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Beginner's guide to making a documentary film

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Written by Becky T

Published Jan 18, 2024

Documentary filmmaking is a call to action, prompting us to confront societal issues, challenge preconceptions, and inspire change. It serves as a powerful medium to amplify marginalised voices, showcase cultural richness, and foster a deeper understanding of the world we inhabit. The responsibility of a documentary filmmaker extends beyond the screen, influencing discourse, provoking thought, and, at its best, driving social transformation.

Documentary filmmaking is a powerful medium that allows filmmakers to share real stories and shed light on important issues. If you want to learn how to make a documentary, this beginner's guide will provide you with the essential knowledge and skills required for making a documentary film that resonates with your audience.

Contents:

  1. Understanding the nature of documentary filmmaking
  2. Pre-production essentials for your documentary
  3. Production techniques for documentary filmmaking
  4. Post-production processes in documentary filmmaking
  5. That's a wrap!

1. Understanding the nature of documentary filmmaking

Documentary films have a rich history that dates back to the early days of cinema. They have evolved over time, combining elements of journalism, storytelling, and artistic expression. Understanding the evolution of this genre will give you a deeper appreciation for the art form and help you create meaningful documentaries that make an impact.

When we think of documentary films, names like David Attenborough, Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield may come to mind. These filmmakers have left an indelible mark on the history of documentary filmmaking (particularly in the UK), pushing the boundaries of storytelling and challenging conventional norms. Their contributions have inspired countless aspiring filmmakers to think creatively and take risks in their own documentary projects.

Still from BBC's Planet Earth with David Attenborough showing David Attenborough lying down next to a family of meerkats
Still from BBC's Planet Earth with David Attenborough

Making a documentary film is not merely about recording reality; it is about crafting a narrative that resonates with the human spirit. It is a celebration of diversity, an exploration of the human condition, and a testament to the indomitable power of stories to shape our collective consciousness

But where did it all begin? The roots of documentary filmmaking can be traced back to the early 20th century when pioneers like Robert Flaherty set out to capture real-life events on film. Flaherty's groundbreaking film, "Nanook of the North," took audiences on a journey into the lives of the Inuit people, showcasing their daily struggles and triumphs. This film not only captured the imaginations of viewers but also laid the foundation for future documentary filmmakers.

What makes a good documentarian?

From Flaherty's early experiments to the present day, documentary filmmaking has undergone significant transformations. As technology advanced, so did the possibilities for capturing and presenting reality on screen. Filmmakers began to experiment with different techniques and styles, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

Many documentarians who have come to make a name for themselves, have done so because they bring something new and refreshing to the art of documentary storytelling. They bridge the gap between us and that which we don't understand. Whether it's Louis Theroux's immersive and direct approach to people and communities, David Attenborough's groundbreaking passion and devotion to the natural world, or Brian Cox's ability to translate complex scientific phenomena into accessible and engaging content. It's clear that there is a certain charisma and relatability needed to succeed in this sphere.

Still from BBC's Wonders of The Solar System with Brian Cox showing Brian Cox chatting to the camera
Still from BBC's Wonders of The Solar System with Brian Cox

But what's really important when it comes to making a documentary film is genuine curiosity, passion, and patience. There is something truly captivating about listening to a person speak about something that they're intensely interested about, and something even more magical when you see this passion extend to an eagerness to teach others. If you're trying to learn how to make a documentary yourself, choose something you love and the rest will follow.

Different types of documentary films

Documentary films come in a variety of forms, each with its own unique style and purpose. Understanding the different types of documentaries is crucial in choosing the right approach for your own project.

Observational documentaries, for example, aim to capture real-life events as they unfold, without any interference from the filmmaker. These films provide an unfiltered glimpse into the lives of their subjects, allowing viewers to form their own interpretations.

Investigative documentaries, on the other hand, delve deep into social issues, uncovering hidden truths and shedding light on injustices. These films often involve extensive research and interviews, presenting a compelling case for change.

Image showing a documentary crew filming an African tribe
Image by Pixabay

There are also participatory documentaries, where the filmmaker becomes an active participant in the events being documented. This approach allows for a more personal and subjective exploration of the subject matter.

By understanding the different types of documentary films, you can choose the approach that best suits your subject matter and storytelling goals. Whether you aim to inform, provoke, or inspire, the possibilities within the realm of documentary filmmaking are endless.

2. Pre-production essentials for your documentary

Before diving into the production phase, there are several important steps you need to take to ensure a successful documentary. These pre-production essentials will help you lay a solid foundation for your film, allowing you to fully understand your subject matter and plan your project effectively.

Documentaries have the power to educate, inspire, and provoke thought. They provide a platform for important stories to be told and voices to be heard. However, making a documentary film is not as simple as picking up a camera and pressing record. It requires careful consideration and meticulous planning to bring your vision to life.

Choosing the right subject matter

The subject matter of your documentary is the core of your film, so it's crucial to select a topic that resonates with both you and your audience. Whether you're passionate about social justice issues, environmental concerns, or human-interest stories, choose a subject matter that aligns with your values and has the potential to captivate viewers.

Still from BBC's The Young and Homeless with Stacey Dooley showing Stacey Dooley chatting to a young woman
Still from BBC's The Young and Homeless with Stacey Dooley

Consider the impact you want your documentary to have. Is there a specific message you want to convey or a particular issue you want to shed light on? By choosing a subject matter that aligns with your goals, you can create a documentary that not only entertains but also makes a difference.

Researching and planning your documentary

Good research is at the core of how to make a documentary that people trust and engage with. Thorough research is key to creating a documentary that is informative, accurate, and compelling. Dive deep into your subject matter, gather relevant information, and conduct interviews with experts or individuals directly involved in the story. This research will provide you with a solid foundation for your documentary and help you create a structured plan for your filming process.

During the research phase, immerse yourself in the world of your subject matter. Read books, watch related documentaries, and explore different perspectives. This will not only enhance your understanding but also allow you to approach your documentary from a unique angle.

Planning is equally important when it comes to how to make a documentary. Create a production timeline, outlining key milestones and deadlines. Determine the locations you need to visit, the people you need to interview, and the resources you require. By having a clear plan in place, you can navigate the production phase smoothly and efficiently.

Writing a compelling documentary script

While documentaries are often associated with spontaneity and real-life events, having a well-crafted script is crucial for keeping your film focused and engaging. A documentary script acts as a roadmap, guiding your storytelling and ensuring that all the key points are covered. Craft a script that strikes a balance between being informative and allowing room for the unexpected.

image showing a woman writing on a piece of paper on a wooden table
Image by Unseen Studio

Start by outlining the main themes and story arcs you want to explore in your documentary. Identify the key moments and interviews that will drive your narrative forward. Remember, a good documentary script is not overly rigid but allows for flexibility and organic storytelling.

Consider the tone and style of your documentary. Will it be more observational or participatory? Will you use voiceover narration or rely solely on interviews and visuals? These decisions will shape the overall feel of your film and should be reflected in your script.

Collaborate with others during the scriptwriting process. Seek feedback from trusted individuals who can provide valuable insights and suggestions. This collaborative approach can help refine your script and ensure that it resonates with your intended audience.

3. Production techniques for documentary filmmaking

Once you've completed the pre-production phase, it's time to embark on the production of your documentary. From choosing the right equipment to capturing authentic footage, there are various production techniques that will enhance the visual and emotional impact of your film.

Documentary filmmaking is a captivating art form that allows filmmakers to shed light on real-life stories and experiences. It provides a platform for voices to be heard and for important issues to be explored. As you delve into the production phase of your documentary, there are several key techniques that can elevate your film to new heights.

Choosing the right equipment

When it comes to making a documentary film, the choice of equipment can greatly influence the look and feel of your film. Consider factors such as budget, portability, and the nature of your subject matter when selecting cameras, lenses, and audio recording tools. The right equipment will enable you to effectively capture the essence of your story.

Image showing a man holding a large film camera
Image by Billy Freeman

For instance, if you're filming a wildlife documentary in a remote jungle, you may need to opt for lightweight and durable equipment that can withstand the harsh conditions. On the other hand, if you're capturing a documentary about a bustling city, you might prioritise a camera with excellent low-light capabilities to capture the vibrant nightlife. If you're searching for the best microphones for filming or cine lenses, we've got you covered.

Conducting effective interviews

Interviews are a fundamental part of many documentaries, as they provide firsthand accounts and personal perspectives. Mastering the art of conducting interviews is crucial for capturing engaging footage and drawing out authentic emotions from your subjects. Establish trust, ask thought-provoking questions, and truly listen to create powerful interview moments.

When conducting interviews, it's important to create a comfortable and safe environment for your subjects. This will allow them to open up and share their stories in a genuine and heartfelt manner. Building rapport with your interviewees can make a significant difference in the quality of the footage you capture.

Discover beautiful locations to film interviews with Tutti

Choose from 1000+ spaces and locations on Tutti and deal directly with space hosts for a quick, hassle-free booking process.

Capturing authentic footage

The authenticity of documentary films lies in their ability to capture real-life moments as they unfold. Whether you're filming in remote locations or bustling cities, strive to capture raw and genuine footage that transports your viewers into the heart of the story. Be patient, observant, and ready to seize unexpected opportunities that may arise during filming.

When making a documentary film, it's important to immerse yourself in the environment and be present in the moment. This allows you to capture the small details that add depth and authenticity to your footage. Take the time to observe the surroundings, the people, and the interactions that occur naturally. These moments can often be the most powerful and impactful in your film.

Still from BBC's Shooting Joe Exotic with Louis Theroux, showing Louis Theroux chatting to Joe Exotic
Still from BBC's Shooting Joe Exotic with Louis Theroux

Additionally, consider using different filming techniques to add visual interest to your documentary. Experiment with different angles, perspectives, and camera movements to create a dynamic visual experience for your viewers. This can help bring your story to life and engage your audience on a deeper level.

4. Post-production processes in documentary filmmaking

Once you've wrapped up the production phase, it's time to bring all the pieces together in the editing room. Post-production processes play a vital role in shaping the narrative, adding impactful sound and music, and finalising your documentary for screening.

Editing your documentary film

The editing process is where the real magic happens, as you transform hours of raw footage into a cohesive and captivating story. Organise your footage, select the best shots, and craft a narrative that engages your audience from start to finish. Experiment with pacing, transitions, and visual effects to enhance the overall impact of your film. It's worth investing in a professional video editor, but if you're working on a micro-budget and want to do it yourself, familiarise yourself with the best video editing software.

Adding sound and music to your documentary

Sound and music can elevate the emotional impact of your documentary, creating a multi-dimensional experience for your viewers. Choose music that complements the mood and tone of your film, and carefully incorporate natural and ambient sounds to enhance the authenticity of the storytelling. Properly mixed audio will immerse your audience in the world you've created. Just make sure that you understand how music royalties work, so that you don't get hit with a lawsuit.

image showing a man working on a computer with a microphone next to him
Image by Anna Pou

Finalising your documentary for screening

As you near the completion of your documentary, it's important to ensure that your film is ready for its intended audience. Pay attention to technical details such as color grading, sound mixing, and aspect ratio to deliver a polished final product. Test your film with a focus group or trusted individuals for valuable feedback before sharing it with the world and switching focus to your film's promotion.

With the knowledge and techniques outlined in this ultimate guide, you're well-equipped to embark on your own documentary filmmaking journey. Embrace the power of storytelling, immerse yourself in your subject matter, and let your passion shine through in every frame. Your documentary has the potential to inform, inspire, and ignite change – so take that leap and bring your vision to life.

That's a wrap!

The process of making a documentary film demands resilience, passion, and a keen sense of empathy. It requires a delicate balance between observation and intervention, allowing the filmmaker to become an active participant in the unfolding drama while respecting the authenticity of the subject. As we navigate the intricate web of interviews, research, and countless hours of footage, we find ourselves not just storytellers but advocates for the voices that deserve to be heard. Now that you've learnt the basics of how to make a documentary, it's time to get yourself out there and immerse yourself in the world of real-world storytelling.

Discover beautiful filming locations with Tutti

Choose from 1000+ spaces and locations on Tutti and deal directly with space hosts for a quick, hassle-free booking process.

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