A documentary is a non-fictional video or film that informs the viewer about a real-life topic, person, event, or fact. Some documentaries educate us about things we might not otherwise know about. Others take important people or events related to the topic and provide a detailed background story. And still others want to convince the audience of a certain point of view on an issue. Whatever topic you decide to make a documentary on, it is a big and serious task. Read and follow our guide to ensure your efforts end up with a film you can be really proud of.
What will your film be about? Your documentary should be worth the audience’s time and attention (and your own, of course). So your topic should not be too common, but it should be controversial. Look for topics of disagreement that the public doesn’t know much about, or try to convey a whole new perspective on a topic, person, or event that almost everyone thinks has an opinion on. Simply put: Make a film about an interesting topic, not about boring or everyday topics. That doesn’t mean your documentary has to be huge or win an Oscar right away. A well-crafted, intimately told documentary can captivate an audience just as much. All that matters is that you have a good story to tell.
Try out your ideas verbally first. Tell your family and friends about your documentary in detail. Then, based on their reactions, you can decide whether to discard the idea entirely or develop it further and implement it. Documentaries have an educational mission, but they also need to reach audiences. A good theme can work wonders here. Many documentaries deal with controversial social issues. Others deal with past events that stir up many emotions. Some challenge things that society sees as normal. Some tell the story of a specific person or event in order to draw conclusions about current trends or larger contexts. Whether you choose one of these approaches or not, make sure you choose a topic that has the potential to capture the audience’s attention. For example, it would be a pretty bad idea to make a documentary about everyday life in an ordinary small town if you’re not 100% confident that you can make average people’s lives interesting and meaningful. A better idea would be to contrast this small town idyll with a horrific murder that took place there and show how it affected the townspeople.
Good documentaries almost always have a mission: to raise a question about how our society works, to confirm or debunk a certain point of view on an issue, or to draw attention to an event or phenomenon that has so far gone unnoticed by the general public , and motivate such an action. Even documentaries about events that happened far in the past can make a connection to the world of today. Contrary to what the name might suggest, documentation is not just about “documenting” something. The goal of a documentary shouldn’t just be to show that something interesting happened – a really good documentary should convince, surprise, question and/or challenge the audience. If possible, show why your audience should feel a certain way about the people and things you present. Acclaimed director Col Spector says that one of the worst mistakes a documentary filmmaker can make is either not choosing an appropriate subject, or not asking serious questions and having no overarching motive. As Spector says: “Before you start filming, ask yourself what question you want to ask and how this film expresses your world view.”
Even if you think you already know a lot about your subject, it would be wise to do some more research before you start filming. Read about it as much as you can, watch movies about it that are already out there. Use the internet and any libraries in your area to keep learning more. Most importantly, talk to people who are experts in the field – the stories they can tell and the details they can give you will set the stage for your film. Once you’ve decided on a general topic that interests you, use your research to further narrow it down. For example, if you’re particularly interested in cars, pinpoint which people, events, happenings, and car-related facts you found most intriguing during your research. For example, your documentary can focus on a specific group of people who work with and on old cars. You can show them at work and talk about them as people. Documentaries that are relatively tightly focused are often easier to film, and sometimes they’re easier to engage with an audience. Learn as much as possible about your topic and find out which documentaries or media projects already exist. If at all possible, your approach and your entire film should be different than anything that has been filmed or published on the subject up until now. Conduct a few pre-interviews based on your research. This way you have the opportunity to develop your idea from many different subjective perspectives.
This is not only useful for you so that you can see in which direction your project is developing, but also for potential sponsors and investors. The draft will also introduce you to the idea of a story, because ultimately a documentary is nothing else. It must contain all the elements of a good and exciting story. During this development process, you should also consider what kind of conflict or drama you want to use to keep the story alive as it unfolds.
In principle, it is absolutely possible for a single person to research, plan, film and edit a documentary, especially if the scope of the documentary is rather small and intimate. However, many documentarians find that the “one person, one camera” principle is quite difficult in practice and results in somewhat amateurish material. So consider looking for experienced helpers for your project, especially if you want to tackle an ambitious topic or want your film to look as professional and high-quality as possible later on. As a helper, you can recruit qualified friends and acquaintances, advertise your project with flyers or online, or you can contact an agency that places talents directly. Here are some suggestions of what types of professionals you could employ: Cameramen Lighting technicians Writers Researchers Editors Actors (for scripted sequences or re-enactments) Audio recorders / editors Technical consultants
It also doesn’t hurt if you hire a young, up-and-coming crew that is not only highly motivated and innovative, but also has access to markets and target groups that you might otherwise have overlooked entirely. Always consult with your camera crew and other creative staff involved in your documentary. In this way, your documentary becomes a collaborative project with a shared vision. If you commit to working in a collaborative environment, you’ll quite likely be rewarded with a crew that sees things you might not have, and contributes to your project in ways you never thought possible would have.
As a serious documentary filmmaker, you should at least understand how films are produced, directed, shot, and edited, even if you can’t do everything yourself. If you are new to the technical process of making a film, you might want to consider taking a class before you start shooting. Many colleges offer filmmaking courses, but you can also gain hands-on experience by helping out on film sets, in front of or behind the camera. While many directors and filmmakers have trained at film schools, practical experience can be far more important than formal training. Many people who hold important positions in film and television today started as career changers and gained their first experience as cable carriers or extras.
You should work with the highest quality technology possible (high-end cameras, etc.). Rent or rent gear that you can’t afford yourself and activate your contacts to get access to gear and themes.
You don’t need to know exactly how your documentary is going to turn out before you start shooting – you may come up with new ideas as you film, or you may change your plans as new opportunities arise. However, you should have a plan in place before you start filming, such as a rough idea of footage and locations. Having a plan in advance gives you more time to set up interview dates and reschedule appointments if there are conflicting dates. At a minimum, your shooting schedule should include the following: Individuals you are keen to interview – get in touch with these people as soon as possible to set up appointments. Events where you want to shoot live on location – arrange travel, buy tickets if necessary and get a filming permit from the organizer. Text, images, paintings, music and/or other documents you want to use – get permission from the copyright owner to use their work before including it in your documentation. Re-enactment scenes you want to shoot – research actors, props and locations ahead of time.
Many documentaries dedicate a large portion of their runtime to face-to-face interviews with people who are experts in the field the documentary is about. Pick some relevant people to interview for your film and try to generate as much material as possible from those interviews. You can intersperse this material throughout your documentary to convey your message and reinforce your position. You can conduct these interviews “news-style,” meaning just hold a mic in someone’s face, but generally you should stick to one-on-one interviews that you can record in a relaxed, seated manner. This way you can influence the lighting, staging and sound quality of your material, and your interview partner can prepare, relax, take their time and tell more detailed stories. These people can be famous and important, such as well-known authors who have written about your topic, for example, or professors who have studied it extensively. But many of these people are probably not famous and important either. It can be normal people who have a lot to do with the subject professionally, or people who just happened to be present at an important event. Sometimes it’s okay if your interviewees have absolutely no idea about your topic – it can be very enlightening and also entertaining for the audience to hear the different views of experts and absolute laypeople. Let’s assume that our car documentary should be about classic car fans in Berlin. Here are some ideas of who you could interview: members of classic car clubs in and around Berlin, rich car collectors, nagging old people who have complained to the city about car noise, visitors who are attending a classic car show for the first time Show are, as well as mechanics working on the cars. If you’re struggling to come up with the right interview questions, start your brainstorming with the classic question words: Who? What? Why? When? Where? How?” Often, just asking someone these very simple questions about your topic is enough to get them talking, and it’s often the way to get the most interesting stories and details. Remember, a good interview is like a conversation. You have to be very well prepared as an interviewer, have done thorough research beforehand and have informed yourself comprehensively in order to be able to obtain as much valuable information as possible from your interviewee Collect as much B-roll material as possible Film your interviewee even after the actual interview So you can cut away from the talking head in between.
One of the greatest advantages of a documentary over a dramatic film is that it allows the director to show his audience real footage of actual events and happenings. Of course, you should always be careful not to violate applicable privacy laws, but other than that, you should film as much real footage as you can. Film events that support the point of view of your documentary, or if the event your documentary is about is in the past, contact agencies that have historical footage and get permission to use it. For example, if you are making a documentary about police brutality during protests against castor shipments, get in touch with people who were present at the protests and filmed them themselves. For our car documentary, we should obviously get material from car meetings in and around Berlin. If you want to be creative, you can also film many other things: for example, a discussion in the town hall about a possible ban on these meetings near residential areas can add a little more drama to the whole documentary.
If you have ever watched a documentary yourself, you will have noticed that the film does not only consist of material from interviews and events and nothing in between. For example, there are often pre-interview shots designed to create a certain atmosphere or simply show where the interview is taking place by panning the camera over a building or city skyline. These recordings are called single players and they are a small but not insignificant part of your documentary. For example, for our car documentary we would shoot some clips at the locations where our interviews take place: in this case car meetings, car museums, workshops, etc. We would also probably shoot some shots from characteristic places in Berlin to get a feel for create the surrounding area. Be sure to always include ambient noises that are characteristic of the location.
In addition to the intros, you’ll also find some good use for secondary material known as “B-roll.” This can be material from important objects or interesting events, but also archive material from historical events. B-roll is important for keeping your documentary visually fluid and alive because it allows you to make it visually active, even when just a single person is speaking for an extended period of time. For our sample documentary, we would want to collect as much car-themed b-roll as possible – glamorous close-ups of highly polished car parts, headlights, etc., as well as shots of cars moving. B-roll is essential, especially if your documentary makes heavy use of voiceover narration. You can’t just overlay the narrator’s voice over interviews or similar material because then your interviewee would not be heard. So you usually put voiceovers like that over short scenes of b-roll footage. B-roll is also great for covering up little flaws in interviews. For example, if your interviewee had a coughing fit in the middle of an otherwise great interview, you can edit out the cough and superimpose the interview audio track over a piece of b-roll to cover up the cut.
If there are no original footage of specific events involved in your documentary, it is standard practice to recreate them for the camera. The prerequisite is that you stick to the facts in the reenactment to the best of your knowledge and belief and that you make it absolutely clear to the audience that it is an reenactment. You really should stay sensible and down-to-earth; make sure everything you film has a real background. Sometimes in re-enactments, actors’ faces are not shown or are defaced. This has to do with the fact that it can feel awkward for the audience when an actor plays a real person who might appear elsewhere in the documentary. It’s a good idea to make reenactments stand out stylistically and visually from the rest of your film, for example by turning down the color intensity a bit. This allows the audience to easily distinguish what is real and what is fake.
During the making of your film, you can keep a diary of how each day went. Write down what mistakes you made and what unexpected surprises you experienced. Maybe write a rough plan for the next day of shooting. If an interviewee said something that makes you think about taking your film in a new direction, write it down. By noting and reviewing each day’s events in this way, you’ll improve your chances of staying on track, both on topic and on time. When you’re done, look over your material and make notes about which ones you want to keep and which ones you don’t.
So now that you have the footage for your documentary together, all you have to do is edit it together in an interesting and coherent order to keep viewers engaged. You should create a detailed plan, shot by shot, that you can follow as you edit. Your audience needs a coherent narrative to follow that supports your argument. Decide what material goes at the beginning, what goes in the middle, and what goes at the end—and what material you don’t want to use at all. Focus only on really interesting shots, and cut out anything that is rambling, boring, or irrelevant. For our documentary about classic cars, this means that we could start with exciting and entertaining footage from the moving car, for example, to introduce the viewer to the world of classic car fans. Then it continues with the opening credits, followed by interviews, scenes from car meetings, etc. At the end of your documentary, you should summarize the information from the film in an interesting way and emphasize your core topic – for example with an impressive final image or a great and memorable quote from one of the interviews. For example, in our sample documentary, this could be a scene where a beautiful old car is cannibalized for parts—an indication that few appreciate these old cuties anymore.
. Many documentaries use an audio track as a “red thread”, a speaker who logically links interviews and recordings of events through his narration. You can do the voiceover yourself, have a friend with a pleasant voice help you, or even hire a professional narrator. Just make sure that the narrator’s voice is clear, understandable, and concise. Basically, of course, voiceover should always be placed over material where the sound itself is not that important. The audience shouldn’t miss anything. You can add voiceovers over clips, b-roll, or real-life footage where you can get a good sense of what’s going on without the original audio.
Some documentaries use static or animated graphics to bring facts, figures and statistics directly to the viewer in text form. If your documentation attempts to prove a particular argument, you may want to use it to support facts that support your argument. For example, in our car documentation, we could use on-screen text to show statistics on declining car club membership in Berlin and across Germany. Use this tool sparingly – don’t bombard your audience with information in the form of numbers and text. It’s exhausting for your audience to wade through mountains of text over time, so only use this method for the most important information. A good rule of thumb here is that you should show, not explain, whenever possible.
Try to involve local musicians or musical talent. Use your own music to avoid worrying about rights. Alternatively, you can use music that is either no longer copyrighted, or you are looking for musicians who are happy to share their talent with the world.
You now have all the pieces of the puzzle together – all you have to do is put them together. Use a good editing program to edit your footage into a coherent movie on your computer. Many computers these days come with basic video editing software already installed. Cut out everything that doesn’t fit your documentary 100% – for example, passages from interviews that only indirectly deal with your topic. Take your time with the post-processing – give yourself the rest you need to make your documentary perfect. When you think you’re done, sleep on it one more night and watch the entire movie again the next day. With a probability bordering on certainty, you will then find other little things that you can improve. Remember what Ernest Hemingway said: “The first draft always sucks.” thoughts on first drafts. You should keep your film as concise as possible while remaining a sensible and ethical editor. So if you stumble across material during the creation process that clearly contradicts the point of view of your documentary, it would be a bit disingenuous to just pretend that that material doesn’t exist. Instead, adapt the message of your film or – even better – find a new argument for your point of view!
After you are done with post-processing, you will surely want to show your film. After all, that’s what movies are for! Show your documentary to someone you know—a parent, a friend, or anyone whose judgment you trust. Then get your project out there as widely as possible. Rent a cinema hall or get permission to show your film in another location. Involve as many people as possible. For every person involved in your project, you can count on two people later who will watch the screening or buy your film. Send your documentation to festival organizers. Choose carefully and focus on festivals that have already brought projects similar to yours to the big screen. Be prepared for honest feedback. Ask your audience to give you feedback on your film. Tell them to be honest—you want to know exactly what they liked and didn’t like. Depending on what your audience has to say to you, you might even decide to go back to the editing table and tweak your film a little bit here and there. This can (but of course does not have to) even go so far that you shoot individual scenes again or add new ones. Prepare for rejection and toughen it up. After putting countless hours of work into your documentary, you naturally expect a certain reaction and feedback from your audience. Don’t be too disappointed if these reactions aren’t immediately rushes of enthusiasm. We live in a world overwhelmed by media production, and audiences have high expectations and get bored easily.
When your film is finally exactly how you envisioned it and as good as it can get, then it’s time to show it. Invite friends and family over, show them the final draft and let them ask questions. If you dare, upload the film to a platform like YouTube and share it on social media and other channels.
If you are absolutely convinced of your product, you should try to get an official release. New independent films often premiere at film festivals. So look for film festivals near you. Mostly these take place in larger cities, but sometimes they also happen in small towns. Submit your film to a festival, you might be lucky and it will be shown. Normally you have to hand in a copy of your film and pay a small fee. If your film is selected from the pool of applicants, it will be screened at the festival. And films that have been particularly well received at festivals are sometimes even bought and released by film distribution companies. Film festivals are a chance for you to make a name for yourself as a director and reach a larger audience. These festivals often feature question and answer sessions and panel discussions where directors can talk about themselves and their films.
Making a documentary can be a very long and arduous process, but it is also often extremely rewarding and gratifying. By making a documentary you can entertain and captivate your audience while educating them at the same time. Additionally, a documentary is a rare chance for filmmakers to actually change the world. A great documentary can shed light on long-ignored societal issues, affect the way certain people and events are perceived, and even change patterns of behavior in society. If you’re struggling to find the motivation or inspiration to make your own documentary, check out some of the highly influential documentaries listed below. Some of them were (or still are) very controversial – but a good documentary filmmaker is happy when he polarizes and is controversially discussed! Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman: Brothel Born Steve James: Hoop Dreams Lauren Lazin: Tupac: Resurrection Morgan Spurlock: Supersize Me Errol Morris: The Randall Adams Case Errol Morris: Vernon, Florida Barbara Kopple: American Dream Michael Moore: “Roger & me ” Jeffrey Blitz: Spellbound Barbara Kopple: Harlan County U.S.A Les Blank: The Burden of Dreams Peter Joseph: Zeitgeist: Moving Forward.
Enjoy the whole process of making your film. It’s a creative experience and you will learn from your mistakes.