How to Make a Documentary

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A Detailed Guide for Visual Creatives and Storytellers

In this detailed guide on how to make a documentary, we’ll take a look at subject discovery, review various options for equipment, examine the different steps taken during production, and point out some smaller details to include in order to produce a truly polished cinematic work.

A documentary is non-fiction film that focuses on a person, event, issue, or topic. It typically seeks to make a statement and inform an audience. Documentaries can be educational, controversial, and persuasive.

Documentaries, whether they are based on a person, place, or thing, are unscripted and rely heavily on informative content.

This type of film making has reached new heights while high quality DSLR cameras and filming accessories have become more available and affordable. Visual delivery becomes increasingly ubiquitous online and on-demand video allows for endless streaming options. So it is important to consider the ways in which you can make your documentary stand out, resonate with audiences, and leave a lasting impression with a well-conceived message and emotive storyline.

1. Zero in on Your Subject Matter

The subject matter of your documentary is the first thing to determine.

Focus on a topic that is of interest to you. The process of filming and production can take anywhere from months to years depending on the depth of an investigation. Ample research is typically required and production time can potentially drag on if there is no subject interest. Passion for the subject matter will be evident in the production quality. So the first step is to decide what you would like to film and follow this up with several questions. Is your subject accessible to you? The foundation of many documentaries comes down to interviewees and their testimony or expertise. Will they be available throughout the course of production? If not, will it be possible to work around their schedule?

Decide if the subject matter is relatively unexplored. Will it be of interest to an audience? Will they learn something? If your chosen person or topic has already been thoroughly examined and previously documented, how will your interpretation of that subject present it in a new light? Are there new angles of the topic to reveal? Sometimes the passage of time and evolution of events can even uncover new facets of a previously documented subject to explore.

While deciding on your documentary’s subject matter can involve many questions and some inner reflection, there are instances when you come across people or material that simply demand to be filmed. Whether it be someone’s story or an event that moves you towards the creation process, you will know it when you see it. Asking questions, attending public meetings, and searching the internet for existing information are all pertinent ways of ascertaining whether your subject is worth pursuing for a documentary.

If your subject matter is tied to a particular location, check the archives at a local library to find more information or talk to local officials and seek out public records online can also reveal further directions to take. Initiating conversations with long-term residents may produce information that you will not find elsewhere. In any event, having more than one source is crucial to establishing credibility.

2. Make an Inventory of Equipment

Assess your equipment (see handy PBS equipment checklist) once you determine the focus of your documentary. The tools you use can greatly influence the quality of your production. Image quality, ergonomics, convenience, mobility, and versatility are all factors to consider before purchasing equipment. Will your documentary have a more polished feel or will you want to prioritize flexibility and film in a “run and gun” style?

DSLRs have become increasingly available and affordable, but HD camcorders are still preferred by some and the occasional iPhone shot can even be worked in depending on the context. Opting for a DSLR allows you to play with a range of lenses, each with their own strengths. Wide angle lenses are great for setting the scene and establishing the location shot. Interviews typically call for a 50mm lens which allows for a greater depth of field in order to draw the focus to the interviewee. Fish eye lenses lend themselves well to action shots while telephoto lenses are especially useful when filming nature.

Another plus to opting with a DSLR camera is that they tend to be more obscure, which can be good for drawing less attention while filming. Additionally, a smaller camera is less intimidating to a camera-shy interviewee. Aside from the camera itself, a solid tripod is worth its weight in gold and can greatly add to the production value of any work. Smooth pans and tilts are easily executed with even a lightweight tripod and fluid ball head.

Dollys, stabilizers, sliders, and jibs are other excellent choices in a videographers’ toolbox. They add to shot variety, increase camera movement, and augment visual interest. Including some of these choices doesn’t always have to be costly. A dolly can be inexpensively constructed at home using plywood and wheels purchased at your local hardware store. Repurposed skateboards and wheelchairs can also be used to create smooth movement. A shot in motion is always more interesting than a static shot and when it comes to filming creative shots while you’re on a budget, it’s best to think outside the box. As tempting as it might be to focus solely on visual effects and all of the fun toys that can achieve certain looks, audio quality is equally important. Your microphone greatly depends on the predominant environment in which your documentary will be filmed.

General types of microphones include:

Cardioid: Cardioid microphones pick up the most sound from the front end, while picking up less noise from the back and sides.

Shotgun microphones are an example of a cardioid microphone. A shotgun mic mounted on the camera’s hot shoe can typically pick up good sound as long as it is pointed in the direction of the speaker. This is a good option when quickly moving from shoot to shoot or filming in the street.  If filming in a windy situation, a wind muffler, sometimes referred to as a dead cat, is a handy addition to the shotgun microphone as it easily slips over the mic and cuts down on wind noise.

Omnidirectional: Omnidirectional microphones are sensitive to noise coming from all directions. They do not isolate sound.

Lavalier mics are omnidirectional microphones. Lavalier mics are typically used for interviews and should be hidden behind clothing, especially if it is connected to the camera with a wire. Take care to wrap the wire around the back of the subject so that it is not visible. A wireless lavalier mic is a helpful option when following a subject in the field or when filming a scene at a distance.

The downside to an omnidirectional microphone is that it does not isolate sound, so filming in noisy conditions can cause disadvantages.

Bi-directional: A bi-directional microphone picks up sound from the front end and back end of the mic, but not the sides. This type of microphone is typically used for radio interviews or podcasts.

Having a back-up microphone and secondary audio recording of every interview can be a real life saver if one microphone fails or if batteries die out at an inopportune time. A boom mic might be a good option for recording secondary audio. Keeping a spare set of batteries within reach can also mitigate microphone failures.

Lighting is yet another consideration before setting out to film your first interview.

Three-point lighting is a classic set-up that will ensure your subject is properly illuminated. The key light, which is the brightest light, is positioned to the left of the subject. The fill light, typically softer, is positioned to the right of the subject and fills in the shadows on the subject’s face produced by the keylight. The camera is positioned between these two lights while the back light, positioned behind and to the side, helps to set the subject apart from the background and illuminates the hairline, neck, and shoulders. The three-point lighting setup is a general recommendation for illuminating your interviewee in a dark room, but a more dramatic effect can be made by eliminating the fill light, using gels, or altering light angles. The typical lighting setup directs the lights into either reflective or white umbrellas which can diffuse and soften light. LED lights can be purchased for quick set up, or incandescent lights can be used with a softbox or wrapped with a frosted shower curtain for a more muted light. Small battery powered lights can be placed within the frame behind subjects to create depth of field and provide visual interest.

Natural light often looks much softer and can sometimes be preferable over a studio lighting setup. When filming outdoors, scheduling a shoot to take place during certain times of day can develop different moods and can dramatically influence the overall feel of the scene. The middle of the day results in very stark shadows while an hour before sunset or after sunrise, often called “the magic hour,” casts a softer, golden hue that lends itself to better lighting conditions.

3. Create a Budget

Planning for costs before filming will help to properly allocate funds. Video camera equipment purchase or rental, studio rental, property release forms, insurance, props, production crew, copyright fees, marketing and distribution expenses should all be considered. Of course some of these fees depend on the scope of the documentary, but listing out estimates and creating a through budget will help ensure that production stays on track and time won’t be spent on finding additional funds.

4. Research Your Topic and Develop an Outline

A properly researched topic provides the structural integrity of a good documentary, along with well-conducted interviews. Before setting off to film, ask yourself these key questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Taking these questions into consideration will help drive research and will hopefully lead you to people whom you might feature in your documentary as subject-matter experts. Who will your audience be? What will your focus be? Where will the location be? If the focus is an event, when did it occur? Why is this subject important to you? How will you convey information and shape the focus?

Conducting topic research can use the following tools:

The internet is an excellent spring-board from which to launch your research. Search for past documentaries that may have been created, movies, or written articles.

Subject-matter experts may provide real life experience and unique insights that you may want to feature. You may even find that the direction of your documentary changes as new information is discovered from experts in the field.

Dividing your documentary into segments can help keep information organized, add structure, and maintain clarity. As the research process evolves, elements of the documentary will solidify, interviews will fall into place, and the necessary supporting footage and filming locations will become evident.

Developing an outline, storyboard, timeline, and schedule will help you keep the momentum of the production process going.

A detailed outline with an accompanying timeline is a good starting point to help solidify ideas and note new developments that might be added as the research process reveals further information. The timeline will help to keep information in a chronological order.

A storyboard is a visual representation, often done with sketches or descriptive phrases, that depicts different scenes, moods, and overall development of the storyline. This can assist with shaping different scenes and will guide the production crew when it comes time to film.

A schedule will help ensure that appointments and interviews are kept and tasks are met on deadline. These are just a few tools that will aid the crew in staying organized and focused during the research process.

First thoughts on filming locations should be noted at this point. While the location permits pertaining to documentary filming are not as stringent as they are for commercial filming, certain legalities still apply. Filming on public property requires no permit, while filming on private property does. However, using certain filming technologies such as a drone, could cross grey lines as private property not visible from public places become accessible to the camera. In these instances, it is best to obtain a location permit for legal protection.

Documentaries typically do not require model release forms unless defamation, or injury of reputation, could be linked to any recognizable person filmed. Oftentimes, filming below the face and avoiding any distinguishable features or blurring out faces during production can solve this problem.

The script can be drafted from the outline and storyboard, if this element is to be included. While some documentaries rely completely on interviews as the voice of delivery, not all of them do. Some include a script or voice over that is recorded at the very end and fills in the gaps between interviews or as needed. The script comes last in the production process and should be driven by the footage, but the outline can help to shape a rough draft.

5. Filming the Interviews

Documentary film making is based in the ethics of journalism. Establishing trust with your interviewees goes a long way during the filming process. Some stories can be painful to share, and a sensitivity towards that person and their history can help drive the emotion and establish a connection during the interview. Communicating the reason for filming, the purpose and objective of the documentary, and the importance of an interview will help foster understanding and collaboration.

Some tips to remember when filming interviews include the following:

Questions should be structured to be open ended. Avoid “yes” and “no” questions. While it’s advised to give your interviewee a general idea of what the interview will cover, providing them with exact questions can ruin spontaneity and may result in answers that sounds rehearsed. At the close of any interview, always ask if there is something else that should be mentioned and keep the camera rolling. It is sometimes at this moment that additional information can be brought to light. Return to any questions that are not adequately answered. It’s always better to have more information than not enough.

Seating: Avoid the use of swiveling or rolling chairs when staging an interview. People can often be nervous in front of a camera and will resort to moving in their seat. If necessary, take breaks during the interview to maintain a good comfort level for your interviewee.

Setting: Filming in a quiet location will help you minimize distractions and can assist in the recording of clean audio. Humming refrigerators and air conditioner units will dilute the clarity of an interview and should be turned off or unplugged. Always remember to turn cell phones off prior to beginning the interview. Not only is a ringing cell phone a distraction that can derail an interview when it comes time to edit, but the sudden sound of a ringing phone can ruin the train of thought and verbal delivery and is best avoided by planning beforehand.

If time allows, scout out the location of an interview beforehand to get an idea of the ambient noise level, available natural light, and overall setting. This will allow you to get down to the business of the interview itself once your on-camera talent arrives. If filming in a busy location or public building, requesting a conference room in advance is a good idea.

Establishing rapport: Doing this beforehand can help the subject feel more at ease during the interview. It is equally important for a documentary film-maker to remember that they will be in control of portraying that person. The power of a documentary to shape the public’s opinion should not be underestimated. There is a moral obligation on the part of the film-maker to truthfully represent people and events.

Supporting Interviews: A supporting interview or a secondary source plays an important role in backing up the veracity of any one person. A documentary should not rest on one interview alone. Considering opposite views of the same subject, different experiences and reactions, or similar testimonies will help assist the audience in drawing conclusions and can provide a more balanced foundation for a documentary. There are multiple avenues a film-maker can take in order to weave a story together with many voices. Two or three subject matter experts can be interviewed, or an approach called the “man on the street” interview technique can be used to get many opinions on a single subject. Either approach will add gravity to the framework and overall narrative.  

Accuracy: Recording the subject’s name and profession (if applicable) is important. Ask the interviewee to say and spell out their name during the recording so you can refer to that later in the editing bay. Keeping a log of business cards gathered from everyone interviewed throughout the documentary is another good way of ascertaining correct spelling and ensuring that you have their contact info if a follow-up interview needs to be scheduled. These are just small steps you can take to stay organized and maintain credibility. When it comes time to add lower thirds, you can easily refer to your stash of business cards or the interview itself. Lower thirds should be kept clean, direct, and easy to read.

After the interviews are conducted, a film-maker will have a better idea of the kind of supporting footage to be collected afterwards. This supporting footage is termed “b-roll” in the industry. It helps to color the scene, adds context, and visually explains and enhances the interview. Without b-roll, a documentary would simply be composed of interviews, also termed, “talking heads”. It is easy to lose interest without visual cues, scenes, and action shots.

6. Filming B-roll

There are different types of b-roll, each with their own purpose.

Establishing shots Some b-roll will set the scene and establish the location. This is best executed with a wide angle shot, including shots of signs, specific buildings, or city scapes. Clues can be drawn from this type of footage, such as the language, region of the world, and sometimes the time period. Hyperlapses and timelapses are creative filming techniques that can also be incorporated to add artistic value while also establishing the scene.

Narrative shots will help give shape to the interview. If the interview is conducted at the interviewee’s home or work place, following up with footage of that person in their natural environment, doing their day-to-day tasks can provide visual cues that will enhance their story. Recall specific details mentioned during the interview and try to capture scenes that will demonstrate that narrative. Over-the-shoulder shots and action shots can offer perspective and will illuminate the interviewee’s experience. Sometimes getting additional time with an interviewee can be a challenge due to scheduling. Remember to make the most of your time when you have it and gather as many shots as you can. It’s always better to have more footage than to struggle with too little footage when it comes time to edit. Filming old photos or getting photo copies can also prove useful if the narrative calls for images from the interviewee’s past.

A variety of shots will amplify visual interest. Gather wide angle shots, mid-range shots, and close-ups to provide a range of imagery. This is where filming with a DSLR can yield an advantage as different lenses can be interchanged to provide a spectrum of shots and textures from detailed macro scenes to fisheye landscape shots.

Recording natural sounds also helps to draw the viewer in, adds detail to the scene, and helps to convey the narrator’s experience. Including a range of visual and auditory cues will help to keep the viewer’s interest and will add credibility to the story. Remember that a documentary aims to document a truth. Our everyday lives revolve around sensory experiences. By weaving visual scenes and natural sounds together with the interviewee’s narrative, a film-maker can help the viewer relate to the story.

7. Editing Your Footage

When it comes time to start cutting down your footage in the editing room, you have a few different editing software options to choose from. The most important consideration is to choose a nonlinear editing system. This is a non-destructive form of editing in which the original footage is not modified. Original clips can be stored on a hard drive and are then imported into the program, stored in the program’s media folder, and are utilized from there. All edits are recorded and can be undone due to the non-destructive nature of this software.

It’s highly recommended to keep an organized backup of all footage. This backup should be updated throughout the filming process after every shoot so that all new footage is included regularly. It would be an easy mistake to accidentally delete an SD card before it had been backed up. This is especially important when there are several people handling equipment, conducting interviews, etc.

Interviews typically take the most time during the editing phase. It is recommended to transcribe, or write out word for word, every interview conducted for the documentary. This allows everyone on the team to easily read through the interview, make notes, and ultimately choose the best sound bytes to include in the final edit. Transcribing is a lengthy process, but it ensures that no essential sound bytes fall through the cracks.

The amount of footage collected can be overwhelming, especially when filming a documentary over a long period of time. Create folders and subfolders labeled for interviews with properly spelled first and last names, b-roll labeled by location, and audio files. Categorization of footage before the first edits are made will go a long way in keeping content accounted for.

Dividing content into sections or sequences can also help with organization of footage and initial editing. By focusing on each interview as a sequence to be developed, you can break the documentary down into manageable pieces. Build each interview sequence with chosen angles, interview segments, sound bytes, and supporting b-roll and then piece them together in the main timeline once they’re complete.

There are times when an editor will need additional footage to support elements of an interview or part of a script. Generic video can be filmed to “cover” parts in the timeline or additional shoots might have to be scheduled. Follow-up interviews might come into play if notable life events unfold during the editing process. Documentaries can end up taking surprising turns, especially when production time extends over the course of months.

A seamless edit eliminates any jump cuts.This is a rough cut between takes or it can result when a speaker stumbles over their words. An editor will want to cut out any stuttering in order to have a clean byte. This often leaves the video footage looking chopped. These splices can be covered with b-roll or by another camera angle. An interview conducted with two different cameras therefore has a great advantage when it comes time to edit. This also provides more visual interest as one camera can be positioned to face the interviewee while the second camera covers a profile angle.

If additional video is needed, archival footage or stock footage can be sourced from external websites. An editor is not limited to the film they alone have shot. The internet is filled with resources, both visual and audio, that can be integrated to give added context. While some footage may be downloaded for a fee, other sources are free to use in the public domain. Creative Commons creates a platform for open, protected, and semi-protected works that can be used by the public depending on the work’s license. They navigate many of the copyright legalities involved in sharing, remixing, and distributing creative works and provide a valuable resources for artists seeking additional material to use in their own projects.

8. Telling a Story

While it can be easy to get lost in the sea of footage, even with proper organization, the director and editor’s main goal should be to tell a story. Making sense of the interview and supporting footage and structuring the timeline while timing the revelation of developments is critical in creating a story that captures the audience’s attention. Documentaries can walk a line between explaining the expected and revealing the unknown. By providing context through interviews and supporting footage, a director lays the framework for the audience’s experience.

A director’s personal style will dictate just how much the audience will be left to draw their own conclusions, but factual presentation and gravity of content are two important facets of documentary filmmaking that should be remembered throughout the editing process. The human experience is often at the core of this film genre, and with candid interviews and truly emotive supporting footage, this experience should easily come through in the final cut.

Crafting a story around someone’s life generally involves a personal struggle and victory over that struggle. A story can revolve around an event or some sort of discovery. To craft a story well, there should be a turning point or moment of insight when the audience recognizes a shift in direction or perceives a point in which some truth comes to light. A truth that reveals something about ourselves and that is socially impactful is usually at the foundation of human focused documentaries.

Once the interviews and footage begin to come together, the initial script started with the outline during the planning phase can develop. A script, or voice over, is written towards the end as it is informed by all of the information, interviews, and b-roll that is compiled in the timeline of the editing bay. It would be easy to imagine that the script would come first, but in documentary filmmaking, it comes last, fills in the informational gaps and provides connectivity between interviews.

The narrator will finally read and record the script while the timeline plays in the editing bay, pausing the voiceover when interviews start, and resuming as the script is written. This can be done multiple times until the tone and reading rhythm sound natural and sync well with the existing sound bytes.

9. Choosing the Right Music

Music is a huge asset to any creative work. It greatly influences emotions, sets the stage, and enhances the mood. Whether it is sound effects or full songs, audio is an important factor to consider during the editing phase. Dialogue shouldn’t be overpowered by music that is too loud or dramatic. Take care to adjust volume levels while editing so that interviews or other key conversations are not drowned out by music.

Here are some options to consider when sourcing music:

Approaching local, up-and-coming bands could result in the creation of an original music score developed specifically for certain scenes or music taylored for various moods and genres can be purchased online.

Creative Commons is one valuable, free source for music files although copyright laws will dictate usage allowances. The library of choices might be more limited when going this route.

Purchasing licensed songs is another viable option if your budget allows for this. Services like offer a wide range of cinematic scores created for any genre. Paying for the license allows you to use the song how you like.

Remember to let some natural sound bytes shine through as well. These audio cues picked up during recording can help draw the audience into the scene and should not be overlooked. Finally, natural sounds can be sought on the internet and downloaded or staged and recorded for added audio effects when needed.

When importing music into your editing software, cutting to the beat can add punch to the overall delivery and keeps the visuals in sync with audio. Music helps to set the rhythm and should be chosen with care to compliment the mood and tone of the content. Consider how music builds to a crescendo and weave it together with visuals in order to best capture the emotional undertones of an interview, the action of a scene, or the revelation of a plot twist. This can greatly heighten an audience’s reaction and will draw them into the scenario.

10. Promoting Your Documentary

Promotion of a documentary once it is finalized can rely on connections within the industry, creativity and tenacity in the pursuit of media outlets, and also in traditional routes like advertising through press releases and the purchasing of advertising space.

Several marketing options include:

Social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Creating pages using these platforms is a good way to create initial hype before the release by releasing short previews, behind the scenes photos, or key segments during the production phase. A trailer should be made that encapsulates the documentary’s vision and objective. Uploading this to sites like YouTube or Vimeo will allow you to link out to it on other social media or websites. This will garner interest and build your audience.

Write a press release. Send it to local and special interest outlets. Include quotes from the director, a synopsis of the documentary subject, and how it is relevant to audiences. Include any concrete upcoming interviews or television spots. Developing a sustained advertising campaign through print, online, and television outlets will help build momentum for the release date.

Create a website A professionally made website can host further details about production, inspiration, and uncut interviews. This is another way to draw attention to the work and create conversation.

Discover your niche audience. Knowing if your documentary appeals to a niche audience will assist in your marketing campaign. Consider your topic and who it would be of most interest to. If the marketing budget is limited, targeting niche groups from the start could lead to faster acceptance and success. Understanding your audience will also help to shape your advertising campaign.

Film festivals is one way of possibly winning a screening and maybe even an award. Conducting a search online for local, regional, and international film festivals will turn up a list of events, deadlines, and documentary guidelines. If your documentary doesn’t fit into the parameters of a particular film festival, continue the search. If aiming for a larger, more well-known film festival like Sundance, contacting the festival programmers beforehand to gauge their interest is not a bad idea. Before submitting your work, be sure to include your name and contact information up front and center on the DVD and review your entire documentary beforehand to make sure there are no DVD glitches. Review festival rules to be sure your documentary fits the guidelines and be sure to include any applicable submission fees. Even if your documentary is not chosen, attending the film festival is a great way to network with distributors and lead to useful connections.

Local, independent theaters or local television stations can be additional outlets to consider. While they may just serve as a starting point, additional screenings in neighboring towns could result from one successful screening. Documentaries concerning time-sensitive material might have a better chance of being screened when focusing on regional issues. New online platforms are devising ways to release the myriad of independent documentaries and films to the public. Approaching educational television stations like the History Channel and PBS could also have positive results.