Moonshine Moonshot Blog

The 3 types of documentary storytellers you need to know!

Mar 07, 2023

Hey there filmmakers! Are you ready to roll? So am I! So grab your cameras and unleash your inner Spielberg and let’s dive headfirst into the world of documentary filmmaking!


As always, if you don’t feel like you’re quite ready to launch into this week’s lesson, you can easily jump back and have a look at all the previous on the blog page. 


First things first.  In order to tell your story, you need to know who your storyteller is. 


What do I mean by that? Well, the storyteller in a documentary is like a guide, they take the audience on the journey. In some cases, there will be a narrator who provides context and commentary. While in other, the storyteller may be a presenter who appears on screen to share key information. Or, you can go in neither direction! And instead, use a protagonist.





Can you hear Morgan Freeman in the distance? Maybe Stephen Fry?


As I’m sure you’re aware, these are both phenomenal examples of narrators in terms of performance and storytelling ability. Using a well-known personality or actor as the narrator in your film can have great benefits. Firstly, high-quality talent is going to deliver a really strong performance.  But also it significantly increases your ability to attract great publicity, distribution and will go a long way in supporting the marketing of your film.


The other major benefit of narration is simplicity. You won’t need to be dragging out Mr. Freeman, his assistant, his personal chef and his bodyguard to every shoot (not to mention the cost that comes along with it!). Instead, Mr. Freeman can come stand in a sound booth with a script and microphone in front of him. You won’t require a lot of their time - often only a day, which can also make hiring them more affordable and they are more likely to be able to fit you into their schedule.


I’ve had the opportunity to work with some exceptional talent, such as David Suchet. He has such a unique and beautiful voice. He’s also based in the UK, which you might think would add a big ticket flight cost to the budget.  But technology is your friend when if comes to narration. I was here in Melbourne Australia, and Mr Suchet was in a sound studio in London. We connected via Skype and the director sat next to me and we recorded the narration. No travel required, 4 hours to record, the end result - high quality narration and a fully realised film.


Another benefit to narration is that you can write it towards the end of the editing process to link the parts of your story together, updating it as you go. This can be very helpful if your project is more exploratory and you don’t quite know what you’ll get until you do.


So narration allows you to easily control the narrative of the documentary and shape it as you need to convey the story accurately.






This is fairly self-explanatory! You attach a presenter to guide your audience through the story and engage with other onscreen talent (ie. interviewing). A prime example of this would be Louis Theroux who has a remarkable way of asking the right questions and keeping the audience on the edge of their seat. I also shouldn’t forget Simon Waring on Moonshine Agency’s Live the life you please!


Be cautious to not fall into the trap of having your presenter talking to camera for the majority of your film - especially, if they’re not personally linked to the story in someway. It can a bit boring if the presenter isn’t personally involved with the stories you are telling and is just explaining all the information to the audience. 


However, when they are cast well it can be great! And another alternative option is for you to be the presenter. You may not have thought previously about being on the big screen, but who is going to be more passionate about the stories in your documentary than you! If you can bring your zest and energy for the topic as a presenter, you’re bound to engage every member of the audience. 


But remember, variety is the spice of life! Be sure to keep finding creative and fresh ways for your presenter to tell the story. 




Your protagonist is your main character. And in documentary, your main character is likely to be a real person.  And this role can actually be done in a few different ways and it will depend on the topic and style of your project.  Your protagonist can also be your presenter so it’s not strictly a method in its own right.


A good example of a protagonist can be seen in our film Hippocratic.  Our lead character was Dr MR Rajagopal and the story followed his journey to share his life story.  He didn’t ‘present’ but rather the camera followed him as he explored, explained, reminisced and met with people from his past to bring his story to life.


The best way I can explain it is that the use of a protagonist as your lead storyteller is a very specific style of documentary where the story progresses through or because of the main character.


Can I change my mind mid-production?


Yes and no. It really depends on your production. If you had reasonable time and money, then shifting your project over to a different form of storytelling may be difficult, but not impossible. 


But, if you’re working with deadlines and project sponsors, these restrictions may force you to prevail with your chosen route. Regardless, if you feel that you need to change gears and you can, I suggest that you do it (the art comes first!).


What’s next?


In our next lesson, we’ll be exploring who you need on your production crew! 


But if you’re looking for a head start, be sure to check out our resources on the Moonshine Communications Academy website where we have listed a production team checklist.


Lastly, make sure you’re following us on social media! Whenever we have new resources, courses, classes or just generally exciting news! You can hear all about it over on our Instagram or Facebook. 

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