If you’ve ever been curious about the exciting world of documentary film production, then this is the perfect place for you to start. Documentary videos have a unique ability to bring stories to life through creative visuals and soundscapes that can transport your viewers to another time and place. In this guide, we’ll provide an overview of the key steps involved in documentary production, from concept development and scripting to filming and post-production. Whether you’re just starting out or already working as a professional documentary filmmaker, our hope is that this guide will work to equip you with all the knowledge necessary for producing polished documentaries with impactful storytelling.
What is a Documentary?
A documentary is a non-fictional film or video that captures reality, often used to shed light on a particular topic or to educate the audience. Unlike fictional films, documentaries focus on real people and events, capturing them as they unfold. They showcase various forms of storytelling, including interviews, footage from historical events, and current event coverage. Documentaries can range in topic from nature and general knowledge to political and social issues. Whatever the topic, documentaries aim to inform and bring awareness to the viewer, and they serve as a great medium for deepening our understanding of the world around us.
Types of Documentaries
Understanding the different types of documentaries can help you determine which ones best fit your interests and the issues you want to explore. According to documentary filmmaker and theorist Bill Nichols, there are six main types of documentaries, each with its own unique approach to storytelling. There isn’t a strict rule to this; some films might use elements from multiple styles, but think of this knowledge as a vocabulary into what makes up a documentary.
These can be very abstract and loose in narrative but create a feeling for the viewer through images and experiences. Examples of this are Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil and Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time.
This is probably the most common style of documentary people are familiar with. It starts with a point of view or subject the filmmaker wants to teach the viewer and uses interviews, archival footage, b-roll or re-enactments to work that point across, often with a “voice of god” narration. There are many examples of this including Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line and most of Ken Burns’s films.
This style can be very similar to expository but adds the element of a filmmaker inserting themselves into the story, often nudging the narrative or interviews to align more with their point of view. This is not necessarily a negative thing, as it can make for a great and often entertaining documentary. Michael Moore’s films could be examples of this (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 911). Another example is the mountain climbing doc Free Solo.
In the observational style of documentary filmmaking, the camera follows the subject uninterrupted to get a real fly-on-the-wall perspective. It’s commonly tied with the “cinema verite” style, which is a natural, unscripted style of filmmaking. Examples of this are Steve James’s Hoop Dreams and Albert and David Maysles’s Grey Gardens.
A reflexive documentary is similar to participatory as they involve the filmmaker being part of the show. However they aren’t trying to change our mind about a certain subject but instead showing us something about themselves as they make their video. The best example of this is Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.
Finally, a performative documentary uses the filmmaker’s own experiences and involvement to prove the point of the film and make an emotional impact on the audience. Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me is an example of this as he is the director but also the main character of his story.
Many of these styles may seem similar and many films can fit into multiple categories. But knowing each of these can help inform your choices as a documentary filmmaker and your own video projects.
Steps to Making a Documentary Video or Film
Making a documentary can be a long process with a lot of preparation so it’s important to start by laying out all the steps you’ll need to take to make your film or video. Here is a basic outline of what can go into making a great documentary.
Conceptualize Your Topic and Find a Story for your Documentary
You might already have an idea for your documentary in mind or maybe just an inkling of an idea. Whatever concept for your documentary you have, write it down and start from there. Then write down every part of that story that interests you so you can decide what you want to show your audience or want to find out for yourself. This may be easier for some documentary topics than others but do what you can. Be aware that your story may change as you learn more about the topic or get footage of your subjects. Some amazing documentaries have started out as one thing and changed into something entirely different in the middle of the productions.
This is not just to learn about the topic, which is also important, but the process of researching will give you information on what you should film or interview or find more information on. If your plan is to make a documentary about your local cheese shop and in your research you find out that it was once owned by the guy that invented Rollerblades, now you know you might want to find out more about that!
Making sure you’re thoroughly prepared for your shoot is important for any film or video production and a documentary is no exception. Your checklist may be a little different, however because the production of a documentary requires different things and may change over the course of filming. Here are a few basic things to prepare your team for your production.
Decide What You Want to Shoot
Make an initial list of all your “wish list” things you’d like to film. This may include events, b-roll or following a person around their day-to-day life. You can also make a list of every individual you’d like to interview for your documentary. Even if you don’t think you can track that person down, or that they would agree to being interviewed, put them on the list. It doesn’t hurt to try and it might work out brilliantly.
Create a Budget
Now that you know what your “wishes” are, you’ll need to create a budget so you know how much of that list you can achieve. Things you’ll need to remember to budget for: crew and equipment, copyright fees for stock footage and music, any location permits, catering insurance and post-production.
When you put together your team it’s very helpful for them to be experienced in this kind of filmmaking so you can work together to get the best equipment for the job. The right camera, video lenses, audio and lighting gear will be crucial to getting great footage. Without knowing what type of scenes you’ll be filming it’s difficult to give you definitive recommendations here for what will work for you.
In pre-production you want to figure out your schedule for your shoot, even if you’re planning to film footage on the fly. Knowing when each piece will be shot is important for preparations and, if you’re interviewing subjects, to work around others’ schedules.
The Documentary Video Shoot
The production process is going to be different for every documentary film. If you’re following a subject in their day-to-day life you’ll be filming differently than if you’re shooting interviews. For a good guide on shooting interviews, take a look at our article here. Or you might need to set up a re-enactment, which may look theatrical or more realistic. You’ll need to plan this out during your pre-production and treat it as a scripted, short film portion of your documentary. Here are a few tips for your shoot
Since the editing process is when you put your story together it’s very important to take detailed notes while you’re getting your footage. Assign one person to always be there with a notebook (or computer) logging everything that the camera picks up and when it happened. In interviews make notes on what was asked and what the subject says. Later it’s very helpful to get that footage transcribed so you can easily find quality dialog and shots you want to use.
Get More Than You Think You Need
Of course this is dependent on how much time you have, but more is always better than less when it comes to photography.
Like we said before, you might not know what story you’re telling until you start filming, even if you think you know. In the middle of an interview you might find out new information that you want to follow up on or track down another person. You might not know what footage you want to get in a reality scene until it’s happening. If you try to force a story where there isn’t one, you might be disappointed in the product.
Now that you’re back in your studio (or home) and you have all this stuff, hundreds of hours of video photography and it may seem impossible to create something with so much reality footage and talking head interviews and b-roll shots. Post-production is when you’re going to mold all of this into the perfect story.
Write a script
One thing that is a little different with a documentary as opposed to a narrative film or video is, once you have all your interviews and reality footage, then comes the time to piece your story all together into a script. Look at your notes and transcripts and then watch your footage and watch it again. Write out a good script (or at least a detailed outline) for your editor to follow.
Gather Additional Materials
Now that you have your script you might need some additional archival footage or stock b-roll film to fill out your video. For example, if in an interview your subject says how much they loved watching old Buster Keaton movies as a kid, you may want to insert a clip from a Buster Keaton movie. Or maybe you just want archival footage of factory workers that you couldn’t get a good shot of in the field. You can find this stuff from a video and film library and pay for the use of them in your project. Additionally you might need to record voice over for a narration or other part of your film.
Editing Your Documentary Videos
If you have an experienced video editing team to work with, your script/outline will be incredibly helpful for them to piece your film together, using their keen eye for detail and artistry. If you’re video editing yourself you’ll want to use good editing software and a powerful computer that can handle all the footage you’ll be working with and not get slow and laggy. Start by organizing your clips and then roughly put together the story beats. You may have a lot of great clips that you want to use but remember what story you want to tell the audience and don’t get too attached to something that might be unnecessary. Use what you have to tell the story you want to tell.
Documentary Film and Video Production is a Unique Artform
Taking all these steps to create a documentary can seem challenging and time consuming. However, dedicating the time and effort into each step will ensure your documentary is of the highest quality and one that sticks with viewers long after they’ve watched it. A documentary video is an entertaining yet informative forms of entertainment that enable people to explore stories from other’s perspectives. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with any part of this process, our team at BLARE Media can help you. We have over 15 years of experience filming interviews and other unscripted content. Feel free to reach out for a chat if you feel our video services can help you out.