Dear Documentary Filmmakers: On-screen titled chapters can make your doc look like an educational film- be careful.
This might seem like more of a pet peeve than past DDFs but this really is a question of presentation – how you communicate not only your film’s creative/informational content, but also how you demonstrate your own filmmaking skill.
Some good docs have been able to utilize titled chapters creatively and effectively – one that immediately comes to mind due to its creative use of sock puppets at the head of each section is THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE – but generally this is the exception. This kind of device can be very hard to pull off appropriately. Most projects I’ve seen that employ chapter headings have given the unfortunate impression of being either somewhat amateurish or instructional/educational.
You may think of including chapter titles as a way to help structure your film and help your audience understand how to “read” your film – perhaps you used similar section breakdown titles yourself when you were outlining your film’s structure for editing. That’s a behind-the-scenes aspect of your filmmaking – your audience doesn’t need to see your structure laid bare. This is why this device can be read as the work of an amateur or a teacher – it can look like an elementary school kid presenting a class project or a teaching assistant giving a PowerPoint presentation, and it can result in the same passive boredom that greets those kind of overdetermined show-and-tells.
If you’ve done a good job putting your film together, you should trust that your audience doesn’t need to be spoonfed. Keep your structure, if you feel it’s appropriate and effective, but remove unnecessary aspects like actual on-screen titles to give the project a more refined look.
If you have a really unique approach for an interstitial treatment and it feels organic with your film’s subject, by all means try it out and see if it works the way you intended – but if all you’re doing is creating cutesy chapter titles, you’d best rethink it.