Making a documentary film involves a huge amount of research, narration, interviewing, filming, and editing. It’s one of the most challenging and complex types of film making that you can undertake. The goal of this article is to give you an overview of the documentary filmmaking process you need in order to create a successful documentary and what to consider and prioritize throughout the process, based on my experience directing dozens of films around the world for several of the leading international networks.
A Genre in Change
Documentary filmmaking has changed a lot over the years.
The film that’s generally considered to be the first documentary was Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty in 1922, which got him into hot water because parts of the film were fictional; for example, the Inuit hunters at the center of the film had been using rifles instead of spears for many years – Flaherty depicted them merrily using the pointy things.
But Flaherty’s film functioned as an intimate and attractive portrait of a people and place most of us would never encounter. Thereby making its place as the very first documentary film.
Encounters With the Unknown
And that’s the key point: a good documentary film takes us into a world we either don’t know or think we know but don’t, revealing essential truths and the heart of the matter.
This point about truth is very important because it goes to the heart of the ethics of documentary filmmaking.
Making a documentary isn’t like making a feature film or a motion picture, because in documentary filmmaking you have to have great respect for what actually happened in a story.
You can’t just fictionalize a story in a documentary.
This is true whether it’s a full-length feature documentary of the kind I make, a mini documentary, or a short documentary that you might typically see in a film festival or on YouTube.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t be very creative in how you build the story in your documentary.
Indeed the more creative you are, the better.
Make Your Documentaries Visual
Since documentaries are often about complex true stories, it’s easy to forget the requirements of cinema when you’re thinking about what story to tell and how to tell it.
The bottom line is that you need to show events on screen rather than just talk about them.
Always remember that you are making a narrative film – a film that tells a story through your eyes and mind as its author.
While interviews in a documentary film can cover a lot of ground, you always need to consider to what degree the story you want to tell can be visually represented.
And how you intend to do that.
Sometimes you stumble on a compelling story that you know will make a great film; sometimes you have a great documentary idea that needs the right story to serve it, and you go on a hunt for that story.
While a documentary is a factual representation of a story or an essay about a subject told through factual means, neither a film (nor any other kind of creative work) can ever be ‘objective’.
Therefore, before you begin producing a documentary, the first thing you must do is accept and acknowledge your role as a documentarian and your responsibility for the film’s veracity.
No amount of (correct) advice that you need to think of your documentaries as movies, and not use the ‘D Word’ should negate that.
Get Your Story Straight
When making a documentary, you must first be as clear as possible about what story you want to tell and why it’s important.
Making a documentary requires a great deal of intellectual energy and time. The documentaries I made over many years usually took between 6 months and a year to make. It often took several years to raise the funding for the films.
So it was important to be really interested in the subject of the film and passionate about it when it was released.
Because of the long production time of documentaries, you need to make sure that the story you tell will last at least a few years into the future.
It’s no good making a film that won’t be interesting a year from now. That’s why it’s even more important to seek and hopefully find the true meaning of the story you want to tell.
Often this is an evergreen message and a universal message to boot.
If you ask yourself what is the meaning of the movie you want to make, and you end up with small, relatively insignificant answers, that’s a sure sign that it’s either the wrong story you want to tell or that you haven’t thought deeply enough about the meaning of the story and why it needs to be turned into a documentary film.
There are stories, characters, and situations that are better told in an article or a book.
The strength of a documentary is that it brings experiences and emotions to life in a way that few other art forms can.
Be Open to New Insights
It’s important to recognize that your understanding of the story you’re telling in your film and its meaning and impact will change over time.
It’s very likely that as you research, shoot, and edit, you’ll gain new insights into what the real purpose of the film is. That’s perfectly fine. What matters is to have a starting point from which to begin producing your film.
Once you’re clear on the story and what the starting point means, it’s usually time to write a proposal for a documentary.
I wrote a whole article on this, which you can read here.
If you want to make your film commercially, for TV stations, streaming, or cinema distribution, be prepared for a long and hard fundraising journey. Often you’ll be stuck in ‘development hell’ for months, or sometimes even years, while you develop your film and wait for sufficient funding to come together to get started with it.
You will also encounter a significant amount of stupidity and ignorance in the decision-making cadres of the industry.
This is all quite normal. Be prepared.
The world of documentary film commissioners is small.
Some of their leaders are wonderful and lovable, others very much not so. You’ll have to use all your diplomatic skills to navigate the politics of what sometimes seems like a medieval Byzantine court to get enough support for your film.
Take heart from the fact that I personally was terrible at office politics and backstabbing, and nonetheless managed to direct dozens of films. So, make your best efforts on the diplomatic front!
If you’re a director or screenwriter on the creative side of the business, you should consider teaming up with an experienced producer who can take care of the business side of things to get your film off the ground. Look for ones experienced in the type of film you plan to make (observational, essay, investigative, etc).
Such producers are usually very good at networking and schmoozing the right people at the right time to get money.
The Phases of Documentary Film Production
Film production is divided into three main phases. Pre-production, production, and post-production.
In the pre-production phase, it’s time to think about what you need to produce your film. The most important thing in documentaries is access. All good documentaries are about access: to people, to exclusive footage, to locations, and more.
Otherwise, you’ll likely be serving up stuff that is known and common, and that’s not what a good documentary is about.
However, it can happen that particularly skilled filmmakers, combined with good insights, can make a documentary out of relatively humdrum material and access.
But most films are much better when they have some special or exclusive element in them.
Elements You Need to Plan and Prepare
So in the pre-production phase, you’ll probably spend a lot of your time and energy trying to get leading eyewitnesses to agree to be interviewed on camera for your film, or looking for archival footage (important not just for historical documentary) that you know is important but is hard to get or for which you don’t have rights.
If you think you will need stock footage, now is a good time to start identifying good sources of it.
Or you might talk to the author of an exclusive book you’d like to film. Inquire about other witnesses, secondary archives, and so on.
Filming locations are one of the factors in pre-production planning.
Usually, it’s a good idea to keep the number of locations as small as possible, otherwise, you’ll need too much time for scouting and spend too much money and time to film them.
Documentary Film Research
Research is definitely one of the most important points when working as a documentary filmmaker.
Chances are you’ll amass a huge amount of notes, bullet points, and information of all kinds while researching.
The trick is to be able to catalog the different pieces of research very well, while also being able to make conceptual connections and thematic links between the different pieces of material.
For me personally, apps like Evernote and mind mapping were very helpful in distancing myself from the details of the research and thinking about thematic connections, etc.
Nowadays, it would be worth looking for note-taking apps that allow block referencing and bidirectional linking, such as Roam Research or Obsidian.
Camera Choices for Documentary Filmmaking
Choosing a camera for a documentary is sometimes about what’s available, and sometimes about choosing the right camera for the style you want to set for your film.
For most documentaries, you’ll need a video camera with a zoom lens. That’s because when filming live-action, you need to be able to step back a bit from the subject, zoom in for fine detail, and then quickly switch back to a wide-angle lens to follow over your shoulder.
Also, in a static setting, such as an interview where the camera is on a tripod, you’ll likely use the zoom lens to increase the depth of field and create a cinematic effect that’s helpful for the overall scene and impact.
So if you’re using a professional camcorder with a zoom lens in combination with a DSLR camera, you’ll need to think about how to grade the footage produced by the two cameras to make it work together. If you’re only using a DSLR camera, that probably won’t work for most professional documentary scenarios.
The camera movement requirements of most documentary filmmaking scenarios mean that with a fixed lens, like that of a DSLR, you simply won’t be able to react quickly enough on location.
Even a DSLR zoom lens probably won’t work as well as a professional zoom lens on a professional camcorder.
Audio Choices for Documentary Film
Possibly even more important than cameras is considering sound equipment and planning audio for your film.
Audiences can tolerate bad footage, but they can’t tolerate bad sound.
In the modern world, it can be extremely difficult to get good sound on location. There are all kinds of loud distractions, both external and internal. In general, you’ve to figure out how to get the microphones as close as possible to the various sounds and people.
You’ll also need to think about audio redundancy, meaning you’ll need a backup audio recorder in case the main camera connection or microphone fails.
If you’re recording audio separately, such as with a digital audio recorder, you’ll need to make sure you clap your hands or use a clapping board to get a sync point between your video footage and the audio recording in editing.
My advice would be to invest in high-quality microphones and sound recording equipment. Unlike cameras, which often become obsolete after a handful of years, a good gun mic or lavalier/radio mic will often last for many years.
I’ve two Sennheiser MKH60 gun mics that are still going strong after 15 years.
Lighting for Documentary Filmmaking
Deciding which lights you buy or rent depends again on the style of film you want to shoot. And, of course, to what extent do you want to shoot in low light conditions.
Keep in mind that in documentary filming you’ll almost always find yourself in the unexpected situation of suddenly having to set up the camera and other equipment in an environment you didn’t expect.
So even if you plan to shoot exclusively with natural light, I’d advise you to have at least one light in reserve to be able to throw some light into a dark shooting scenario.
The modern dimmable lights from LED are extremely useful because they provide a safe and quick way to bring a spotlight up to a decent level. Those with power and battery options are especially good.
Keep in mind, however, that for high-quality shoots, you’ll often need to think about multi-point lighting and contrast and shadows.
Lights that achieve this – for example, dedolights – get extremely hot after just a few minutes, so you’ll want to make sure you place your tripods properly. Make sure you learn about lighting and lighting safety before you start your shoot.
Be Aware of the Form of Your Film
The exact form in which you tell your story in your film will change as you create your documentary.
You may have planned the film as a third-person narrative and find that you need to engage and participate in the first person for the film to come alive. You may even discover this on the spot.
As a filmmaker, you need to let your intuition guide you as to whether or not something will work well, and you need to understand the grammar of filmmaking enough to know if a particular approach will work.
Whether or not you’re personally on camera in your film, remember that your job as a documentary filmmaker is to capture the truth as you see it.
Don’t let issues of ego or presentation get in the way of what’s most important: conveying the truth of the story that’s happening in front of your camera.
This also means that when you’re doing a documentary, you’ve to be very careful about what you reenact or set up for your camera.
If you’re doing a reenactment, you should make it clear in the film that it’s a reenactment. It’s perfectly fine if you ask witnesses or interviewees to do something for the camera that they’d normally do, for you to get B-roll or illustrative footage.
It’s also perfectly fine, and even a good idea, to bring eyewitnesses to the scene of an important event so they can reminisce and show you around. After all, it’ll be obvious to the audience that this is what happened.
The Heart of All Good Documentaries: Structure
Even if you’ve created a storyline for your documentary before you start shooting, it’s a good idea to keep thinking about the structure of your film as you shoot and edit.
Films stand or fall on good structure.
Unfortunately, this is often misunderstood or even unknown to those in commissioning and decision-maker roles.
Your job as a filmmaker is to make sure you get the best possible structure for the film you wanted to make, come hell or high water.
Discovering film structure is partly a matter of understanding how films work and how film grammar works, and partly a matter of experimenting with editing.
Very often you have an inkling that it might work well to place a certain scene or sequence earlier or later in your film without even understanding why that might be the case.
The Two Timelines in Every Documentary Film
Understand that there are two main timelines for your film.
The first is a chronological timeline, where you can literally list events in chronological order.
But then there’s a second, very important timeline that’s determined by the characters. Here you can (and need to) bend or break the chronology to make the story work in your movie.
For example, you can foreshadow something important that happens later in the film with a short scene at the beginning of the film.
This isn’t a manipulation of reality, but manipulation of art to better represent reality.
Working Well With Your Crew
When filming is underway, the degree to which you can communicate in a collegial and effective way with your film crew will have a huge impact on the quality of your results.
In the professional documentary world, a typical crew would be a cinematographer (DOP), sound recordist, perhaps a researcher, and the director.
Although films are made in the edit, you need the raw footage – the clay – to bring to the edit. A happy, motivated, and focused crew will help you greatly to deliver that clay!
Documentary Film Interviewing
One of the core skills of documentary filmmakers is the art and craft of interviewing.
In my time, I’ve conducted literally hundreds of on-camera interviews with people in many countries around the world.
The key thing to a good documentary interview is to think carefully beforehand about what’s the most important thing you can get out of interviewing someone. And then you need to be extremely flexible and attentive during the interview so that the conversation takes you places you didn’t expect to go beforehand.
When you’re interviewing for a documentary, it’s very important to listen carefully and give the interview subject the space to think about and add to their own answers.
Sometimes the silences that fill the spaces in between are just as important as the actual words.
If you hear the interviewee provide a piece of information that you know will be important to the story of your film, make sure they clearly articulate what they want to say about it, or that you can have them say it in a way that’s useful to your film, i.e., to the editor.
One-word answers are almost always useless. This means that you should ask open-ended questions and use formulas like “Tell me the story of…” to get the interviewee recounting a story or moment in a really interesting way.
The raw interview footage is, by the way, sacrosanct. Not to be shared outside the production under any circumstances. To do so would be a severe betrayal of trust.
The Importance of Coverage in Documentary Filmmaking
One of the most important things you should do and ensure as a documentary filmmaker is to try your best to fully capture a situation.
To get ‘coverage.’
Imagine you’ve to film a mob attacking a building in the city. Think about what visual, auditory, and editorial perspectives you’d ideally need to take to tell the story of that demonstration or riot.
You could simply film it from the perspective of one of the rioters.
On the other hand, there’s a chance that the scene will be much more vivid if you somehow manage to both get inside the building and film outside or switch sides and show the perspective of the police or one of the people taking shelter in the building.
If you’re planning a documentary, you can sometimes think about doing two different trips to cover that kind of scenario.
The principle of coverage extends from the main considerations in your film to the considerations of what angles you use to film a particular scene.
Aside from things like the angle of separation, you’ll also need to think about how to cut or assemble the different angles in the scene to make them work well. In most cases, that means moving your feet to get the different angles.
It’s not about taking lots of different shots from one static position.
Going Into the Edit
When you start editing, you need to keep two important things in mind.
First, you need to view and log your footage. Even for a short film.
Don’t think you’ll remember what you filmed on location. You won’t. It won’t do you any good in editing if you can’t find certain shots, video clips, certain pieces of dialog, or something someone says in the interview.
All of these important things have to be logged by you, the filmmaker, and you can’t just rely on the editor to do the work. Otherwise, you’re not in control of your film.
The Critical Rough Cut
The second thing you need to understand is that the most important thing in editing documentaries is to get a rough cut structure.
All experienced filmmakers know this.
All the bells and whistles, polishing and refining the footage, can only come after the film structure is found in the edit. You can and should definitely do a paper cut before editing, sketching out in rough outline where you want the various scenes, shots, and interview segments to go. Be prepared, however, that this paper cut can change quickly as you begin working on the material in the edit.
It’s often a good idea to make the first rough cut as quickly as possible.
Beware of endlessly going through and revising small scenes when you first cut your material.
The Role of Scripts in Documentary
Also, beware of getting trapped into any kind of fiddling with a documentary script.
Full scripts in documentaries are for when the cutting is done.
Cutting scripts are what you use in editing. More often than not, they look very much like an outline, and subsequent variations of that outline.
Achieving the Rough Cut
It’s much better to try to understand the overall structure first before working on the details of individual sequences and scenes.
This can be difficult because it’s hard to see the true value and structure of a film that’s in a very rough form. But with experience and imagination, you can understand what the final film will achieve with a particular structure.
My advice would be to be bold when it comes to structural changes to achieve a successful rough cut.
I remember my first major film, a 90-minute feature documentary about the Russian army (Soldat), where we went through several restructurings before we finally found the right structure for the film.
Finding the right structure for the film was a very creative process, where we reviewed the film at high speed and instinctively shifted sequences until we found energy that worked well for the film.
Not an easy task with a feature-length documentary where there are dozens of important character intersections, dramatics arcs, etc.
Even if you have a logical understanding of your story, be prepared to add a completely illogical and artistic component to make your film work as a film.
Narration and Progression to Fine Cut
As for narration and how to incorporate it into your film in the editing phase, don’t worry about getting perfect recordings, just do a quick scratch voiceover to make the structure clearer.
Since many of the decision-makers you’ll encounter are incapable of properly viewing a rough cut (usually because they personally lack the requisite film making experience), it’s a good idea to make the first 5 or 10 minutes of your film look super smooth to reassure them that they’re going to get a film.
After the first 5 or 10 minutes, things can be looser in the rough cut stage. The most important thing is to achieve the rough cut structure and get it approved.
By the way, whenever you get a suggestion or comment in your rough cut viewings, always strive to say “I’ll check that” or “We’ll take a look” rather than “We’ll do that.” Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for a fall.
Once you get approval for the rough cut, life gets a lot easier.
Then it’s on to editing, shaping the narrative, grading, sound effects, mixing, and all the other pleasant things associated with editing documentaries.
Keep Your Vision Close
I’ll leave you with this final thought.
During the intense, frustrating, and highly complex process of creating a good documentary, it can be easy to lose sight of what originally inspired and motivated you to make the film.
It’s very easy to lose sight of the story you were trying to tell. Especially when would-be directors start interfering.
That’s why it’s very helpful to take time out every now and then during the research, shooting, and editing phases of your project to remind yourself of the core of your project.
With this knowledge and a large dose of determination, you’ll create a good film that you can be proud of and that viewers will enjoy.
Documentary making will be the art that you desired, and a world in which encounters with fellow filmmakers at film festivals and the like will be very much part of the reward for what is, for the most part, an occupation that is miserably rewarded financially.