Both short films and documentaries are forms of visual storytelling that aim to engage and enlighten audiences. However, they serve very different purposes and follow distinct creative approaches.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll examine what sets short films and documentaries apart and why understanding their core differences matters for both creators and viewers. We’ll explore differences in purpose, structure, production methods, conventions, and more.
Whether you’re looking to make your first short film or documentary, or simply want to become a more discerning viewer, grasping the key distinctions will provide a greater appreciation for both art forms. Let’s dive in.
Purpose: Telling Fiction vs. Presenting Facts
The core difference between short films and documentaries comes down to their purpose—whether they aim to tell a fictional narrative or present factual information.
Short films are a form of narrative fiction filmmaking. The primary goal is to tell a fictional story and explore universal truths about human experiences and emotions. Shorts may convey a theme, mood, or complex idea but the events, characters, and settings are imagined rather than real.
Short filmmakers use cinematic techniques to craft a compelling dramatic arc and immerse audiences in the fictional world. The running time is typically under 40 minutes.
Some shorts serve as a “calling card” for aspiring directors. Others tackle serious topics or experiment with non-traditional storytelling. But the focus remains on depicting a fictional tale artistically.
Documentaries take the opposite approach—presenting factual information and real-world subjects. Their aim is to document reality, convey truth, educate the audience, and provide a historical record.
Whether profiling a person, place, organization, event, or issue, documentaries attempt to capture life as it actually happens without fabricated elements. The filmmaker’s goal is to inform viewers rather than dramatize a scripted narrative.
So in summary, think of short films as stories and documentaries as history. One imagines reality while the other captures it.
Structuring Fiction vs. Reality
The divergent purposes of short films and documentaries naturally lead to differences in structure.
Since short films are fictional narratives, they generally follow a conventional storytelling structure. The overall shape adheres to a traditional three-act format with exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution. Scenes and sequences build dramatic tension and move the plot forward. Character relationships and emotional arcs unfold throughout the runtime.
Short films tend to wrap up neatly within their limited timeframe. Ambiguous endings are rare—audiences expect a clear sense of closure. This fits the short’s purpose of telling a cogent, self-contained story.
Documentaries, on the other hand, reflect the messy reality of actual events rather than a scripted plot. There’s no standard documentary structure because real life doesn’t always follow neat storylines.
Instead, documentaries utilize various nonlinear and open-ended frameworks tailored to the specific topic and director’s vision. Common documentary structures include:
- Biographical – Following the chronological life events of a real individual.
- Historical – Tracing the development of a past event or period in time.
- Investigative – Uncovering the truth about a controversial issue or mystery.
- Observational – Fly-on-the-wall footage of people in real situations.
- Travelogue – Exploring a geographic region or culture.
The best documentaries shape their structure around the material at hand rather than imposing a fictional plot. No neat resolution is required because real life is inherently open-ended. The only fixed requirement is adhering to the truth.
Production: Fabrication vs. Observation
Perhaps the most significant difference between short films and documentaries is how they are produced. One is fabricated reality; the other is observed reality.
Short films are produced like a fictional feature film, requiring extensive pre-production. Just like a feature, a short film is made using a written screenplay, professional actors, controlled production design, and a meticulous, detail-oriented directing approach.
The filmmakers scout locations, block scenes, perfect camera angles, adjust lighting and determine shot sequences ahead of time.
Production unfolds based on the script rather than capturing life as it naturally occurs. Various takes are shot until the desired performance and vision are achieved. Reality is molded to match the artistic goals.
Documentaries take the opposite production approach. Rather than fabricating controlled conditions, the filmmaker observes and records life as it happens in real time.
Instead of professional actors, real people play themselves—no performing or lines required. Natural lighting and found locations are used rather than meticulously designed sets. Handheld cameras allow a flexible, fly-on-the-wall perspective.
Rather than force outcomes, documentarians react to real events as they unfold. Patience is required to capture authentic human moments as they naturally occur. There are no second takes in real life.
This observational approach is a hallmark of cinéma vérité and direct cinema documentary styles. The key is capturing reality in an unscripted, unprompted way—letting life provide the narrative.
Artistic Conventions vs. Candor
The contrast between crafted fiction and raw reality comes through in the artistic conventions used in each form.
Short films utilize familiar cinematic techniques and formal elements to tell their fictional stories. Dramatic or even expressionistic lighting sets a mood.
Careful shot framing and smooth camera movements reflect a subjective point of view. Production design, locations, costumes, and props all support the fictional world depicted in the script.
Documentaries aim for a candid, bare-bones style that doesn’t overtly manipulate reality with obvious cinematic techniques. Shaky, handheld camerawork adds a sense of immediacy and truth. Natural light keeps scenes grounded in the real world.
Interviews, voiceovers, archival footage, and observational scenes capture life as it happens without added drama. Rough edits, mixed-quality footage, and incomplete thoughts end up in the finished film to represent reality’s inherent messiness.
Both forms use editing to assemble footage in a way that tells a compelling story. But short films leverage editing for drama while documentaries use it in service of authenticity.
The line between short narrative fiction and documentary does occasionally blur with docufiction and mockumentary films. But in most cases, the conventions and techniques fit the overriding purpose—dramatic storytelling versus factual truth-telling.
Comparing Approaches: Short Film vs. Documentary
The clearest way to grasp the key differences between short films and documentaries is to compare examples that take on the same real-world topic in both formats.
Let’s look at two films—one short fictional narrative and one documentary—that tackle the social issue of homelessness:
Short Film: Cardboard Box
- Fictional narrative following a homeless girl and her father on the streets.
- Uses professional actors, emotional arc, dramatized conflict, and scripted dialogue.
- Employs conventional story structure, lighting, shot composition, and music score.
- Aims to dramatize and elicit emotions about homelessness.
Documentary: Dark Days
- Captures the day-to-day lives of real homeless people living in train tunnels.
- Uses handheld footage, natural light, interviews, and voiceovers.
- No script, actors, or sets. Events unfold naturally on camera.
- Aims to convey the sober realities of homelessness candidly.
While both films share the same subject matter, their approach fits their unique purpose—one imagines fiction while the other observes reality.
Conclusion – Short Film vs Documentary
In summary, while short films and documentaries utilize moving images to tell compelling stories, they diverge in their underlying purpose, structure, production methods, and conventions:
- Short films dramatize fictional narratives to engage emotions. Documentaries capture real events and convey the truth.
- Short films follow a conventional plot structure. Documentaries structure real events to illuminate a topic.
- Shorts use scripts, actors, and controlled production design. Docs use natural settings, people, and events.
- Shorts utilize cinematic techniques and dramatic conventions. Documentaries value candid reality.
So while superficial similarities exist between these two non-fiction film forms, their philosophical differences remain clear.
Understanding these distinctions allows viewers to better appreciate how the purpose and techniques of short films and documentaries complement each other in expanding our view of the world around us. Reality and fiction. Truth and imagination. Mind and heart. That’s why we need both.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between a film and a documentary?
The main difference is that films are fictional narratives and documentaries depict real people and events. Films use scripts, actors, and dramatization to tell fictional stories, while documentaries aim to capture truth and reality as it naturally unfolds.
Is a documentary considered a short film?
No, documentaries and short films are considered distinct forms. While documentaries can be short in length, they adhere to the conventions of nonfiction filmmaking like interviews, real locations, and vérité shooting style. Short films are usually works of fiction with scripts, actors, and story crafting.
What qualifies as a short film?
A short film is usually defined as a fictional movie that is 40 minutes or less in length. Shorts tell a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end rather than being a truncated version of a larger narrative. Short films utilize the conventions of fiction filmmaking.
What makes a short film different from a feature film, TV episode, or documentary?
Short films differ from features in their condensed storytelling under 40 minutes rather than 90+ minutes. They vary from TV episodes which are serialized chapters vs a full arc. Shorts diverge from docs in being fictional tales rather than depictions of reality.
What are the 5 elements of a documentary?
The five elements are real people, locations and events, narrative voice (interviews, narration, text), b-roll and imagery, verité shooting style, and non-fiction subject matter.
Why is it called a short film?
It’s called a short film because of its brief length compared to a feature film. Early short films were sometimes referred to as “short subjects.” The condensed storytelling format earned them the name “shorts.”
How long is a documentary short film?
There is no fixed length, but many documentary shorts tend to range from 5 minutes up to 40 minutes runtime. Short documentaries focus their concise runtime on illuminating a specific subject or telling one compelling nonfiction story.
What are the 6 types of documentary films?
Six common types are:
- Observational – Fly-on-the-wall perspective simply observing real events
- Expository – Voice of God narration and expert interviews explain a topic
- Poetic – Subjective tone and symbolic visuals emphasize mood and tone
- Participatory – Filmmakers become part of the subject they’re documenting
- Reflexive – Filmmakers call attention to their own role in shaping reality
- Performative – Filmmakers stage events to make a political statement or send a message