What are the steps to make a documentary film? How to make a documentary - Documentary Film Cameras (2022)

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Making a documentary is different from making a fictional film but it’s not necessarily “less work because you’re just capturing real life.” What beginning or aspiring documentary filmmakers may not know is that documentary films often have scripts and involve tons of research, substantial budgets, and complex editing. In this article we’re going to break down, from a bird’s eye view, how to make a documentary film.

The steps to make a documentary film:

No two documentaries follow the exact same path from conception to completion but what follows below is a rough guide for the process by which many documentary films are made. Not every filmmaking process will include every step, and many films will include additional steps beyond the basic ones listed here.

Phase 1: Documentary Film Pre-production

Research & Writing – Every film starts with an idea. Sometimes for a documentary film, this might end up being quite different from the eventual finished product but documentaries often times start with a fair amount of research. That might including writing a documentary script or treatment for what you expect the film may include, and it may involve approximate hypothetical lines that you expect the people in your film to say. Many documentary filmmakers do all sorts of extensive research, much of which doesn’t actually make it into the film itself.

(Video) 7 Fundamental Steps to Film a Short Documentary

Pre-interviews and interviewee selection – Unless you’ve already decided to make a documentary about a specific historical or living individual, you’ll probably need to do some “casting,” or deciding who will be in your film. If it’s a doc about a particular issue, say, climate change, you might need to choose which scientists or experts you want to interview. Most documentary filmmakers end up talking with many more people than actually end up in their film. You might conduct pre-interviews where you’re doing research into both who will be enough of an expert to be in your film, but also who seems like they can talk in an engaging manner.

Simply being a subject expert is not enough to be “cast” in a documentary– you also need to be good on camera and able to speak in an understandable and engaging way that won’t confuse or put your audience to sleep. As the filmmaker or documentary film producer, you need to vet your film’s subjects and decide whether or not they’ll be good on film for the “role” you need them for. Sometimes even experts who aren’t well suited to speaking on camera (perhaps they have a stutter or they’re located in a remote location you can’t afford to travel to) can still sign on as advisors to your project which can help inform your process and answer subject area questions you encounter or give you feedback on rough cuts of the film later on.

Fundraising & building a team – Next the filmmaker will create a rough budget for what it will cost to make the film. On a super low budget doc you might be able to self-fund it, but often times you’ll need to do some documentary fundraising either through a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign or applying for media grants. There are many documentary film grant-makers but there’s also plenty of competition for their funds. Depending on the type of film you’re making you may also need to start building a team at this phase (hiring camera and sound technicians, an editor, etc). You’ll also want to secure any filming access you will need, like getting permission to film in a government building or confirming with your film’s interviewees or subjects that they’re willing to be part of your project.

Phase 2: Documentary Production Phase

Shoot interviews & follow your subjects – Depending on the type of documentary you’re doing, you may be shooting a variety of material. For a historical documentary, you might be filming re-enactments and collecting interviews with historians. For a documentary film that follows a modern day living person as they try to accomplish a goal (run a marathon for instance), you might be filming them as they train and work to accomplish their goal. Of course, you’ll want to get documentary film release forms signed from all your participants so you can legally use the footage you shoot with them.

Collect b-roll – B-Roll is the material that isn’t interviews in your film. If you’re making a film about woodworking you might want to collect lots of cool footage of people sawing wood or fitting joints into grooves or sanding rough edges or staining finished chairs. This footage will come in handy later when it’s time to piece together your interviews and other footage into telling a story. The b-roll can cover up edits that you make in your interviews and help you stitch together a visually compelling story. See our related article Creative B-Roll Ideas for Documentary Filmmakers.

Find archival materials – Not every documentary film relies on old photos or archival video but many do. If your film does, you’ll want to find, collect and digitize those materials so they’re ready for you to use in the editing process. You’ll also need to get permissions and documentation that you have those permissions from the rights holders or creators of this imagery if it’s not in the public domain or covered under the fair use loophole.

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Phase 3: Documentary Post-Production

Editing – Depending on the length of your film (feature or short) your editing process might be quite long and complex or simpler. Feature length documentaries often start with a paper edit or a compilation of interview transcripts that roughly sketch out the structure of the film before any footage is actually edited. Shorter documentaries might just leap into the editing phase, making adjustments where the plan from pre-production didn’t quite match the finished results. You’ll also record any temporary and final voiceover if your documentary has narration.

Getting feedback – Almost every film, nonfiction or not, involves a substantial feedback gathering phase once there’s a rough cut ready to be shown. Just like writing a book, you’d want someone you trust to read it (and preferably lots of people) before you send it off to a publisher for consideration, filmmaking is much the same way. Documentary filmmakers will often hold rough cut screenings of a few people like subject matter experts, general audience member types and other filmmakers to help figure out what the weak or unclear parts of the film are. These days you can also send a private link to the film via email for feedback to people.

Polishing – Finally, once you’ve reached picture lock and your film is done with editing you’ll probably need to get a sound mix and color correction done to really make the film shine. If you have a film score composer they’ll also work during this stage to add custom music underneath some scenes. See our related article: How to boost film production values.

Phase 4: Documentary Distribution

Every film is unique and every film will have a unique distribution trajectory. What follows here are some examples of what the distribution phase may include, not every film will do each of these.

Submit to film festivals – This is a common step in the indie filmmaking process. Documentarians might submit their film to submission services like Film Freeway that will, for a fee, send your film to various festivals around the world. If you’re accepted to some you may attend them in person to show your film, give Q&As afterward to the audience, and sometimes meet with other filmmakers or distribution representatives from companies if there are any in attendance who are interested in your work.

Get a distribution agent to pitch your film to studios – This might be another step although not every documentary film does this.

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Submit your film to broadcasters like PBS – Specifically, PBS has their POV and Independent Lens for 1 hour long stand alone docs.

Put the film online for streaming/VOD purchases – Online storefronts like Amazon, iTunes and others will allow you to market your film and sell directly to consumers.

Not every film will include all of the steps in this step by step documentary filmmaking guide, and just about every film will include other unique steps that we haven’t mentioned. But hopefully, now you have a bird’s eye view of what the documentary filmmaking process is commonly like. Browse around our website for more documentary filmmaking information.

What are the steps to make a documentary film? How to make a documentary - Documentary Film Cameras (1)

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(Video) HOW TO FILM A DOCUMENTARY Part 1 // THE GEAR

FAQs

What are the steps to make a documentary film? How to make a documentary - Documentary Film Cameras? ›

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 four steps to film a short documentary? ›

  1. 4 Steps To Film A Short Documentary: To shoot a standard news package (short doc) these four elements are needed. ...
  2. The Interview. First, conduct an interview with someone on camera. ...
  3. Voice Over. Sometimes you may need to convey information that your interviewees didn't express. ...
  4. B-Roll. ...
  5. Natural Sounds.

What makes a good documentary film? ›

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 shoot a documentary with one camera? ›

The three main techniques in filming a movie with a single camera are “Triple Take”, “Master Scene”, and “Camera Placement”. Triple take can only be used where the cameraman can control the action. “It is done by matching and overlapping the starting with the end of each shot.

What is meant by documentary film? ›

documentary film, motion picture that shapes and interprets factual material for purposes of education or entertainment. Documentaries have been made in one form or another in nearly every country and have contributed significantly to the development of realism in films.

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 does it take to make a documentary film? ›

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.

What camera is best for shooting a documentary? ›

Which are the Best Cameras for Documentary?
  • Sony A7III: (best Sony camera for documentary)
  • Nikon D850: (best Nikon camera for documentary)
  • Canon EOS R6: (best camera for documentary)
  • Blackmagic Pocket Cinematic Camera 4k: (best 4k camera for documentary filmmaking)
  • Panasonic GH5s: (best camera for travel documentary)
Apr 11, 2022

How do I edit a documentary film? ›

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

What are the 5 elements of a video film *? ›

The 5 elements of video production
  • Interviews. Frame the person using negative space, have them fill roughly 1/3 of the screen, on the left or right side. ...
  • B-Roll - also known as "Cutaways" B-Roll / Cutaways: ...
  • " Chill Footage" ...
  • Process Footage. This is when you film the making of your documentary. ...
  • Archive.

What are the 8 elements of film? ›

Terms in this set (8)
  • Theme. Central idea of a film. ...
  • Screenwriting. Narrative Structure, what makes it good.
  • Visual Design. What the scene is made up of. ...
  • Cinematography. Various points of view the camera can take.
  • Editing. Joining shot to shot an combining the video. ...
  • Sound and Music. What we hear?
  • Acting. ...
  • Directing.

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 write a documentary essay? ›

How to Write a Documentary Essay
  1. Watch the documentary (and take notes). ...
  2. Choose your perspective. ...
  3. Pick what to discuss. ...
  4. Outline your essay. ...
  5. Write it! Start with a brief introduction about the documentary and your thesis statement at the end of it.

How do you write an introduction for a documentary? ›

Documentary Structure - Introduction, Body and Conclusion - YouTube

How do you write a short film script? ›

6 Tips for Writing Short Film Scripts That Connect
  1. Find a small, specific, significant idea you can tell well in a short script. ...
  2. Craft a complex character with a small, significant want. ...
  3. Create a pattern of external and internal change. ...
  4. Start your story on page one. ...
  5. Hit your scenes late and get out early. ...
  6. Show don't tell.
Aug 26, 2020

What's the purpose of a documentary? ›

“Documentary films tell important, often unknown stories and bring awareness to a wider audience, and are some of the best resources for information, inspiration and entertainment. They have also become core elements and prompters of social issue campaigns.”

What cameras do documentaries use? ›

10+ Best Cameras for Filmmaking and Documentaries 2022
  • Fujifilm X-T4 (Editor's Choice) Fujifilm X-T4. ...
  • Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K. Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K. ...
  • Panasonic Lumix S5. Panasonic Lumix S5. ...
  • Panasonic Lumix S1H. ...
  • Canon EOS R5. ...
  • Sony A1. ...
  • Panasonic GH5 Mark II. ...
  • Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6K Pro.
Jun 28, 2022

How many cameras are used in a film? ›

Most films use a single-camera setup, but in recent decades larger films have begun to use more than one camera on set, usually with two cameras simultaneously filming the same setup. However, this is not a true multiple-camera setup in the television sense.

How do you structure a short documentary? ›

Short documentary films tend to have the simple three-act structure of an introduction, middle, and resolution. The introduction captures the attention of the audience and sets up the main questions that the rest of the documentary will try to answer.

What are the parts of a documentary? ›

Documentary Structure The Three-Act Documentary
  • Beginning | Act One. The beginning of the documentary needs to capture the audience's attention. ...
  • Middle | Act Two. This is the main guts of your story. ...
  • End | Act Three.

What is considered a short documentary? ›

According to the Academy Awards' strict definition, the distinction between a feature-length documentary and a 'documentary short subject' is drawn at 40 minutes. Sundance Film Festivals caps short films at 50 minutes.

What makes a good documentary film? ›

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.

Videos

1. 4 Easy Steps to Film a Short Documentary
(Indy Mogul)
2. 1. Introduction: Doing Science & Making Documentary Film
(MIT OpenCourseWare)
3. Documentary Filmmaking: Process of a Pro Editor
(This Guy Edits)
4. How To Make A Documentary: The Overlooked Basics of Filmmaking
(Mark Bone)
5. How to Make a Documentary in One Day
(Indy Mogul)
6. How are movies made? | The movie making process explained | How to make a movie
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