Documentary & Commercial - Worlds Apart or Just the Same

posted by Kari Teicher

April 11, 2024

We sat down with C&B executive producer Jeremy Gans to pick his brain on documentary filmmaking in the commercial and branded content world.

Gans got his start in journalism and documentary filmmaking, moved to reality television, and now he is at the helm of C&B - making docs, branded content, commercials and more.

Take a peek at some of his secrets, here…

How does your approach to documentary projects differ from scripted work?

"With docs, you can go where your nose takes you. You can be more spontaneous and authentic in capturing reality. You follow the puck, so to speak! With commercial projects, it’s methodical. Every detail, every shot, every line is planned. You need to think through every step before you even pick up the camera."

How do those differences shape the story itself?

"In scripted work, a story is created by you or given to you beforehand. You know what the story is meant to be about. 

In documentary, the edit suite is often where you find the story. This isn’t true all of the time because some docs are carefully plotted out in advance, but more often than not, the story is found in post-production. The editor really is the unsung hero of a documentary. They are responsible for pulling the story together. Because of this, I’ve always thought that the Oscar for Best Documentary should be shared with the editor. "

What’s the role of authenticity and truth in your work?

"They say the minute someone is aware of a camera, true authenticity disappears. With docs, just like commercials, there is always an element of performance."

So how do you bring authenticity back?

"With a good actor, an authentic performance should come pretty quickly. They should be able to get into character after a few minutes of rehearsals.

With non-actors, their true authentic self usually comes out after a bit more time… long enough for them to forget there’s a camera rolling and feel more comfortable with the process."

Short documentaries and doc-styled content are common approaches for brands and corporations who are trying to make a human connection. What’s the biggest challenge in making a doc this way? 

"To make a great doc-styled commercial is incredibly difficult. You can have the best laid plans and they get thrown out almost immediately. The solution is the second-best laid plan - lots of time with your subjects. The more time you spend filming, the more footage you have at your disposal, the better you can tell a shorter story - funny as it may sound.

My biggest revelation over the last 10 years is that you’re better off half-scripting it or having a game plan going into the shoot. That’s why we tend to call it “doc-styled” and not a “documentary,” because it is often partially outlined in advance. It’s usually because you don’t have enough time with your subject, so you need to be very precise with the shoot days at your disposal."

How do you balance creative freedom with client expectations?

"This is what every single person in advertising faces on a daily basis. It’s a push-pull. 

The best clients understand that they should allow the creatives to do their thing. But, they do know their business better than we do. That said, we know our business better than they do. 

The answer is that both parties drop their egos and just listen to each other, instead of always thinking they know best."

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