How to Make a Documentary Step by Step - 42West (2022)

Documentary filmmaking can be one of the most challenging yet rewarding projects a videographer can ever be involved in. Some aspiring filmmakers think that making a documentary film is as easy as having a good concept or idea, recording video footage, and showing it to a small audience. But there’s definitely a lot more that goes into the filmmaking process, aside from an artistic eye and technical know-how. Below, we’ll teach you how to make a documentary.

We’ve listed the most important tools, as well as some basic guidelines, that you’ll need for your documentary filmmaking journey.

How to Make a Documentary Step by Step - 42West (1)

10 Steps on How to Make a Documentary

With at least your video camera ready for filming, you can follow these steps to help you create an impactful documentary that your audiences will truly enjoy.

1. Conceptualize Your Topic and Find the Story

Think of a subject or topic that you really care about. Chances are, you already have a concept that also encouraged you to make documentaries. It can be anything under the sun, as long as there is an audience for it. Here are other things you may need to think about in order to determine the content, tone, length, and even the filming style of your documentary:

  • Your documentary’s purpose
  • Your target audience
  • Where the documentary will be shown (web, broadcast, or cinema)
  • Filming location
  • How big/popular you want the film to be

Do Some Research

Now that you have chosen the subject of your documentary, learn everything that you can about it. Unlike regular cinematic films, documentaries need to be based in truth.

There are probably hundreds of other documentaries that explore the same subject, so you’ll need to find a different angle, gather new facts, and search for interesting characters and possible storylines. Don’t forget to:

  • Take notes during your research
  • Ensure accuracy
  • Conduct initial interviews
  • Check out similar documentaries
  • Go for an interesting, emotional, and/or inspiring angle
  • Include key points that will resonate with your audience

2. Select Essential Camera Equipment for Making Documentary

Before you can start working on your documentary, you’ll need to assemble your camera equipment. Your kit can get as complex as you’d like, but the most important equipment includes the following items:

  • Camera: You can use DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, camcorders, action cameras, and even smartphones to record footage. For the best versatility, pick a camera that lets you change lenses and settings.
  • Microphone(s): At a minimum, you’ll want a shotgun mic, but many documentary filmmakers rely on lavalier mics as well.
  • Tripod with video head or gimbal: A tripod or other camera support will make your shots smoother and more professional.

3. Plan The Production and Story Structure

This is the part where you can create a more detailed plan for shooting your documentary. With all the necessary information at hand, think about how you’re going to present your story. Determine your core story points, compelling elements in your story, primary characters, storytelling structure, and general storyline.

Depending on the direction of your story, you may have to shoot all-original footage and create moments or include existing footage and other materials that can help you tell your story. Consider these factors early on to help you prepare for everything that you’ll need for the execution of your shoot.

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4. Create a Budget

This step may not seem important for small, one-man crew documentaries, but creating an overall budget allows the documentary filmmaker to determine just how far they can go to improve their output without going overboard. For both small-time and big picture documentaries, important factors for budget planning usually include the following:

  • Equipment and studio costs
  • Liability insurance
  • Production crew
  • Copyright fees
  • Location permits
  • Props
  • Catering
  • Post-production editing
  • Marketing expenses
  • Distribution costs

This can also be the perfect time to look for sponsorships and plan fundraising activities if you wish to increase your budget.

5. Make a Shot List

As in feature film productions, you’ll need to create a storyboard or write a script that you can follow once you start shooting. A general outline for the final output would do, with the order of the preferred direction of the story determined, a shot list laid out, locations and respondents listed down, an initial list of interview questions, as well as a proposed plan for the opening billboard (OBB) or intro and closing billboard (CBB) or outro. Also, decide which of the existing documents and materials you wish to take videos of and include digitally during editing.

There’s no need to write the script for your narrative at this stage of the filmmaking process. Should you choose to add voice-overs to make viewing more intimate for your viewers, it’s important that you wait until after the final product has been approved so you don’t limit the filming of your documentary to a predetermined narrative.

6. Secure Legal and Copyright Permits

Before you start shooting and using existing material, don’t forget to follow the legal guidelines set for documentary filmmaking. This includes obtaining rights for the use of footage, music, and other materials that are bound under strict copyright laws. As much as possible, use your own music to avoid having to spend time, effort, and money—unless there’s a very important reason why you have to use somebody else’s.

7. Schedule the Shoot

With so many factors involved in the process of documentary filmmaking, you’ll need to make plans that will help eliminate unexpected problems that can delay your production and affect your set budget.

Here are some things to consider when scheduling the shoot:

  • Arrangement of travel plans for on-location shoots
  • Call times and assignments for production crew
  • Scheduling of interviews with respondents
  • Obtaining permission to film existing materials and documents
  • Coming up with back-up plans
  • Filmmaking and editing timeline

8. Start Shooting

When deciding on the filmmaking equipment to use for your documentary, consider how you want your film to be viewed. You’ll definitely need to use a higher resolution camera if you want highly detailed footage, as well as a different lens focal lengths for varying types of shots. Establishing shots, for example, are crucial to put your scenes into context and to avoid confusing your audience with regard to the story’s timeline. With that said, you may also want to figure out what filming techniques to use in order to achieve your desired footage.

During filming, don’t forget to conduct interviews with relevant respondents to provide credible support for your message. Capture everything that you need to feature, including existing materials (like important pieces of evidence) and some real-world footage (like people in their daily lives) to strengthen your documentary.

If you’re featuring a historical topic, it may help to film re-creations so as to give your audience an idea of how relevant figures felt during the time of the historical event and how much has changed since then.

9. Edit Your Video

Once you’ve gathered all of the necessary audio, video, and other digital material that you need for creating your documentary, it’s time to start editing your video.

Using your computer and video editing software, you can start importing your clips in a sequence. The first obvious step is to arrange your captured videos chronologically according to your proposed documentary timeline. If you’re doing the editing yourself, consider doing it like the pros do: mix it up with fast and slow parts to create a more exciting and dynamic viewing experience.

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Once all of your footage has been laid out, clip and trim your videos as needed. Eliminate any unnecessary footage that can bore your audience and does nothing to contribute to your original idea. Polish the final video by ensuring that your scene sequences are in the right order and adding effects to keep transitions smooth.

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Finally, add all the necessary text, graphics, old footage, other existing digital material, music, and voice-overs.

10. Share Your Documentary

After the long hours of planning, filming, and editing, it’s finally time to show off the amazing result of your hard work and creativity. The next good problem that you will have to face is the choice of where you will be showcasing your work. If your final output is fairly high in quality, you’ll have more options, but it may also depend on your budget.

You can start by doing a free screening for your closest friends and family. Get their reactions and have those with a wide social reach write online reviews for your documentary. You can then start marketing your film for free on YouTube and social media sites, with old-fashioned print ads, and via word-of-mouth. It may also help to create a trailer that will add intrigue to your film without giving too much of it away.

If you really think your film deserves to be marketed further, based on positive initial reactions and reviews, you can hire a professional distributor to help bring your film to a much larger audience. You can also consult local TV stations and other film distribution outlets for possible tie-ups and referrals.

What are the Five Elements of a Documentary?

Successful documentaries generally feature five key elements. Each element represents an important storytelling tool, leading your audience to understand and relate to your subject matter. By using a combined approach, your documentary will feel rich and varied while providing plenty of information. The five elements include:

  1. Interviews: Direct interviews with experts provide important information and context for the subject matter.
  2. Cutaways: This footage will serve as stationary footage, or B-roll, for helping to create mood and give more insight about locations and subjects.
  3. Archival Footage: Connect subjects in the past to the present with archival images and footage.
  4. Cinema Verite: Live action footage relating to your subject matter will provide additional context, letting the audience watch the concepts of the documentary play out in real time.
  5. Process Footage: Behind the scenes content will often result in interesting educational experiences as the audience learns along with the filmmakers.

How Much Does it Cost to Make a Documentary?

As DSLR and mirrorless camera technology improves, the costs of creating a documentary have decreased considerably. In the past, filmmakers needed to rent expensive equipment to film their projects, but now equipment is much more affordable and many filmmakers own their own gear.

Beyond the cost of equipment, you’ll need to apply for any necessary permits and hire assistants to help you film your documentary. It’s often a good idea to hire people to fill the positions you’re least experienced with. If you plan to do your own editing, you can keep your post-production costs at the low end.

Depending on how much help you need and how much equipment you need to purchase, you can film a simple documentary for only a few hundred dollars.

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How do you start a documentary for beginners?

The most important thing to consider when starting a documentary is the subject of your story. You need a compelling narrative with interesting characters and, when possible, conflict and drama. This is what keeps the reader hooked. It’s also important to find either a completely new story, or a new way of looking at a story.

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Once you have that, gather a team to help you bring the documentary to life, such as other filmmakers, journalists, photographers. This film crew will help you build the story and capture the content. An equally important part of starting a documentary? Make sure the sources you want to interview are willing to talk with you (that often requires cold calling or cold emailing).

What to study if you want to make documentaries?

There’s no specific degree you need if you want to break into the world of documentary filmmaking—drive, storytelling capabilities, and vision are key. That said, there are some fields that could help you navigate the documentary film world successfully.

For one, considering a video or filmmaking field of study. Even better if there’s a documentary or news component to it. This will help you understand visual storytelling and the run-and-gun lifestyle required for documentary filmmaking. Or, if your university or college doesn’t offer that, look at photojournalism or straight journalism. The art of storytelling is the most important part of documentary filmmaking, and any sort of journalism background will help with that.

How to sell a documentary?

There are several key components to selling your documentary. The most popular way to sell a documentary is through film festivals. Getting into the festival circuit will get the right eyes on your film, and help you make key connections.

Beyond that, if you’re new to the craft and can afford it, hire a sales agent or entertainment lawyer to help you navigate this industry. They’ll ensure you get a fair price, and can help negotiate. Another way to sell your documentary? Find a distributor—and do so early if you can. They will help you understand whether or not the audience is there for your kind of film. And, if you have a winner, you can work with them to get your documentary in the right hands.

Essential Equipment for Making a Documentary

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Here are the things you’ll need to start making a documentary film. While these are merely basic filmmaking gear, you can always choose higher end equipment under each category and add a few accessories that can improve your workflow as you go along.

Video Camera

The video camera is the star of your filmmaking gear. You can choose any, depending on the type of documentary you wish to film, where you’ll be screening your film, and your budget. You can use an iPhone, digital point-and-shoot, and an action camera for rugged documentaries, while professional cinema cameras and 4K camcorders are better for theaters and broadcasting.


The most ideal lens for documentary is a zoom lens that offers a wide range of focal lengths, as being on the move doesn’t allow you to change lenses often. Choose a compatible zoom lens for your video camera and perhaps an extra-wide cine lens for establishing shots.

Tripod or Camera Rig

Another necessary piece of equipment that you’ll need to ensure professional-looking footage is a tripod or shoulder mount rig to help you rig your cinema camera, both of which are responsible for keeping your camera steady for sharper and smoother videos. For best results, choose a tripod that has a ballhead for more fluid movements. If you’re after impressive and cinematic pans and time lapses, you may want to upgrade your equipment with some motion control gear.

Lighting Gear

As with photography, having ample lighting is important. You’ll at least need a good on-camera light that can provide just enough lighting for your subject. But if you’re doing stationary interviews, you may want to consider investing in a 3-way lighting kit. For daytime shoots, a cheap light reflector can also make your shot look professionally lit.

Microphone Kit

Almost as important as having quality videos is great audio. Even as an amateur, prioritize recording high-quality audio using lapel microphones that you can simply clip onto your shirt.

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If you can have somebody hold a microphone for you, invest in a good shotgun mic and dress it up with a compatible shockmount and windscreen for clearer vocal audio. You can also use a boom pole to extend the mic closer to your subject without it entering the camera frame.

Portable Digital Audio Recorder

One audio mistake you need to avoid when shooting documentaries is recording audio with your camera mic. DLSRs don’t capture good quality sound, but your external mic and a reliable XLR Audio Recorder can take care of that for you. Simply connect your microphones to the portable recorder and sync your audio with your video later during editing.


Reshooting can be a huge hassle—not to mention costly. You’ll need to make sure that you’re recording quality audio all throughout by using a high-quality headphone to monitor what your audio recorder is capturing. This enables you to catch any audio mistakes and redo them while you’re still on set.

File Storage Devices

This should go without saying, but you’ll need several spacious memory cards so you don’t run out of video space in the middle of a shoot. It’s also advisable to bring an external hard drive, so you can offload your footage and back them up.

Extra Batteries

Just as you’ll need as much memory as you can have, you’ll need more than enough power for your camera, lights, audio recorder, and any other gear that needs batteries. If you’re going to be doing long location shoots, you may want to consider investing in an infinite power system that allows you to expand your camera’s battery power.


After shooting, you’ll need a computer for file storage, editing, and exporting of your final documentary. It can be any kind of computer or laptop, as long as its operating system is one that you are familiar with and its internal memory is enough to accommodate heavy video editing.

Video Editing Software

There are tons of free editing software that you can download from the Internet. But for more professional documentaries with higher video resolutions, multiple audio and video tracks, motion tracking, and varying export formats, you may need to pay more for video editing software that caters to enthusiasts and pro editors, like Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Apple Final Cut Pro X.

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How to Make a Documentary Step by Step - 42West? ›

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.
Jun 1, 2022

What are the 7 steps to filming a short documentary? ›

Basics of Making a Documentary
  1. Decide on a story idea you're passionate about.
  2. Create a production outline and figure out who you're going to interview and what you're going to film.
  3. Raise money.
  4. Grab your video camera and production gear and start shooting!
  5. Transcribe your footage and write a script.

Can I make a documentary by myself? ›

The short answer is "YES!" You can most certainly produce a documentary all by yourself. Of course, there are limitations, but it's certainly doable.

What is documentary example? ›

A documentary is defined as a film or television program that is educational and tells a true story. An example of a documentary is the An Inconvenient Truth, a movie about global warming.

How long should documentaries be? ›

Feature-length documentaries range roughly between 45 minutes and numerous hours. The Academy Awards defines the line between a short and a feature-length film at 40 minutes, while the Sundance Film Festival places the cutoff at 50 minutes.

What makes a successful documentary? ›

A good documentary shows people from a different perspective than they're used to seeing in the media. It opens people's minds and hearts to the struggles of other people in the world. It makes people question the way things are and the way they should be.

How do you structure a documentary? ›

Ken Burns's 7 Tips for Structuring a Documentary
  1. Embrace the laws of storytelling. ...
  2. Keep rearranging structure until it works. ...
  3. Hook your audience immediately. ...
  4. Introduce large stories through small details. ...
  5. Use chronology as a compass. ...
  6. Boil the pot. ...
  7. Send them home safe.
Jun 7, 2021

What is a documentary style? ›

Factual film that often includes a strong story line, told through interviews, observation, and/or narration.

Do documentaries need a script? ›

Documentary filmmakers create non-fiction films (both short films and feature films) that present a truthful storyline in cinematic form. Much like a narrative film, any type of documentary you make will require its own documentary film script.

What are the key features of a documentary? ›

Here are the features that a documentary should work for:
  • Story. The story is the reason why a documentary is alive. ...
  • Characters. You need good characters in a story. ...
  • Visual. Visual elements cannot simply consist of interviews or follow people, because that's not interesting at all. ...
  • Sound. ...
  • Take Away.
Jan 30, 2019

How do you make a documentary in one day? ›

How to Make a Documentary in One Day - YouTube

How do you edit a documentary? ›

14 Video Editing Tips for Cutting a Documentary
  1. Back up Your Footage. ...
  2. Organize It All. ...
  3. Transcribe Every Interview. ...
  4. Use Close-ups and Medium Shots over Wide Shots. ...
  5. Avoid Jump Cuts with Multiple Camera Angles or B-Roll. ...
  6. Cutting on Action. ...
  7. Lead into the Next Clip with a J Cut or L Cut.
May 24, 2021

How long does it take to make a documentary? ›

While 'feature' documentaries can take a year or more to produce, most shorter form documentaries can be finalized in as little as 2-3+ months, in three phases: Preproduction: Research and writing, interview and location scouting, scheduling shoot days. This will take approximately 4-6+ weeks. Production.

What are the 3 types of documentaries? ›

In this VOD we examine 3 different types of documentaries: Observational, Expository and Participatory. You will see examples of films that have used each of the 3 types of genre successfully.

What are the 6 modes of documentary? ›

Nichols (1991, 2017) identifies six modes of representation in documentary films. They are the expository, participatory, observational, performative, reflexive and poetic modes.

How do you start an essay documentary? ›

Begin by giving a brief and accurate summary of the documentary in the opening statements of the paper. On this part, you should include basic information about the piece, including its title, producer, characters, and date of screening among other key elements.

How long do documentaries take to edit? ›

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.

How do you name a documentary? ›

When choosing your title, choose words that are memorable, unique and catchy, not generic and vague. For example, the words "disease" and "health" are vague. "Generation Rx" is catchy. Once you choose a title that clicks with you, check the internet and make sure no one else is using it.

How do you choose a topic for a documentary? ›

5 Guidelines on how to choose a subject for a Documentary
  1. Go for what's doable than what is desirable. You may want to do a documentary about an astronaut's life in space. ...
  2. Travel and explore. ...
  3. Be Unique. ...
  4. Consider What Is Available To You. ...
  5. What Is The Most Visually Interesting?
May 14, 2021

Do you need permission to make a documentary? ›

You MUST have their permission and/or pay to copy their work. And if you have the dream of having your film seen on television, you will have to PROVE to those broadcasters you own all the rights to every piece of content in your movie.

How do you come up with documentary ideas? ›

Another way to find great documentary ideas is to pay attention to the news. Read your local newspaper, follow blogs in your areas of interest, follow thought leaders on Twitter. Keep an eye out for odd bits of information or a nuggets of a story that could lead to something bigger.

How do you make a documentary on Netflix? ›

You Can Make a Netflix Style Doco About Literally Anything - YouTube

How do you structure a documentary? ›

Ken Burns's 7 Tips for Structuring a Documentary
  1. Embrace the laws of storytelling. ...
  2. Keep rearranging structure until it works. ...
  3. Hook your audience immediately. ...
  4. Introduce large stories through small details. ...
  5. Use chronology as a compass. ...
  6. Boil the pot. ...
  7. Send them home safe.
Jun 7, 2021


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