How Long Goes It Take To Make A Documentary Film? | Newbie Film School (2022)

You may have heard or read that a particular documentary took years in production before being released. However, it doesn’t hold for all.

Documentaries are research-based nonfiction movies and hence distinctly differ from the filmmaking production of a fiction movie. In this article, we will discuss how long does it take to make a documentary film.

Based on the documentary’s duration, type, and purpose,the time taken to complete a documentary film from its planning stage to the final edit will easily take from 12 weeks to 36 weeks.

However,aberrations are ranging from a month up to 15 years in making a documentary. Yes, you can make a documentary in a day too.

The Documentary Timeline:

As a filmmaker, a situation may demand you to make a great documentary film that is not much different from other types of movies. You will have to research and find an idea for that particular documentary film, write the script, and interview people.

There is also the videography process of recording the footage, which has its sub-processes. It is evident that the process is most likely going to be tiresome.

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The issue of time also comes in to dedicate an extended period for the film’s success. Regardless, as long as it turns out great, you won’t mind the time and effort. So to find an average production time, you have to consider various factors governing it.

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9 Important Factors Affecting The Documentary Production Timeline:

There is no definite time regarding how long it takes to make a documentary film. After all, most of the factors affecting how long it takes to make a documentary film are not constant. It is a process which means involves how long it takes you to do each of the necessary steps.


In the beginning, you will have to pick a documentary subject or idea. How long it takes you to choose one that’s unique and excellent will play a significant role in the period, it will require you to have the final product.


Any documentary irrelevant of its type need extensive research. How much research depends on the purpose of your documentary. What you are trying to say in the film is very important. Hence targeted research on the subject can save time and money.


Is it a short documentary or a feature? Is it a news-based short or a wildlife adventure? Every genre and story demands a particular duration.A short documentary will warrant less time to make than a 2-hour feature.

Like any other movie, the production and the post-production time will stretch depending on its duration.

Right Equipment:

Once you settle on the above, ensuring that you have the right equipment becomes your next task. In addition to acquiring the likes of lights, sound kits, cameras, and the rest of the gear, set them up accordingly.

Location :

Location plays a very vital role. If your story is based on incidents or a particular period, it needs to match the milieu. For that, you need to have the location locked with proper permissions and approvals.

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If the movie warrants snow or rain and you don’t have footage, you may have to wait for the season to arrive. Locations can stretch the length of the production manifolds.


Only then can you start the production. Since it is a documentary film, you will begin filming the interviews. For great interviews, pre-interviews may be critical, and that will also need additional time. Since Yes and No questions are not an option, it goes without saying that the interviews will be relatively long.

How long it takes the interviewee to be uncomfortable enough to answer questions accordingly also determines how long it takes to make a documentary.

B-Rolls :

Upon finalizing filming interviews, you ought to proceed to B-roll and coverage. While doing the coverage, please don’t neglect the audio so that it can be the best lest it cost you later.


Next, you proceed to edit it to tell the intended story the way you want it to in the beginning. Documentaries usually have stacks of footage and B-rolls. To browse through all of them and create a planned edit flow can be very time-consuming, leaving alone editing the documentary. We will also talk about the shooting ratio sometime later.

Additional Filming:

You will often encounter that the edit lacks some clips or footage to add meat to the film. For that, you have to revisit the location and shoot some more. The waiting game can be tiring if you don’t get the right moment.

Sound and Voice Overs:

Last but not least, record voiceovers, select soundtracks, music, and sound effects, etc. They should correspond with the tone and mood of your story. If you get all that right, then you have a final product ready for distribution.

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The bottom line is that the time you spend doing the various phases will determine how long it takes.

Music scoring, research, additional filming, archival footage, and people’s availability will take your time. Some subjects are also more demanding than others, especially if they are about behaviors and patterns. After all, you might have to study your subjects for a relatively long time.

Difference Between Movie And Documentaries

For obvious reasons,a movie might take a shorter period to film than in the case of a documentary.After all, you are usually not in control of the outcome during filming. There are high chances you want a shot of the behavior of a specific animal. You can’t tell the animals to do it or even force them to do it. All you can do is wait and hope that things turn out as per your expectations.

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Equally important, even the people you interview are not professional and may not respond to the questions appropriately. It would be best if you also gave them time to get comfortable.

Sometimes, you will have to push them to provide you with more if they offer little information as a response. You may need to record for long hours to capture the real deal, which translates to lengthy coverage.

Consequently, you get to spend a relatively long time editing as you may have to cut a lot of parts, eventually. It could be minutes, hours, or days depending on the quantity and quality of the coverage and what you want to achieve in the end.

On the other hand, you have precise control when filming a movie. There is a script that serves as a manual throughout the entire process. In most cases, you will be dealing with people, actors, and actresses who know what they are doing and what is expected of them.

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If it is about animals, you can improvise. The coverage and the movie ratio may be almost 50:50, especially if the retakes are few. As a result, editing will also need less time.

Therefore, if you control what you are covering in the documentary film, the time may be shorter than when you rely on luck for the desired shot.

How Long Does It Take To Make A Short Documentary?

Assuming that everything goes perfectly well, it is possible to record and edit yourdocumentary to the final product within weeks. However, the documentary’s scope would require you to take longer to record, consequently taking you more time to edit and make it ready for the audience.

One of the most common short documentaries is a local news story. The end product will be approximately 90 seconds long, but here is an estimated timeline for the same.The research could take anything between one and two hours.After that, you need toshoot, write and edit, which requires 3 hours, 2 hours, and 2 hours, respectively. That should tell you a lot as a documentary videographer.

How Long Does It Take To Make A 30-Minute Documentary?

A 30-minute short documentary should at least take between 6 to 8 weeks.Two weeks for researching and developing the script. Another two weeks for pre-production. One week minimum for shooting and the rest for the post.

But, to answer the question as appropriately as possible, let’s base it onthe shooting ratio. That’s theratio of the amount of footage recorded to the final video’s amount of coverage.

With a documentary film, the rate can range from25:1 to 50:1. The more footage you have, the more time you need to spend time on editing. Sometimes you only need a 30-minute documentary, but you have to shoot it for years. And now, we know about the various factors that determine how long it takes to make a 30-minute documentary.

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Consequently, one can’t tell for sure how long it will take. Again, the time you spend on each stage determines the total time your documentary film will take. However, never make the mistake of shooting less because it would cost you a lot later.

Final Words

We hope that now you can plan better for the filming of your next documentary film. Keep in mind that editing more footage is better than dealing with less hence advisable to shoot more. Eventually, the long time you spend will pay off when editing begins. All the best!


How long does it take to make a documentary film? ›

In a nutshell, it typically takes 2-3 months or more to make a documentary. This time is in three phases: Pre-production, Production, and Post-production. Ultimately, the final length of the documentary and its complexity will determine the length of the process.

What is the average run time of a documentary? ›

The average seems locked at somewhere around 110 minutes. But the theatrical release is one of the least likely outcomes for your documentary. And even if you get, or self-create, a theatrical release, the majority of your audience is still likely to view your doc elsewhere.

How long does it take to edit a 90 minute documentary? ›

However, as a general rule, ADE suggests that “for an average documentary, a good rough guideline for scheduling is: 1 month of editing per 10 minutes of finished content,” or six months for a 60-minute film and nine months for a 90-minute film. Documentary TV series provide another set of scheduling challenges.

How long does it take to research for a documentary? ›

A 30-minute short documentary should at least take between 6 to 8 weeks. Two weeks for researching and developing the script. Another two weeks for pre-production. One week minimum for shooting and the rest for the post.

How hard is it to make a documentary? ›

Documentary filmmaking is a difficult challenge, so you'll need a fire-breathing spirit to get you through. You should find a topic that you are passionate about and tell its tale in order to communicate your point of view. Look for a beneficial topic and think about how to build a story that your audience can enjoy.

How much do documentary filmmakers make? ›

While ZipRecruiter is seeing annual salaries as high as $75,500 and as low as $25,500, the majority of Documentary Filmmaker salaries currently range between $42,500 (25th percentile) to $70,500 (75th percentile) with top earners (90th percentile) making $75,500 annually across the United States.

How many people should be in a documentary? ›

You may be tempted to put a lot of people on your interview wish list. Again, there are no rules because each documentary has its own set of circumstances (maybe there's a reason to interview 100 people), but in general, it's hard for an audience to get to know more than 7-8 “characters” within one movie.

What is the longest film in the world? ›

Cinematic films
TitleRunning timeYear released
Out 1 (Noli me tangere)775 min (12 hr, 55 min)1971
How Yukong Moved the Mountains763 min (12 hr, 43 min)1976
Evolution of a Filipino Family593 min (9 hr, 53 min)2004
Shoah566 min (9 hr, 26 min)1985
31 more rows

How long is a mini documentary? ›

Mini documentaries are essentially short documentaries. Whereas a feature-length documentary can run as long as a full-length motion picture, mini documentaries can be as short as a few minutes long, though they typically run between 10 - 30 minutes in length.

How much does it cost to make a documentary? ›

Making a documentary film can be a long and expensive process. It typically takes about a year to go from the initial idea for a film to the final product, and the cost of making a documentary can range from $50,000 to $2 million or more depending on the factors stated in this article.

How do you make a documentary film? ›

10 Steps on How to Make a Documentary
  1. Conceptualize Your Topic and Find the Story. ...
  2. Select Essential Camera Equipment for Making Documentary. ...
  3. Plan The Production and Story Structure. ...
  4. Create a Budget. ...
  5. Make a Shot List. ...
  6. Secure Legal and Copyright Permits. ...
  7. Schedule the Shoot. ...
  8. Start Shooting.
13 Apr 2021

How long does it take to make a nature documentary? ›

Most Often It Takes Between One and Three Years

Most documentaries take between one and three years to shoot.


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