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How Long Does It Take to Make a Documentary: A Comprehensive Guide

Creating a documentary can be a rewarding and educational experience, but the time it takes to complete one varies greatly depending on several factors. From short films to full-length feature documentaries, the process is often unpredictable and can range from a few weeks to several years.

The length of a documentary is largely determined by the depth of the subject matter and the level of detail required, as well as the filmmaker’s resources and creative vision.

During the pre-production stage, filmmakers conduct research, develop their ideas, and often secure funding for their projects. Once this groundwork is laid, the production phase involves capturing interviews, gathering footage, and structuring the narrative.

Finally, the documentary is edited in post-production, sound and visual effects are added, and the film is fine-tuned for release. Throughout these stages, each documentary project will encounter unique challenges and circumstances that can impact the overall timeline.

Key Takeaways

  • Documentary production times vary based on subject depth, level of detail, and available resources.
  • The filmmaking process includes pre-production, production, and post-production stages.
  • Unique challenges and circumstances throughout the process can impact the completion timeline.

Short Documentaries

When creating a short documentary, it’s important to know that they typically range between 10 and 30 minutes in length. The production process varies greatly depending on your subject matter, research, and available resources. Here’s what to expect in general:

  1. Pre-production: In this stage, you’ll choose your subject and develop a strong story concept. Conduct thorough research and reach out to potential interviewees. Make sure to plan out locations, equipment, and budget. Pre-production can take several weeks, as it is crucial for building the foundation of your documentary.
  2. Production: Once you have your pre-production elements in place, it’s time to start filming. This may include interviewing subjects, gathering b-roll footage, and capturing necessary live events or re-enactments. Production of a short documentary can vary in duration – it could be completed within a day or extended over multiple weeks.
  3. Post-production: In post-production, you’ll sort through your footage, edit your documentary together, and add any music, voiceover, or graphics necessary. This stage can take several weeks to complete as you carefully refine your story and polish the final product.

Remember that the timeline for creating your short documentary can be significantly impacted by factors like your team’s expertise, access to resources, and the project’s scope. Additionally, ensure you adhere to the guidelines for short film submissions if you plan on entering your documentary into film festivals – some festivals cap short films at 50 minutes, while others maintain a strict cutoff at 40 minutes.

In short, planning and organization are the keys to producing a successful short documentary within the desired timeframe. Stay focused, adaptable, and receptive to feedback throughout the process, and remember that creating a compelling story is at the heart of your documentary.

Feature Documentaries

When creating a feature documentary, you should be prepared for a longer production time than shorter documentaries. The time it takes to complete a feature documentary depends on its duration, type, and purpose. Generally, the planning stage for the final edit can take anywhere from 12 weeks to 36 weeks, but some documentaries have taken up to 15 years to finish.

In the pre-production phase, focus on research and writing. Interviewing subjects, scouting locations, and scheduling shoot days are essential. This stage typically takes around 4-6 weeks, but it can vary depending on the complexity of your documentary. Remember, thorough research is critical to providing a solid foundation for your project.

Moving to the production stage, documentaries can be shot over days or even years, depending on the subject matter and circumstances. For instance, the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer” was filmed over ten years.

Remember that the production stage generally takes longer than pre-production and should be flexible based on the footage required. Be prepared for any unforeseen challenges that may arise.

The post-production phase includes editing, sound design, and finalizing visual effects. This stage will vary depending on the footage captured and your documentary’s desired style. Typically, post-production takes a few weeks to several months. It’s crucial to allocate enough time for this stage, as it determines the quality and clarity of your story.

Independent Documentaries

You might wonder how long it takes to make an independent documentary. The timeframe for completing an independent documentary can vary greatly based on factors such as duration, type, purpose, and available resources. In general, it can take anywhere from 12 weeks to 36 weeks to complete a documentary.

While working on your independent documentary, you typically go through pre-production, production, and post-production stages.

You will spend time researching, writing, location scouting, and scheduling shoot days during pre-production. This stage can take around 4-6 weeks.

Once you’ve completed the pre-production phase, you will move on to the production stage. This phase involves actual shooting, and the duration depends on various factors like location availability, shooting schedules, and the scope of your documentary project. It’s essential to be prepared for any challenges during this stage and remain flexible with your timeline.

The final stage, post-production, includes editing, sound mixing, color grading, and creating graphics for your documentary. This phase can also vary in length depending on the complexity of your project and the level of polish you want to achieve.

Keep in mind that filmmaking is a highly creative and unpredictable process, and timelines for independent documentaries can fluctuate depending on unforeseen obstacles or opportunities that may come your way.

Maintaining a clear, organized plan and staying adaptable throughout the process will help ensure your documentary project remains on track and meets your desired vision.


Before embarking on your documentary journey, properly planning and preparing during the pre-production phase is vital. This stage typically takes four to six weeks, but it can vary depending on the complexity of your project.

During pre-production, you will define the scope and structure of your documentary. Begin by researching your topic extensively. This will help you better understand the subject matter and identify key themes, characters, and storylines.

Once you have a solid understanding of your topic, create an outline or script. This document will serve as a roadmap for your documentary, guiding you through the production and post-production stages. Ensure to include details on interview subjects, locations, and necessary permits or permissions.

Budgeting is another crucial aspect of pre-production. Determine the financial requirements for your documentary, including equipment costs, travel expenses, and crew salaries. To ensure your project stays within the budget, track your expenses diligently and adjust as needed.

Casting is an essential component during pre-production, as well. Select individuals who effectively convey the story and speak knowledgeably about the topic. Coordinate schedules with your interview subjects and obtain signed release forms to avoid legal issues.

Finally, assemble your production crew. Hire professionals with experience in documentary filmmaking – from directors and cinematographers to sound engineers and editors. Make sure that everyone shares your vision for the project and is dedicated to bringing it to life.

In conclusion, the pre-production stage is critical for the success of your documentary. Thorough planning, research, and organization will lay the foundation for a smooth production process and a compelling final product.


During the production phase of creating a documentary, you’ll focus on gathering all the necessary footage and interviews to tell your story effectively. It’s essential to have a clear vision, good planning, and organization skills during this phase.

Begin by scheduling interviews with relevant subjects or experts in the chosen topic. Coordinate with them beforehand, so you are well-prepared with questions and can make the most of their time. In addition, location scouting is crucial for capturing the appropriate visuals and setting the tone for your documentary. Be sure to seek out visually interesting and relevant locations to enhance your storytelling.

Always ensure you have high-quality audio and visual equipment when filming interviews and on-location footage. It’s wise to have a well-trained team, including a cinematographer, sound engineer, and producer, to ensure everything goes smoothly during shoots.

Remember to capture B-roll, which includes supplementary footage that helps transition between scenes or illustrates specific points made by the interviewees.

Creating a documentary requires an efficient and detailed editing process. Review the footage, select the best takes, and assemble the story cohesively and engagingly.

An experienced editor is vital in this stage, as they will be responsible for putting together the narrative, getting the pacing right, and ensuring the documentary flows well.

Managing your budget and timeline during the production phase is important too. Monitor your expenses, and make sure you’re staying on track with the schedule. Remember that shorter documentaries may require 2-3+ months to produce, while feature documentaries can take a year or more.

By maintaining a confident, knowledgeable, and straightforward approach, you can successfully navigate your documentary’s production phase and create a compelling film.


During the post-production phase of making a documentary, you’ll focus on editing and polishing your film. This stage is crucial for shaping your story and fine-tuning the visual and audio elements.

Firstly, organizing your footage and creating a structure for your documentary is essential. Begin by categorizing your clips, interviews, and B-roll footage in a timeline. This process may take a couple of weeks. Don’t be afraid to rearrange and experiment with the sequence until you find the most compelling narrative.

Next, focus on refining the audio and visuals. Adjust the color grading of your clips to create a consistent look throughout your documentary. Apply transitions and effects, but don’t overdo it – remember that the focus should be on conveying the story.

It is also vital to ensure that the audio quality is crisp and clear. This may involve cleaning up background noises, tweaking dialog levels, and designing soundscapes that enhance the viewing experience.

Motion graphics and animations can boost your documentary’s visual appeal, communicate complex concepts, or provide context. Take the time to create high-quality graphics that complement your film’s style, which can significantly impact the overall presentation.

Finally, subtitles and captions should be added to increase accessibility for your audience. This ensures that viewers who are hard of hearing or those watching your documentary in a noisy environment can still appreciate your film.

Remember, the post-production process can vary in duration, depending on the complexity and length of the documentary. The key is to maintain consistent effort and attention to detail throughout this phase to create a captivating and well-rounded film that does justice to your story.

Factors Affecting Documentary Length

Purpose and Type

The length of your documentary greatly depends on its purpose and type. For instance, educational documentaries might require more time to gather information and conduct interviews, while observational documentaries may rely on capturing moments as they occur, which can be unpredictable. Keep this in mind when estimating the time needed to complete your project.

Budget and Resources

Your budget and available resources have a significant impact on the production duration. You might need to work slower and more efficiently with little money and equipment. Planning accordingly and allocating resources wisely is essential to avoid time-consuming issues and delays.

Film Festival Requirements

If you aim to submit your documentary to film festivals, following their specific length requirements is crucial. Festivals often have strict rules on running time, so make sure to research and plan your film accordingly, keeping in mind that editing might take longer if you need to meet specific length criteria.

Shooting Ratio

The shooting ratio, or the amount of footage shot compared to the final cut, is an important consideration when estimating the time needed for documentary production. A higher shooting ratio, such as 25:1 or 50:1, means more time spent in editing and post-production. Consider this ratio when planning your schedule, as more footage can lead to longer production timelines.

Complexity of the Topic

Complex topics generally take longer to create a documentary due to extensive research and the need to simplify the information for your audience. Ensure you allocate enough time for research and content development to address the complexity of your chosen subject effectively.

Number of People Involved

The number of people involved in your documentary, both on and off camera, affects its production time. Coordinating schedules, conducting interviews, and managing a crew can be time-consuming. Carefully plan and communicate with everyone involved to ensure a smooth workflow and minimize delays.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long is the editing process for documentaries?

The editing process for documentaries can vary greatly depending on the complexity of the project and the amount of footage involved. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. It’s important to allocate enough time for editing, as this stage can significantly impact the outcome of your documentary.

What are the typical stages of documentary production?

Documentary production generally involves the following stages:

  1. Pre-production: This includes research, planning, and securing funding for the project.
  2. Production: This involves shooting the documentary, including interviews, and capturing all necessary footage.
  3. Post-production: This stage consists of editing, sound mixing, and color grading to create the final version of the documentary.

Each stage can take varying amounts of time, depending on the scope and resources available for your project.

How long should a short documentary be?

A short documentary typically ranges from 10 to 30 minutes in length. This format allows for a condensed but impactful storytelling experience, focusing on a specific topic or narrative. The shorter duration makes them more accessible and manageable for filmmakers and audiences.

What is the average duration of a documentary?

The average duration of a documentary can range from 60 to 90 minutes for feature-length documentaries. However, mini-documentaries and short documentaries can be anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes long. The duration of a documentary often depends on the subject matter and the intended audience.

How much time is needed to make a 1-hour documentary?

The time needed to make a 1-hour documentary can vary greatly depending on the project’s scope and available resources. It can take anywhere from 12 weeks to 36 weeks or even longer. It’s essential to consider factors such as research, shooting schedules, and the editing process when estimating the time required for a documentary.

How long does it take to edit a 15-minute documentary?

Editing a 15-minute documentary can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, depending on the complexity of the project and the number of edits involved. Allocating sufficient time for editing is crucial, as it will ultimately determine the quality and effectiveness of your documentary.