When it comes to documentary ideas, there are seemingly endless possibilities. Whether you want to explore a certain topic in-depth or tell the story of someone or something special, documentaries can be both informative and engaging. Coming up with good ideas is at the heart of documentary production. Here are just a few ideas to get started on your own documentary journey.
The Difference Between Documentary Ideas and Fictional Ideas
The first thing as an aspiring filmmaker is to be clear about what a documentary idea is.
We need to differentiate between documentary ideas and fictional ideas, because documentaries are about the real world, about things that really happened or have happened.
A documentary film is a great way of helping people understand because, somehow, when one is able to see the people involved, it lends a certain immediacy and understanding that is hard to get on the page.Lawrence Wright
Fictional narratives, on the other hand, put you in a fantasy world and sometimes in a fantasy time frame.
Tolkien talked about how he imagined The Lord of the Rings in a time period that wasn’t in the real world. It’s completely outside of our sense of time. That’s the nature of time in fiction, but in documentaries, time is a real thing
Things happen not only in terms of a process or a story but also in terms of the duration and a time frame that’s in the real world.
Characters and Ideas for Documentaries
Another difference between documentary film and fictional film ideas is that characters in documentaries are real people.
In contrast, characters in fiction can be constructed completely free from the imagination.
They don’t have to relate to real people at all. Sometimes characters and stories in fiction actually come from real people and real situations, from real things you’ve read in a newspaper or magazine, but they can also be completely made up.
Documentary Ideas Are Based on Facts
One of the differences between a documentary idea and a fictional idea is that a documentary idea can be tested and investigated.
The events that are portrayed in connection with the idea can be verified. This isn’t the case with fiction, at least not necessarily.
You could use a fictional novel or piece of writing. For example, as an allegory. In other words, you want to convey a certain message or feeling through fictional writing or filmmaking.
A documentary film isn’t about allegory, it’s about depicting real events. That’s the essence of the documentary form.
Doing a documentary is about discovering, being open, learning, and following curiosity.Spike Jonze
That representation can be very creative, and probably should be, but it’s about the world of the real. To that end, it’s important to know that the documentary film community, as well as the documentary photography community, has fluctuated over the years between a more didactic and a more instrumental approach to documentary filmmaking and a more theoretical and artistic one.
The British documentary filmmaker John Grierson, for example, had a very precise idea of what a documentary should be, which was very closely linked to education, educational messages, and almost a kind of industrial filmmaking.
The founding father of documentary filmmaking, Flaherty with his Nanook of the North, on the other hand, had a more artistic idea of what a documentary should be.
It’s interesting to note that the first documentary film, which some consider being the origin of the documentary, was a very short film from 1894 called The Sneeze.
It’s literally a few seconds of someone sneezing. The scene was probably reconstructed. Probably the sneeze was played into the camera just for a certain effect, but the concept of the film is based on reality.
Types of Documentary Ideas
Before we get into how to come up with ideas for documentaries, it’s worth taking a moment to think about the different types of documentaries – because they can greatly affect your idea and how you execute it.
Some important types are:
- Portrait documentaries: about a specific person or group of people as the documentary subject.
- Advocacy: a type of campaign film that promotes a specific cause. They’re often shot in essay format. Food, Inc. is a good example.
- Docufiction: where fictional elements and scenes are incorporated into the documentary to strengthen it as a film.
- Docudrama: Here, dramatized reenactments are used to bring a factual account to life.
- Essayistic documentary: Here a particular argument or thesis is the most important factor in the film.
- Historical documentary: In historical documentaries, archival footage is often used to examine a specific event or time period.
- Investigative documentaries: Sometimes investigative documentaries are similar to advocacy films, looking for the truth behind something that the powerful are trying to hide.
- Observational documentaries: This type of documentary relies on a close relationship with the subject of the film to film in an intimate and revealing way. Gray Gardens, War Photographer and Knuckle, for example, are the most famous films of this type.
- Short documentary: typically 5-15 minute films, that have quite a narrow scope in terms of location, time period, or character.
- Feature documentary: usually a 70-minute or more film, with the ambition and feeling of a movie.
- Mockumentaries: this type of films tries to deliberately subvert a certain theme. For example, Spinal Tap, Borat or Best in Show.
How to Discover Ideas for Documentaries
It’s very important to capture ideas along the way.
This means that as a documentary filmmaker or documentary photographer, you should always carry a small notebook with you. Film director Sam Peckinpah would spot any crew member, high or low, on set without a notebook and pen.
While you don’t have to go quite that far, that’s a story to keep in mind to remind yourself to carry a notebook or another way to quickly record your ideas. Of course, that could be a smartphone.
Connect With Your Passions
Three ideas that are closely connected to your passions and curiosities tend to work much better because you’re likely to be more engaged with them than usual. So take some time to think about what really interests you and why.
Sometimes inspiration for documentaries comes from personal life experiences.
Very often they’re related to your own inner beliefs. You feel a passion for a certain way of life or the truth about something important and decide to make a film or photo documentary about that subject. Then you set out to find a story to bring it to life.
Sometimes you discover a great idea for a documentary by accident. That’s how I discovered the story of how the American CIA and their Russian counterparts the GRU collaborated on climate change for several years in the 1990s.
I was in Russia working on another story when someone alerted me to this amazing collaboration. I had to wait 20 years before I could tell the story because a lot of it and a lot of the people were kept secret.
But finally, I was able to make my film The Warning and tell a story that’s very close to my heart.
Ask Good Questions
Some great questions to ask, as part of your documentary idea discovery process are:
- What idea keeps coming back to me?
- What excites me? Why?
- Which cause have I joined or donated to?
- Which image has caused me to pause, and keeps coming back to my mind?
- Who is my hero?
- What makes me upset or angry? Why?
- What fascinates me, and puts me on a journey of learning?
All of these questions, and more, can spark chains of thinking that lead to great documentary ideas. They can also feed into an interview you might do on camera.
Watch Other Documentaries
A good way to come up with ideas for documentaries is to browse short films on the Internet. The best place to discover artistically interesting films is Vimeo. But you can also search YouTube for short documentaries. Or even stock footage, including in free online libraries like archive.org.
Of course, you don’t have to watch through all the films you see, but if you take a quick look at a few, an interesting idea might come to mind.
Make sure to watch documentary series on Netflix and so forth. Stay up to date with what is going on, and being commissioned.
Pay special attention whenever you stumble across a compelling story, and ask yourself what the story idea was.
Related: Best Place to Watch Documentaries
Read a Lot
Reading is a very important way to discover ideas. Whether it’s in books, magazine articles, or maybe the daily news. The most important thing is to immediately record an idea that comes to you in your notebook or digital notebook.
Also, try to briefly review the idea and take a moment to figure out and record what you find interesting about it and what’s worth thinking about and developing further.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.F. Scott Fitzgerald
Accumulate Good Sources
The Golden Rule is ‘Rubbish in, rubbish out – quality in, quality out’ – in other words, make sure that the sources of your information and inspirations are good ones.
Try to avoid a lot of the crap that you will see published on social media, YouTube, etc and hone in on the people who manifestly know what they are talking about. Look for experience, wit, and wisdom as essential signs that you are in good company.
As you read, watch, and listen – make sure to document your thoughts and reactions. Whether in a simple notebook or in some kind of digital system – including so-called ‘second brain’ systems.
The Value of Outliers in Documentary Ideas
Often the most interesting documentary topics are the outliers. That’s extreme examples of a particular phenomenon or trend.
These outliers work well for documentaries because they make the general point you’re trying to make clearer. You’re not saying that the outlier is typical of the trend, you’re using the outlier to illustrate the trend.
Observe Things Very Closely
Take time to observe and understand a particular society or perhaps a particular human activity. Sometimes this can be very intense and take weeks or months.
In the very first documentary film ever made, Nanook of the North, director Robert Flaherty spent 16 months observing how the Inuit live.
My very first major film, Soldat, was shot over the course of a year.
Also, seek out discussion and debate. Go to lectures, watch documentaries, read. It’s amazing what’ll grab your attention.
Sometimes something happens to you, one of your own experiences, that gives you an idea. I always find that when I’m traveling, on vacation, or in everyday life, I often encounter something that piques my interest or grabs my attention that I can use as the basis for a documentary.
Sometimes good ideas for documentaries come after I’ve been dreaming or thinking about something for years.
Sometimes it just takes time for the ideas and thoughts to solidify in your mind enough to find a form that’s suitable for a documentary film or documentary photo essay.
The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.John Maynard Keynes
Allow the Ideas to Bounce Off Each Other
Allow ideas and concepts to bounce off each other in your mind and in your mind mapping. The bouncing of different ideas leads to creativity and the development of a new theme or concept that can drive a new documentary project.
The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.Linus Pauling
Ideas Are Fluid
One of the most important things you need to know about documentary ideas is that they’re fluid. They aren’t fixed. Unlike a script for a novel or a play, which is fixed the moment you write it down.
Since there’s no script in documentary filmmaking, but the film is created during the shooting and editing, the ideas are much more flexible.
Think of it this way. You have a rough idea of what the film is about, but the theme can be developed and refined, and the structure can change. This can lead to a much stronger story. So don’t be afraid to leave your ideas open and flowing, and to keep changing them.
Related: How to Write a Documentary Script
Conversion of a Documentary Idea Into a Working Hypothesis and Controlling Idea
When you start thinking about an idea, you reshape it into a guiding idea or working hypothesis. The working hypothesis usually comes before the main idea. Very often, the hypothesis is phrased as a “what if” question.
This is because you need to do further research, thinking, and development to turn it into a statement that drives the film and that we can call the main idea.
Brainstorming is a very important part of idea generation and development for documentarians. I’d strongly advise you to try mind mapping in some form as part of your overall process.
This can be done with pen and paper or digitally.
These days I use either iThoughts – for a very quick mind map where a quick visual is important – or TheBrain, which allows you to develop deep ideas and thoughts, as my mind mapping apps.
Ways to Test if Your Documentary Idea Is Strong
Things that make a documentary idea strong include:
- The underlying cause is something you care about and believe deserves to be brought to the attention of others.
- The idea is original.
- The idea is visual.
- The idea is dramatic in nature.
- The idea is inherently moving.
- The idea is inherently educational.
- The idea is inherently surprising.
- The idea is inherently enlightening.
With any story, including documentaries, it’s very important that you figure out where the tension and conflict are. Without tension and conflict, one of the most important conditions for a story to work isn’t present. This is also true for a documentary film or even an essay on documentary photography.
Also, pay attention to where you’ve dramatic and narrative arcs in your work. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short film or a feature-length documentary. The reason for this is that change and transformation are very important mechanisms for keeping viewers engaged with your work. If there’s no change in your film, there’s a good chance that the viewer’s attention won’t be maintained.
The value of pitching cannot be overstated in determining whether or not you have a good idea for a documentary. Even if it’s to develop your documentary idea to the point where you’re ready to make a film about it.
For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, debate.Margaret Heffernan
You don’t always have to pitch your ideas at a film festival, or to a producer; sometimes friends and family can be very helpful in giving you feedback. Remember that the first time someone has a story is the most interesting; that’s when the mind is first open and fresh to the idea, so make sure you make the most of that opportunity.
A Powerful Argument
Having a powerful argument for your documentary idea is one of the most important things. Good documentary ideas are more than just a view or opinion. They’re based on strong, convincing, and valid arguments.
For a strong argument, the audience doesn’t have to agree with you, but you must at least have a point of view that makes them think.
A persuasive argument should be easy to formulate in one or two sentences.
A persuasive argument should have three main elements.
- A factual, empirical, testable or provable element.
- A second, contrasting, contradictory, oppositional, or counterpoint argument or view.
- A third, solution-based or answer-based or response-based third element.
Be Bold With Your Ideas
Making a documentary film or a documentary photo essay is a very exciting step. But it’s also a very difficult step.
One of the most important things you need to know about documentary filmmaking is that it requires you to constantly face uncertainty. You never know where your next idea or story will come from. The story might come from the most unlikely places. You might’ve to go to the far corner of the world for the story. You may have to spend months or years developing it, researching it, thinking about it. And you never know how it’ll turn out.
The rules of feature film and television production don’t apply to documentaries.
If you want to make a feature film, there’s a well-defined process by which you can make the film. With documentaries, the process isn’t so clearly defined. One of the reasons why the genre is so woefully underfunded in public television.
What Makes a Documentary Idea Work
The best ideas for documentaries have multiple levels of engagement and interest. This means that the idea can be understood on many different levels. The film is about something that’s relevant to the target audience but also has other levels of meaning. It’s not a good idea to make a documentary that’s only about giving information to the audience. Informational films are boring and shallow.
The most effective ideas appeal to viewers on at least three levels.
The first level is the emotional level. The story should be able to appeal to the viewer’s emotions. In a sense, the film should make the viewer feel something.
The second level is the intellectual level. The viewer should be able to appeal to their intellect and think about the issues raised in the documentary. They should be able to think about the subject of the documentary, especially after watching it. The more the viewer thinks about what’s happening in the film and outside the film, the more interesting the film becomes to them.
The third level is the social level. The film should inspire the viewer to think about what they can do in their own situation and in their own world after seeing the film. The film should also inspire them to participate in the world in some way, to make a difference, or to try to make a difference.
It’s very important that the viewer leaves the film feeling changed or inspired in some way to want to change something in their own lives and in their own world.