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5 Tips on How to Create a Great Short Documentary Film

Tanner Shinnick

Documentaries are a right of passage for any filmmaker. In this article, we’ll look at five ways you can take your short documentary to the next level.

Creating a short documentary is a valuable experience for any filmmaker. With so much short-form documentary content out there today, it can become even harder to make your film stand out from the crowd. So here are five tips to help you rise above.


1. Research

5 Tips on How to Create a Great Short Documentary Film - Research

Image via Rawpixel.com.

Any well-produced documentary begins with research. Effective research is the foundation of any documentary — short or long-form. Research allows you to discover plot points, build your narrative, craft your story arch, and shape your film.

There are many resources available for researching your documentary topic (check out this article). Better research makes for a better film.


2. Outline

While narrative films have a script, documentaries live and die by an outline. While documentary storylines can often be very fluid, an effective outline provides you with essentially a North Star during your production. These guiding principles, detailed through your outline, help ensure your film always stays on course, even when things begin to change up.

Crafting an outline for your documentary provides a scene breakdown throughout your film. It also details those anticipated story-beats that your film may follow. You know you’ve been effective with your research when you can easily create an outline of your story.


3. Find the Deeper Story

5 Tips on How to Create a Great Short Documentary Film — Deeper Story

Image via Andrzej Sowa.

Many first-time documentary filmmakers create a film based upon something that’s interesting on the surface; however, a great documentary digs deeper than the superficial story.

For example, let’s say you have an interesting neighbor who creates quirky ice sculptures as a hobby. This intrigue you as a filmmaker for a variety of reasons. Now, after you’ve researched and outlined your film, you’re ready to make it.

You shoot it, bring it back to the edit, and find that you made a good film. It’s concise, well-shot, and well-edited. However, the storyline may lack depth. That’s where finding the deeper story comes into play.

If you dig deeper, you may discover that your subject creates these ice sculptures to work through the PTSD he developed after fighting in Vietnam. Discovering this information then unleashes that deeper storyline, pushing your film — and story — to the next level.

In the words of Simon Sinek, “People don’t care what you do. They care WHY you do it.”

Don’t make a documentary about the “what.” Make a documentary about the “why.”


4. Invest in Sound

Sound is important in any film. However, its importance seems to get overlooked in documentary filmmaking. However, sound in documentary filmmaking can be more than just an interview or a voiceover. Sound can immerse the viewer in your story. Sound design can connect you with characters, which helps with telling a more effective story.

When creating your film, think about how sound can help you tell a better story.


5. Less is More

The best edit always feels as if filmmaking is easy. It’s a smarter choice to make a shorter documentary, with a tighter and more structured story arch, than a longer documentary with less story structure.

There’s the old saying in filmmaking, “You have to kill your darlings.” This is especially true with a documentary. If you ask most feature-length documentary filmmakers, they’re usually cutting 99 percent of the clips they shot by the time they reach the final edit. Many of these clips were likely their favorite, yet they didn’t serve the story best.

Keep trimming your documentary down to the most essential parts to tell your story most effectively.


Overall, creating a short-form documentary is a fun, exciting way to make a film. By using these tips, you can make a stronger, more effective short documentary film.


Cover image via guruXOX.

Looking for more filmmaking tips and tricks? Check out these articles.

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