How To Make A Documentary Film

Learning how to make a documentary film is deceptively simple, but can be a very time-consuming and difficult process. Making a documentary can also be an educational, enlightening experience for yourself and your audience. This article will give you the basic steps on how to make a documentary film that will help you make a short or feature-length documentary you can be proud of.

To make a documentary film, you will need:

  • A camera, preferably digital, as you will be shooting a lot of footage and film is prohibitively expensive
  • A shotgun microphone for good sound capture
  • Editing software like Avid or Final Cut Pro

Once you have your materials, you are ready to make your film.

  1. Choose a subject. What or who is your documentary going to be about? Be specific as possible. Usually, documentarians select people as subjects because they are more dynamic and interesting to a blank audience, but famous documentaries, such as Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line," focus on striking events as well. Keep in mind that your subject may change as you are filming (or even editing) your documentary (for example, Ross McElwee set out to make a documentary about Sherman's March to the Sea in his documentary "Sherman's March," but instead focused on his personal life and various relationships with women during his sidetracked filming) but you still must have to have a clear picture of what kind of documentary you want to shoot before you even take out the camera. Prepare a basic shooting script for what you want to capture of your subject.
  2. Shoot footage. A lot of footage. There is no such thing as too much footage. The general rule of thumb is that one hour of raw footage will translate to about one minute of usable film footage, but the ratio will probably be even less than that. Shoot a lot of footage of your subject and when you think you have enough, shoot more. You can never have enough. Also, shoot a lot of B-roll. (B-roll are like establishing shots, location shots, etc. It's the filler shots you see in all kinds of documentaries.)
  3. Shoot your interviews. You have to establish if you want to shoot set interviews or just have on the fly interviews. Set interviews need excellent lighting and you usually need to set up your subject in a background that makes sense. If he is a professor, have him in a office or study. If he's an engineer, have him at the lab. It's somewhat easier and more engaging to have your subject just talk while they go about their business instead of cutting away to a interview, but it's a personal choice. When giving interviews, make sure you have your questions written down but work to get the subject into a conversational groove.
  4. Edit. This is by far the longest and most arduous part of the project. You have to load up all your footage on the computer and make some sort of coherent sense out of it. Avid or Final Cut Pro are the industry standard for digital editing. Editing is both an art and a science and it takes a lot of time to get the rhythm and coherence of editing down. You have to be patient and diligent. Remember to keep a storyline for your documentary in mind. If you don't have a central argument or story, your documentary will quickly become boring and incoherent. Always lay and lock your video track down before you start editing your audio. If you start editing your audio and mess with the video track, you will have to redo everything you did with the audio.
  5. You're done! That's it. When you're done editing audio and video and adding the music and graphics you want, your documentary is finished. Making a documentary film is time consuming, tough, but very rewarding. You will know when your documentary is done enough to be shown to family, friends and festivals, but even then you may catch things that you wish you did or hadn't done. Such is the way of filmmaking. You can always try to do better with your next documentary.
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