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A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking

Jourdan Aldredge

Want to be a documentary filmmaker? We’ve put together this comprehensive guide to lead you through every step of the process, from initial documentary concepting to distribution.

Top image via Shutterstock

Let’s start at the end. You’ve decided on a subject, filmed your footage, edited together your film and are screening it for friends, family and the whole world to see. How did you get here? What did you do during this long journey that may have lasted anywhere from a few months to several years? There’s a lot to explore, but first we need to go over some basics.


What Is a Documentary?

If you’re looking for a definition, here’s a great post about the history of the documentary and its different sub-genres. Basically, documentaries have been around since the dawn of cinema. They’ve developed over the years into six main “modes” of which you may or may not be familiar. Here’s a brief list, but check the article for more in-depth descriptions and examples.

  1. Poetic Documentaries – focuses on experiences and images to create a feeling rather than a truth.
  2. Expository Documentaries  aims to persuade and inform, often through “Voice of God” narration.
  3. Observational Documentaries – simply observes the world — your classic cinéma vérité style.
  4. Participatory Documentaries – includes the filmmaker and influences the major actions of the narrative
  5. Reflexive Documentaries – includes the filmmaker but focuses solely on the act of making the film.
  6. Performative Documentaries – the “Michael Moore” style that uses subject experience to share an emotional response with the world.

If you’re interested in the history of documentary film, here are some great resources to check out:


Picking Your Subject

While it’s important to understand and appreciate the documentary genre’s history, the biggest deciding factor in your documentary’s success is going to come down to your subject. All other aspects of documentary planning, production and post-production will be centered around and tailored to best tell your documentary subject’s story. There are an endless number of opinions on what makes a subject good and unique (here’s a great example), but here we break down the three questions to ask yourself. Check out the full article for a more in-depth look.

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking  -  Audio
Image from Bigstock

1. What Are Your Interests?

The first place to look is at yourself. Making a documentary can take several years and requires lots of research, coverage and editing. You’ll want to make sure your subject reflects something you’re interested and invested in.


2. What Is Available to You?

The second step is to look at what is available. Take real inventory of your surroundings and your resources. Still try to creatively adapt, but make sure your documentary film is practical.


3. What Is the Most Visually Interesting?

The final question to ask yourself: what will make your documentary the most visually interesting? This means taking a hard look at your ideas and subject to see if it “clicks.”


If you’re still hung up on what might be the most important decision of your documentary film, here are some more resources and articles to check out:


Gearing Up

Once you decide on your subject and what type of documentary you’re going to make, it’s time to gear up for production. Documentaries are typically not big-budget endeavors, so be prepared to shoot with a small crew (sometimes of one) and with equipment that is mid-level at best. Here are some suggestions for cameras, sound kits, and lights.


Camera Setup

PBS’s POV website created an awesome poll and infographic which surveyed documentary filmmakers about their gear of choice. For cameras, it’s no surprise that Canon products were overwhelmingly preferred, with the C300 closely beating out the 5D and 7D options. DSLRs are always good choices for filmmakers on a budget and for those looking to draw little attention to themselves. However, in the last few years Sony’s cameras have been making big strides in terms of compactness/mirrorless and high-end censors.

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking - Canon-5DMKIII

Here are five cameras to consider:

  1. Sony FS5: $6,099.00
  2. Canon C300: $6,999.00
  3. Sony a7S II: $2,998.00
  4. Canon 5D III: $2,499.00
  5. Panasonic GH4: $1,297.99

Sound Setup

So you have your camera setup, but now you need to ensure that you’re capturing quality audio. You should setup a small shotgun mic on the top of your camera. This way you can capture an overall audio tone, specifically room tone. However, for the actual interview audio, you’ll want to use a lavalier microphone setup. Here’s a sample load out of what you will need.

  1. Zoom H6 Field Recorder: $399.99
  2. Sennheiser Wireless Lavalier Mics: $629.95
  3. Rode VideoMic: $106.99
  4. Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Headphones: $99.95
  5. SanDisk 32GB Ultra SDHC Card: $14.99

For a broader overview of what a pro documentary sound designer uses for gear, here’s an informative video from The Location Crew. In this video, sound recordist Dean Miles goes through his entire gear setup, which is quite impressive.


Lighting Setup

Now that you have your camera in place and audio ready to go, you need to light your interviewee. There are a host of options on how to do this, but many find LED lights to be the very best option for a doc shoot. They don’t produce tons of heat and are more energy efficient than tungsten. Yongnuo makes a quality light kit for $60 per light, but if you want something that will produce amazing light, then look at Genaray LED lights. A suggested setup: Use a traditional three light setup with stands and gels. Run stingers to power each light. If you’re  on the move, the LED can use Sony V-Mount batteries, which is handy.

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking  -  Lighting
Image from Cinescopophilia

  1. Genaray SpectroLED: $374.00 ea.
  2. Impact Light Stand: $44.99 ea.
  3. Pro Gel Vivid Color Pack: $22.95
  4. Watson 25ft AC Power Cord: $12.95

For a more in-depth look at how to properly light your interview subject, check out this helpful video from Stray Angel Films.

Not seeing all the gear you’d like to use? Here are some other opinions and options for documentary gear to consider:


Filming Interviews

With your gear all laid out, you can begin production on your documentary film. Hopefully you’ll be working with a producer to help coordinate your interviews, coverage, and crew — but you may very well be scheduling your own shoots as they become available. When you get your opportunity to conduct your first interviews, here are a few important things to remember:


1. Prepare Accordingly, but Remain Adaptable

Interview Tips Every Documentary Filmmaker Should Know: Laura Poitras ResearchingImage: Documentarian Laura Poitras researching, via The New York Times

Research, research, research before you film your interviews. Do pre-interviews if possible to know the answers and talking points that will work best. Here’s a good article on preparation.

2. Avoid “Yes” and “No” Questions

The art of interviewing can be a little awkward or intimidating at first. The goal of a good interviewer is to put your subject at ease and invite them into a dialogue. Any question that is not open ended gives them a quick escape and nothing for you to use.

3. Ensure Your Subject Is Comfortable

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking - National Gallery Doc PrepImage: Fredrick Wiseman’s crew before filming National Gallery, via DVDExotica

Making your subject comfortable begins long before you begin to roll the cameras. Try to build a strong relationship from the beginning and work to learn what makes them tick. Once you understand them, you can get the best results.

For more in-depth interview advice, here are more places to check out:


Shooting Coverage and B-Roll

Documentaries are much more than just interviews. The real meat of many documentary films is found in the coverage and B-roll which merely uses the interviews as narration. Your subject will dictate what types of coverage are most important, but here are a few basic types of B-roll to be sure to include:


Exposition Shots

These are the shots that establish the who/what/when and where – the why will come later. They can be exteriors of buildings, scenic nature in the area, historical pictures leading up to the time and place, anything that gives background information to your audience that will save you from having to write it on the screen or have it explained by a subject.

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking - ExteriorImage from Vice


Narrative Shots

Depending on your style and genre, this will be the majority of your documentary outside of interview scenes. These can be either narrative B-Roll or full coverage of a narrative event. The possibilities of shots are endless, but your main focus should always be on your subject and how he or she interacts with the environment around them. Here’s a good example:


Wrap-Up Shots

Wrap up shots are your reverse exposition shots. They are similar, but serve a different purpose. They move you back away from the unique world which you are giving your audience access to, and give them more outside information to help them shape their opinions and understanding. You can also use some film tricks like slow motion, dissolves, and “curtain shots.”

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking -  Curtain ShotHere are some more coverage and B-Roll resources to check out:


Audio Coverage

While out in the field or in interviews, you should be just as focused on getting clean audio as you are on capturing strong visual coverage. Documentary shoots often include a sit-down interview in a semi-controlled environment, but there will be plenty of times you encounter unwanted ambient noise. When you first arrive on location, start listening for any unusual sounds. Is the A/C unit rumbling, the refrigerator humming, or do you hear the annoying clink of a ceiling fan chain hitting a light bulb? These are all sounds you want to stop.

Here are some tips and tricks for ensuring your documentary audio coverage is top-notch:


1. Freeze Your Keys

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking - Freeze Your Keys

If you’re shooting in a location that is near a refrigerator, you’ll notice that annoying hum kick on and off throughout the shoot. Of course you’ll unplug it, but a good trick to remember to turn it back on is to leave your car keys in the fridge. You won’t be leaving without them, and you won’t forget to turn the fridge back on.


2. Use Gaff Tape to Hide Lav Mics

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking -  Tape Triangle
Image via Izzy Video

If you’re looking for that professional look, you’ll want to make sure to hide all gear and equipment from your shot. One of the most forgivable is the lav mic on the lapel – but that too can be hidden. Just fold a piece of gaff tape into a small triangle (making sure all sides are sticky) then attach your mic to the tape and the tape to an underside of a shirt or tie.


3. Use a Boom Pole Adapter Instead of Your Arms

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking - Boom Pole Adapter

If you’re on a shoot without a boom operator, you can always set your boom mic on a C-stand using a boom pole holder. It will also save a thankful friend from having some tired arms.


Here are dozens of more audio tips and tricks for documentary film audio:


Editing Your Documentary

The real magic of documentary filmmaking doesn’t begin until all the footage has been shot. In editing your documentary, you get your first real chance to explore how your subject’s story is going to stack up. Undoubtedly, this can also be the most tedious part of the documentary filmmaking process due to the sheer scope of coverage. Here are some tips and tricks that may help you through the arduous process:


1. Organize Folders and Label Bins

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking - Organize

You’re going to rack up lots of footage making a documentary. You’ve simply got to start and stay organized. You’ll want to set everything up as much as possible in the beginning or else things can take a turn quickly and you’ll be looking at a mess.

You can use some free programs like PostHaste from Digital Rebellion to create folder structures, or you can put together your own templates.


2. Create Sequences for Individual Interviews

When doing your pre-edit, create sequences for individual interviews which have all of the footage available. This will help with transcribing, locating, and putting said sequences together on a larger timeline later.


3. Backup Everything

This should be tips #3-12: BACK. UP. EVERYTHING. There is no reason in the world you shouldn’t take the extra time to make sure your files are safe. You literally have everything to lose in these situations, so be a professional and make sure you’re saving in multiple places.


If you’d like more editing tips, here are a few good sources to go along with the points above:

Also, here’s a great post on our sister-site RocketStock which takes you through how to create and animate your own lower thirds for any film or video:


Soundtrack and Music

Full disclosure: PremiumBeat.com offers a wide array of royalty-free stock music and sound effects for you to purchase. Still, your options for creating your soundtrack are nearly endless. The ideal way (after PremiumBeat, of course) would be to get a custom soundtrack recorded by a composer once you get picture-lock. However, for many of us that don’t have the connections or budget, there are other options. Here are some things to consider:

Determine the Mood or Tone

One of the last components of a documentary film (or any film for that matter) is the soundtrack. That being said, your sound and music are merely tools to help you define the mood or tone that you’ve already worked to develop.  Here’s a scene from Into the Mind that shows a great awareness and development of mood and tone.


Don’t Be Afraid of Silence

Before you go too crazy with soundtracking your documentary, consider the possibility of no soundtrack at all (or at least, very little). Emotional cues can be built many different ways — here’s a great video by Tony Zhou that covers the art of silence.


Music Can Drive Pace

Very early on in your project, you’ll find that your documentary has a certain tempo to it. The pacing of how people talk, how they go between excited and tempered — it all feeds into an underlying rhythm. The soundtrack and music will help develop that pace and give a powerful foundation to your film.


The key is to understand that music is vital for your documentary film and not impossible to find. Here are some other resources and tips to keep in mind when soundtracking your documentary film:


Distribution

There’s certainly no guarantee of ever having your film released in theaters — no matter how strong it may be. But there are a number of ways that you can drastically improve your odds of getting distribution, some of which come into play before you even shoot your first frame.

Here are a few critical tips that should be considered when producing or directing your documentary film:


1. Concept Is Everything

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking - ConceptJiro Dreams of Sushi via Magnolia Pictures

The number one determinant in a documentary’s success is, without question, its concept. Your subject, whether that be a person, place, or thing is key to entertaining your audience. That being said, great stories can be hidden anywhere (à la Jiro Dreams of Sushi), you just have to find it.


2. Plan and Schedule Wisely

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking - Plan WiselyImage from Shutterstock

Documentaries by nature are reactionary and unscripted. However, a good documentarian will find ways to schedule, plan and even storyboard out production when needed. Without self-imposed deadlines and scheduled plans, it can be easy for things to never get done.


3. Content Always Trumps Quality

A Complete Guide to Documentary Filmmaking - Content is kingCitizenfour via HBO Films

The final point to remember when looking for distribution: always focus on content over quality. Documentaries, maybe even more than narratives, are very forgiving of video and audio quality if the story is enticing and real. As a documentarian you need to be flexible and ready to record stories that are in the moment despite whatever limitations you may have.


If you’ve made it this far through our guide, it’s safe to assume that you are now an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker  congratulations! Hopefully some of the advice and articles above will help you in your documentary filmmaking journey. Best of luck!

If you are interested in more of our comprehensive guides, check out Professional Video Editing Tips and Techniques and Cinematography Manual: The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Director of Photography.


Have any other documentary film advice you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!