Documentaries are non-fiction films that in some way depict or “document” reality. They can cover a lot of different themes and have quite a few different subgenres.
If you would like to read more about them, we have an article about 7 documentary subgenres here.
Documentary films are a great way not only to submerge yourself into something unfamiliar but to also explore your creativity and the world around you while creating them.
Creating a documentary can be a different process to that of creating a fiction film. We have made a handy guide for you here and broken the process up into 7 different steps:
- Idea and Research
- Script, shot list and schedule
- Check for Legal Issues
Let’s dive right into it and elaborate all the little details you need to know before you start shooting your next documentary film.
1. Idea and Research
Before you begin doing anything else in regards to your film, you need to have a clear idea of what your documentary is going to be about.
The most important advice is either to make the film about what you know or something that you are passionate about.
Do not limit yourself – the themes could be anything from problems you want to highlight, to lives you want to portrait.
If you are passionate about the film you are creating, chances are it will turn out great. Most importantly, the time spent creating the film will be highly rewarding and enjoyable.
What impact do you want for your film to have?
When you have your idea figured out, think about what the ideal outcome of your film reaching people would be.
Your main goal should be realistic – your film does not have to change the world or earn you a fortune.
Sometimes even your subject realizing something new about them and you capturing it on film can be the biggest reward for you as a documentary maker. This can be the most important outcome.
However, also think about the outcome in terms of what you want your spectators to feel – what kind of emotions?
- Do you want them to think about the subject or the problem you are raising and develop their own opinion?
- Do you want to shock your spectators?
- Or will you be going for a joyful viewing experience?
There is no right or wrong here – just choose whatever may be most important to you.
Get inspiration from others
After you have your main idea and goal figured out, it can be a good idea to research if there are more documentaries made about the same subject.
Do you like their point of view or did they miss anything? You can choose a totally different direction or further theirs by showing spectators your point of view.
Do proper research
It is also very important to thoroughly research the subject itself – you can find gems that barely anyone knows about.
All the information you find will make your film so much more interesting and valuable. And it will make it last longer.
After that, you have to find your contributors (also known as interviewees) and research the locations you will need to shoot in – this will be very important to take into consideration when you will be planning your shoot.
If you will need to interview people, find more contributors than you think you will need. Some of them might change their minds before or even after shooting. Knowing that you have people who will contribute if needed will save you a piece of mind.
Now that you know your main idea and the contributors, you have to start planning everything out in order to have a successful shooting process.
Documentaries can differ a lot in their structure and how they are shot – some of them will have a well-developed script and clear outline, others will be more exploratory in nature. Either way, you will need to have somewhat of an outline.
Organize your outline in terms of what do you want to talk about, how will your film develop towards the conclusion or the end, what kind materials you will need (Do you need to gain access to any documents?) and how you plan on using all of your footage to make a well-rounded story.
Be mindful of any other questions that you might need to answer in your individual case. For example, if you are filming with vulnerable contributors, consider if they have the capacity to provide properly informed consent, if you need to consult a professional, or if you should include their friends and family into the process.
Always remember, that as a filmmaker, it is your responsibility to think about everything in regards to your film.
It is now the time to think about all the things you want to talk about, write down questions and plan your shots, including all the little details you will need to know before shooting.
Things such as what type of documentary you will be making, shooting style, shooting locations, everything you will need to ask your contributors.
If you will need a helping hand, for example, a sound recordist, it is now the right time to think about that too. Make sure to contact everyone, who will be contributing to your film in one way or another, in advance.
3. Script, shot list and schedule
Documentaries can have many variables and their process can sometimes deviate from what you have initially planned because of your contributors, locations or something going wrong.
To make sure your shoot goes as smoothly as possible, it is important to plan out everything as much as you can.
Start by creating a loose script of how you want your scenes to look like and their sequence. Always keep in mind what you want your spectators to think about and what your outcome is, to make sure you do not digress from your goal.
Write down everything you will need to ask and talk about with your contributors followed by everything you will need to have shot.
After you have your script, make a shot list, so you know what kind of shots you need to have. Even if you are shooting a documentary, where you cannot predict what is going to happen just yet – for example, if you will be following people around with the camera – think about what other shots you will need to have.
If you know the shooting location, think about what other details can be shown in your film and maybe even the framing of a few scenes.
When you know most of the shots you will need to have, it is time to create a reasonable schedule according to all the variables – your contributor’s and locations’ availability, how much time it might take you to shoot every scene and maybe even weather, if that is important for your film.
Figure out the aesthetics of your film and how you can make it look better. Being prepared will help you avoid simple mistakes.
Read this article here to have a little reminder of the most common shooting mistakes and how to avoid them.
When it comes to shooting, there are a few rules that are always good to follow.
If you are shooting a documentary where your subjects are people, under most circumstances you should not pay them, unlike you normally would with hired actors. This is mainly to encourage transparency.
Make sure they sign two copies of a Contributor Release Form, but more on that later.
Always think about your main goal – this will help you stay on the right path while filming.
While you should always have your overall vision in sight, you should always be open to changing your script.
Remember, documentary films are exploratory in nature. You’re documenting reality as it unfolds in front of your camera. Not the way you want it to play out.
If you want to learn how to interview people and get good results, we recommend you read this article on How To Get Great Interviews On Camera.
Also, you might miss some important details that you could have never planned for. It is always okay to change up your direction a little when more information comes up.
When making a documentary, you really want to make people think or evoke certain emotions in them.
Documentaries should be more than bare facts, thus make sure to take as much as you can from the shooting process, explore different possibilities, find out more information and see if it takes you anywhere.
Editing is a very important part of making a documentary, like the way you edit it can make the film shift meanings, thus it is important to think this part through and try to see your documentary as if you are the spectator.
You can start by doing a paper edit. Watch the footage and remember what you found to be striking while filming – those are the parts that you definitely want to include.
Briefly write down key scenes and important lines in the sequence you would like them to be in. This will help you be more organized and have it easier when you are editing.
When you start editing, do not try to have it polished by the time you more or less have your storyline done. It’s perfectly common to have gaps and loose ends here and there.
Start by roughly cutting together everything that you have written down. Then, bit by bit sees if there is anything else you would like to add.
While editing, it is important that you know what your goal is and what you want to say, even if it has changed since the planning stage.
Another good point to make is trying to see your footage from the viewer’s perspective and look for details that are interesting and help develop your film further.
If you are all fired up, it might be beneficial to edit it as soon as you are done shooting.
However, personally, I tend to find that it is better to get away from it all for a week or two. In that time, in my mind, I will still be working on it and figuring out the best way to put it all together. That is usually the time when my best ideas come too.
Getting away from your film especially helps if you had struggles shooting one scene or another, and it does not turn out all that great, although you have spent so much time and effort shooting it.
More often than not, you might feel those scenes are needed just for the effort you put into them. However, the spectator does not know any of that.
You have to think about this in terms of if that scene really helps to move the story and stir up emotions or not.
Make sure everything is coherent and will make sense to the viewer, and finish it up by polishing the film and adding stock media, music, infographics, sound effects, etc.
6. Check for Legal Issues
Firstly, before filming, you have to make your contributors aware of the nature of your film and their role in it. After they are familiar with the concept, you should ask them to sign two copies of a release form.
You can find free release forms online.
For example, this one from Premiumbeat should do the trick. Just make sure to revise it prior to using it.
It is always a good idea to consult a professional if you have the possibility to do so or at least look up some information online.
You might need to put certain disclaimers in the beginning.
Make sure to separate facts from opinions, especially if it is regarding a person or a company since otherwise, you can get in big trouble.
Be mindful of all the stock media that you use – you must have rights to use them, or you have to make sure they are available for commercial use.
Make yourself familiar with the Fair Use doctrine, which is an exception to use copyrighted material. This depends on a lot of factors, therefore, you have to take the time to consider if that applies to you.
If you decide that you want to sell your documentary or show it worldwide – again, you have to be mindful of all the regulations, and ideally, consult an attorney.
Make sure somebody, who understands the laws, reviews your film before you release it since you might need to fix a thing or two.
Make sure you plan out your distribution channels through, as your film’s success can largely depend on that as well.
This is the time to put your marketer’s hat on and work on your marketing/distribution by using different techniques and channels.
First, you have to think about who your target audience is. Who should watch your movie? Find out where they are. What platforms do they use? Do they watch national television? Are they mostly on YouTube or maybe Netflix?
You can start your distribution by setting up social media accounts, which you fill with behind the scenes photos, short interviews and film excerpts.
You should also contact groups of people that would be interested in your film, for example, different NGO’s, depending on the subject and purpose of your film.
If you can, try to submit it to the festivals. The exposure and attention you will get there could bring many great things for you and your film. This way, many people will get to see it and you will get your name out there.
Look for festivals, which are taking submissions by category, or specialized niche festivals. For example, you can find a film festival for women creators. Or Baltic film festivals (I am sure there will be a few like that wherever you are from), or specialized documentary film festivals within specific documentary genres.
If you have local cinemas, try to negotiate to show your film there, even if that is not going to bring you that much profit. From there on, you can keep climbing up, and hopefully, get successful and screen your films in the national cinemas or on national television.
If that is not something you want, you can always find YouTube channels, that already have their audience and that take submissions. This can be a good way to reach a lot of people – just work on marketing on social media and other channels.
Lastly, you can put your film on DVD’s and distribute or sell them online or at different events, that have to do with your documentary.
You could also try to pitch your film to streaming services such as Netflix or Amazon.
All the little steps you take to get your film out there can always help you immensely.
As some filmmakers say, there are no rules to creating a documentary.
Discover what you love and are passionate about, and share it with the people any way you can.
Your main goal is to evoke emotions and maybe even make people think.
Create documentaries with every effort you can and they will turn out so much better.
Try to plan them out beforehand but be flexible.
Most importantly, enjoy the process and learn from it.