People love to shoot documentary-style videos. But how long does it take a production team to shoot a documentary? That depends on what you want your documentary to look like. There’s no rule of thumb when it comes to shooting a film. But in most cases, you can expect it to take anywhere from 8 months to 3 years to shoot a feature length documentary.
How Long Does It Take to Shoot a Documentary?
Documentaries come in all lengths, from two-minute web videos to six-hour or longer films divided into episodes in a documentary series. Most last between one and three years and run less than 100 minutes.
How long it takes to shoot your documentary depends on the size and scope of your film.
If you’re shooting a short documentary or web series, it could take weeks or months, depending on how many people you interview and how much footage you need before editing. If you’re shooting a feature-length documentary, it can take several years to complete your film.
In fiction film, there are so many trappings – money, glory, champagne and supermodels – that attract the wolves. But in documentary film, there’s none of that, so the wolves stay away. The only people who make docs are people who are curious about other people and just like making documentaries.Marshall Curry
It Can Take a Few Weeks or Decades
Some documentaries can be shot and edited in a few days or weeks. This requires filming something that’s already happened, such as an event or a play. But if you’re trying to shoot an investigative piece about a story in progress, it can take decades to get the whole story out.
- In 2017, the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns released The Vietnam War, a 10-part series that took more than a decade to make. Costing $30 million, the researchers looked at more than 1,500 hours of archive footage and 24,000 photos – one of the reasons for the extensive timescale of production.
- I personally waited 20 years to make The Warning – a documentary film that tells the amazing story of how the CIA and Russian GRU collaborated in the 1990s on a joint scientific project to study climate change. One of the reasons for the delay was that those involved needed to retire before they could go on camera! Even once we gained access, fundraising and production took a further three years.
- Marilyn Ness produced the film Charm City, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2018 after four years of shooting and editing (with some additional footage added later). Telling the story of a community in Baltimore, followed their storylines for three years.
Most Often It Takes Between One and Three Years
Most documentaries take between one and three years to shoot.
This is because the process of getting sufficient access, conducting preliminary research down to the point that you can write a good proposal, securing funding, and then making and releasing the film takes a significant amount of time.
In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.Alfred Hitchcock
Why Top Quality Documentaries Take Time
The most important thing you need to know about documentary filmmaking is that your job as a documentary filmmaker is to find the right story. You need a strong narrative thread, and no matter how long it takes you, you need to find it.
The best documentaries have a strong point of view and are well researched.
A good documentary is well filmed, top-notch produced and edited together in a way that makes viewers feel like they’re watching a dramatic narrative film.
Documentaries Can Be Open-Ended
One of the main reasons documentaries can take so long is that you may not know how long to pursue your subject(s) until you’ve been following them for a while.
You may think their story will be over in two months, but two years later you’re still shooting! It has to be said, though, that this kind of documentary production is rare in the professional world – where usually strict deadlines apply.
Or you thought your film was going to be about one thing, but as you started shooting, other elements of the story became more and more interesting and necessary.
Start to Finish
With a big production company and a multi-million dollar budget, you can probably finish the film in 6 months if you really have to.
When the American military killed the Al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006, the film I was making about him for the BBC had to be rapidly brought forward: operating two editing suites in parallel, with a dozen or more colleagues helping, we brought the film to air in under a week – when the original plan was to take three months.
If you’re an independent filmmaker with no budget, it can take up to 5 years. And then there’s the answer that lies somewhere in between those two extremes.
The Documentary Filmmaking Process
Some of the key stages in the documentary filmmaking process that take time are:
Organize Your Narrative
Sometimes, the first thing you need to do is to write a proposal and treatment. Aside from helping to raise funding, this will help you organize your thoughts on your subject matter and give you something to refer to when things get chaotic in the middle of production.
A documentary treatment should include the following:
- A logline (a one-sentence description of your documentary)
- A description of the characters (including their names, ages, occupations, relationships with other characters, what makes them interesting)
- A summary of the film’s narrative (what happens in the story)
- An explanation of why this story is important or needs to be told
Writing a good proposal and treatment can take several weeks.
Casting the Film
Although you probably will have secured access to your main character or characters – who are often your primary source – prior to getting funding for your film, casting the rest of the interviewees can take months.
This is because you’ll need to research who can best speak to the storylines in your documentary, and then you’ll need to conduct pre-interviews – ideally face-to-face. A process that can take weeks to months to accomplish.
Making final decisions about who makes it onto camera can be complex and fraught.
The other type of casting is to choose and recruit your film crew. this can take a little time, because of the nature of freelance schedules.
Schedule and Shoot
Every decision you make in creating a documentary project has to do with time, money, and resources.
Getting a schedule sorted, that takes careful account of what are likely to be tight budget limits, plus also accounts for customs and carnets if filming overseas, is an exercise that usually takes a couple of weeks at a minimum.
Often, you’ll have to decide on what to compromise regarding your overall vision for the film.
Archive Research and Pickup Filming
B-roll is documentary material that illustrates what was said in the interviews, but also material that illustrates something that wasn’t mentioned in the interviews.
In fact, the term is anathema to filmmakers because really footage that you acquire on location should serve to build into scenes and sequences, rather than just ‘paint’ interview material in editing.
However, you do need to get sufficient video production and visual coverage for your film:
- Location shooting
- Archival material
- Pickup shoot for shots you missed during the main shoot
Depending on the nature of the film, archive research and logging can take weeks or even months to accomplish. Especially for a historical documentary.
Logging and Preselects
No sensible documentary filmmaker walks into an edit without having viewed and logged the location rushes, and the archive that will be used in a film.
Although there are apps and software that can help reduce the amount of drudge work, including transcription apps, the fact is that logging is a process that takes a couple of weeks at least.
This is because you not only need to log the material – you need the time to reflect on what you have at your disposal when you come to editing.
Paper Edit: the Cutting Script
Scripting for a good documentary film differs from what you’d do in a feature film or drama production.
Before filming, you cannot hope to have a precise script to which your participants and events concur on camera. Indeed, it’s the very nature of discovery in documentary filmmaking that gives it value.
However, you will normally have some kind of shooting script done; plus also a cutting script (paper edit) done before starting offline editing.
This cutting script is basically a first plan on how to put the scenes and sequences of your film together. The chances are that it will change considerably as the editing proceeds, but having one to start will avoid getting trapped in overlong fine cutting before the overall shape (rough cut) of your film is done.
Allow a couple of weeks to write your cutting script.
But one of the amazing things about documentary is that you can remake it every time you make one. There is no rule about how a documentary film has to be made.Errol Morris
Editing and Postproduction
Once filming is complete, the real work begins. You still need to edit your movie.
Working with a professional editor, you can expect to spend at least several weeks in offline editing prior to picture lock and postproduction (mixing, color correction, grading, captions, etc).
As a very rough guide, at a minimum, you should allow four weeks for a 30-minute film, eight weeks for a one-hour film, and twelve or more weeks for a feature documentary (90-minutes). As a film gets longer, the time required to edit it increases in a nonlinear way – becoming proportionately greater almost logarithmically. Something that production managers and producers sometimes find difficult to understand or accept.
Importantly, you’ll need to allow time for stakeholders – for example, commissioning editors – to view the stages of the edit and approve rough and fine cuts.
Following picture lock, postproduction to add graphics, master the picture, mix, add narration, and so forth is usually quite efficient. Even feature-length documentaries can be post-produced in a week or so.
Publicity and Distribution
Once your film is delivered to a network or distributor, there usually will be a delay of a few months before it gets added to a schedule.
In part, this is to allow time for any publicity to be done. It may also be because a television network or streaming service is planning where exactly to schedule your film within a ‘season’.
A Short Documentary Can Take Anywhere From Three Months to Almost Two Years to Make
Creating even a short documentary can take anywhere from three months to almost two years. It all depends on your project.
The duration depends on the following factors: the number of people involved in the project, the complexity of the topic, the size of your budget, the length of your documentary, and the number of interviewees.
If you know your subject well and have enough money to pay everyone involved, it’s possible to produce a good film in less than a year.
What amount does it cost to make a documentary film production?
A professionally-made documentary film will usually cost in the range of $100,000 to $500,000.