Contrasting Nature of Feature Films and Documentaries
Feature films and documentaries are part of the sentient history of cinematography “they grow, mature and change with time”.
Both bring forth distinct visions of our world, our cultures, our lives and loves.
Feature films and documentaries do undoubtedly have a sole polarity in style, content and audience, even as the lines between them often seem obscure in a sense.
1. Escape vs. Reality
Overall, the central reason feature films get made is to entertain the audience; to give people ”an escape” from the real world. Documentaries are made for the sole purpose to inform; to confront people with ”reality”.
The makers of documentaries unquestionably want to engage and captivate their audience, and some feature films can be very informative, but a key difference between the documentary and feature film is in the filmmaker’s motivation.
2. Fact or Fiction
Feature films are predominantly fiction, sometimes total fantasy. Some may be based on real events or people, but the director and screenwriter will be adding drama and impact with their ”creative license”. Genres include comedy and musical, action and western, romance, crime, horror and science fiction, among others.
Documentaries are specifically non-fiction films. Directors and writers help structure the film, rather than creating characters or taking liberties with the facts of the story. Documentaries can take on social, political and economic issues, or profile a person, place or thing.
Feature films take care in introducing convoluted characters and spinning an intricate storyline over a running time up to three hours. There’s an ebb and flow to the action, with carefully timed and structured mini-climaxes and dramatic highlights. The scripted story, characters and actions all are pointed in the same direction, leading the viewer through events with a sense of beginning, middle, dramatic climax and end.
In documentaries, often the action leads the way. People do not have scripted words to say or scenes to enact; handheld cameras might be the only way to follow the story. Even the director does not always know what happens next. Documentary makers usually say that discovery and surprise is a big part of their job.
4. Production Costs
Documentaries are usually less expensive to make than feature films, with less elaborate production frills. Documentaries can cost only a few thousand dollars, with small crews, single camera set-ups and few if any paid talent. The result is often raw, unpolished but effective nevertheless.
Feature films can cost millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars, thanks to top stars with top salaries, directors and scriptwriters, music scores, exotic locations and costumes. A top feature film often has its ”money on the screen“ lush cinematography, gorgeous actors and actresses, big bang special effects with large and talented production teams in the background.
Of course, big-name actors sometimes do participate in documentary-making, often with a reduced fee and a strong belief in the project. And some low budget or ‘indie’ feature films turn out to be huge successes. They tend to fulfill the role of the narrator as their voices are typically more recognisable to the audience, this is done in an attempt to draw them into the documentary and gain their full attention.
In fact, documentaries have become big box office, with serious Academy Award weight sitting with them. Often very entertaining, they can be as controversial nowadays as the subjects they cover.