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How to Film a Powerful Documentary: A Step-by-Step Guide

Step-by-Step Guide to Filming a Captivating Documentary

Documentaries serve many purposes in life.  They can open our minds, help guide our future thoughts and actions, and can even change the world.  They encourage discussions about real life issues, educate people about unknown topics, spur new research, and inspire our youth. 

All in all, documentaries are a positive contribution to the film industry that filmmakers should be proud to share with their viewers.

Some novice filmmakers mistakenly believe that documentaries are easy to make, so long as you have an idea, some real life camera footage, and a small audience to view the final product.  However, there is a lot more that goes into filming a powerful documentary and a solid education in filmmaking can make or break your documentary film career.

Today, we will take a look at the steps required to make a documentary from start to finish, along with some helpful tips to guide you along this sometimes complicated process.  From this, you will gain insight into why having a high-quality filmmaking education is so important to your career, especially if your passion lies with creating documentaries.


What is a Documentary?

Before you attempt to create your documentary, whether you are still in film production school in Baltimore or newly graduated, you must first understand what a documentary is.

In short, a documentary is a non-fiction video or film that informs viewers about a real-life topic, person, event, or issue.  They are typically educational in nature, extremely detailed, and often have a persuasive tone about them.  In the end, a documentary is usually filmed with a seriousness that, hopefully, inspires everyone that sees it.  

Now, let’s take a look at how you might go about filming your first documentary.


Step 1:  Choose a Worthwhile Topic

Documentaries are sometimes known for being about relatively obscure ideas.  And that’s okay.  Sometimes the director’s reason for filming a documentary about an unknown topic is to expose the public to that new idea.  However, you must be careful to choose a topic that will resonate and mean something to your audience

Here are some tips for choosing the subject of your documentary:

  • Make it a topic you are passionate about. 
  • Don’t film something that everyone already agrees on.  The point is to stir up some controversy or show a different viewpoint.
  • Decide whether your topic will be grandiose or small-scale.  Then stick to it. 
  • Whether you like it or not, make sure your idea is marketable.  Draft an in-depth proposal and bring it to the production studio you wish to film with and major industry players that may consider funding your documentary.

The first step can sometimes take the most planning.  Defining what your documentary will be about is the single most important step because all other steps in filming a documentary follow this first step.  Make it count.


Step 2:  Do Your Research

In line with step number one, once you have a worthwhile idea, it is important you do proper research about your topic.  Since documentaries are non-fiction, it is essential to your reputation as a documentary filmmaker that you base your film in truth.

To ensure your documentary is as accurate and comprehensive as possible, be sure to:

  • Take notes as you conduct research, so no important details are left out of the film.
  • Interview people, read up on appropriate literature, and check other similar documentaries.
  • Decide which points will enlighten your audience and resonate the most with them.
  • Make the angle of your topic interesting, emotional, and inspiring.


Step 3: Get a Budget

Documentaries are notorious for going way over budget, so make sure you know just how much wiggle room there is when it comes to the expenses that your documentary will require.  Here are some important things that should be included in the overall budget:

  • Equipment and studio fees
  • Location permits
  • Liability insurance
  • Production crew
  • Office and administrative expenses
  • Catering
  • Props
  • Post production time and editing
  • Copyright fees
  • Marketing expenses
  • Distribution fees


Step 4: Write a Script

Unlike a feature film production, the script for a documentary is not written out word-for-word.  Rather, a general outline is created, a preferred direction is determined, and a shot list framework is laid out for the production crew.

You will want to know things such as locations, ideas you want to cover, and possibly questions that will be asked on camera of those you are interviewing. 

You may even consider adding in a narrative that can be done as a voice-over.  However, only after everything is filmed and the final product has been reviewed and approved should a narrative be added in.  You do not want to guide the documentary with narrative.


Step 5: Schedule Your Filming

Sometimes during the filming of a documentary, things take an unexpected turn.  This is normal and sometimes welcomed.  However, before you set out to film anything, you should definitely have a plan that will make the documentary stay within budget. 

Here are some factors to consider when putting together your filming schedule:

  • Contact those you want to interview and schedule times to meet with them.
  • Arrange all travel plans for on-location filming.
  • Consider events that you want included and film accordingly.
  • Get permission to film things such as writings, pictures, drawings, music, and other documents you want to include from their creators to avoid copyright issues.

Though you will not know at the start of filming exactly what direction your documentary will take, it is good to plan ahead as much as possible.  This will keep you on schedule and provide solid footage that will make sense when it is time to edit.


Step 6: Shoot Your Documentary

Now that everything is planned out, it is time to start filming your documentary.  There are plenty of things you can film that can potentially play an important role in the overall message of your documentary.  Some of these include:

  • Conduct interviews with relevant figures that support your message.  This can include interviews you direct with your questions, old footage of interviews, seminars, or public rallies, and even footage of people in their daily lives as it applies to your documentary.
  • Gather real-life events as they unfold to make your documentary strong.  Getting as much real-world footage as possible will give your documentary authority on the subject.
  • Film what is termed an establishing shot to put your scenes into context, introduce new ideas, and make the overall film flow naturally.  These shots often include historical landmarks, time of day progressions, close-up shots of an important location related to your topic, and even serve the purpose of defining the theme of your scene.
  • Film re-creations, if appropriate, so that your viewers can get an idea of the emotions people felt during the time of the incident that you are trying to portray in your documentary. 


Step 7: Edit Your Documentary

After all the footage has been collected and you are satisfied you have made the point you want to for your final product, take care to professionally edit all shots. 

This means choosing scene sequences, adding music/graphics/text/voiceovers, and making sure your documentary makes sense as a whole and is in line with your original idea. 

Aim to cut out all unnecessary footage so as to not bore your audience.  Use a keen eye and keep only the most impactful scenes.


Step 8: Get Your Documentary Seen

tips-audience-watch-documentary-baltimore-mdThis step may start out with a simple screening of your documentary to close friends and family to get an idea of how your intended audience will react.  This will also include heavy marketing of your documentary via various platforms such as YouTube, social media networks, websites, and even old-fashioned flyers.

The great thing about documentaries is there is no shortage of places to screen them.  Take for instance these distribution ideas:

  • National Education Telecommunications Association (NETA)
  • Discovery Communications
  • PBS
  • The History Channel
  • Independent Film Channel
  • Sundance Channel
  • Your local Baltimore television station


Final Thoughts

In the end, there is a lot that goes into creating a powerful documentary that is seen by a large audience and has a positive impact.  Getting your education at a reliable production school will only refine the skills needed to create a documentary from start to finish.

If you are in the Baltimore area and are interested in becoming a documentary filmmaker, consider contacting the Sheffield Institute for the Recording Arts.  Our industry professionals instruct aspiring filmmakers in all aspects of production, not just the point and record skills many people think is required of a filmmaker. 

With state-of-the-art equipment, a deep knowledge of the film industry, and plenty of networking opportunities, Sheffield is the place to go if you are dreaming of becoming a documentary filmmaker.