. If they've done their job, most of the work will be done before production and on production they will be free to work intimately with the actors and make minor tweaks as needed.

Doc on the other hand can be fairly fast to get into. You find a story or a character and jump in. Doc is about capturing a thing and then figuring out how to tell the story later. The real skill of a doc director is having a good enough sense of story going in that they understand what's happening in front of them and the value of it: (is this a beginning a middle, an ending? How does this affect the arc?) Production on doc is often more hectic, though smaller in scale, as you try to find shots and ways to capture what's happening on the fly. Ultimately, the director must find the story, with the editor, after the fact. I liken it to mosaic, where you capture a bunch of tiles then have to figure out how to make a picture after.

Another key difference is that scale thing. Narrative tends to have money attached with it, and crew, etc. Lot more people and moving parts. Doc tends to be on the fly, smaller crew. As a doc director, you're also really a producer, pushing the thing forward.

Ultimately the choice is about the kinds of stories that you want to tell. There are super overlapping skills for both. I love doc. I love finding an interesting person or subculture and following it and capturing those real moments. There's nothing like a real moment. But I have sort of left documentary too, because I enjoy telling my own stories, and because story craft is more respected and more easily recognized in narrative work.

In a Q&A for a narrative piece, people will ask about the writing and the shots and the behind the scenes. In a Q&A people will want to know how you met your subject and what they are doing now. You are regarded as a journalist, and few will know the creative choices you made. At least this is how my ego felt.

April 10, 2017 at 11:13AM

Thomas R. Wood

Hey Thomas,

Thank you so much for the helpful insight, I was really worried about agreeing to the class that I miss out on learning more on the narrative side, but hearing someone like you who's done both, makes me motivated to join and expand my film making horizons.

I appreciate the fact that you took the time to write a great answer.

Have a great day!

Marwah Ghazi

May 14, 2017 at 11:20PM

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