An Overview of Documentary Filmmaking

It is the golden age of documentary filmmaking. Audiences are consuming docs at the theater, on cable channels, and across streaming platforms. Both in the US and Canada, “doc audiences” are growing, which is great news for anyone who has a story to tell.

The biggest surprise to new documentary filmmakers is how long it takes from start to finish. Because of the relatively low cost of getting a documentary started – hiring a small crew to shoot some interviews — many are unaware of the time and costs of moving forward into editorial and the rest of post-production. This article will demonstrate the major components of documentary filmmaking and give you a broad picture to help you start thinking like a documentarian.

Here are some of the steps of documentary filmmaking that we’ll be covering:

  1. Decide on your point of view.
  2. Create your vision.
  3. Decide on visuals.
  4. Prepare a roadmap.
  5. Compose interview questions.
  6. Make a shot list.
  7. Put your crew together.
  8. Conduct the interview.
  9. Take technical notes.
  10. Transcribe the interview.
  11. Edit the footage.

Developing Your Idea

1. Decide on your point of view.

Finding a topic is easy, right? We’re surrounded by stories. But making a documentary isn’t just reporting, even though it does have elements of reporting. You have to go beyond “show and tell” to really hook your audience. You have to have a point of view or “a take” on the subject. Nobody sees things the way you do, and this is what will set you apart. Do your research. What interests you about the subject? Why do you want to tell this story? What do you want the audience to take away from the story? How do you want people to feel after they watch your documentary? As you establish your idea, pay attention to your emotional connection to your subject. If you do, so will your audience.

2. Create your vision.

Once you have a clear idea of the story you want to tell, it’s time to think about how you want to tell your story. What is your vision? Will there be a narrator like Side by Side? Will you be a character in the story like Roger and Me? Or will you let the story unfold in interviews? Perhaps it will be more verite like Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back.

3. Decide on visuals.

Remember, for all the talking and storytelling, there has to be something to look at, something to break up the interviews and visually tell the story. This is called B-roll. It can be footage you shoot, it can be photos, archival footage or graphics. It can also be impressionistic or symbolic footage or animation. Choosing B-roll can be quite an art because your visual shouldn’t compete with what is being said.

Pre-Production

Once you have your story developed and a vision of how it will look, it’s time to plan for production. This is called pre-production. This is when you get all your ideas organized and make a plan to get it in the can.

4. Prepare a roadmap.

The first thing you want to do is make an outline. Sure, it will change, but you need some sort of roadmap to keep you on track. Then you need to decide who will tell this story for you. As mentioned above, it can be narrated but most likely you will interview people to talk about the subject.

5. Compose interview questions.

Once you know that you will be interviewing people, make a list of these folks and compose the questions you plan to ask them. They should be opened ended questions. If you ask yes or no questions, it gets you zilch to work with. You want to encourage your subjects to tell stories. For example, “Tell me about the time…” or “ What was this place like before you got here?” If you want an opinion out of them, you can state your belief and ask them how they feel about it. The goal is to get them talking and supporting your investigation to help you piece together the story you want to tell.

6. Make a shot list.

It is important to get your vision on paper. You must do this to decide how you plan to shoot the interviews. Will you use one or two cameras? Where will they be placed in relation to your subject? You will also need to make a list of B-roll shots that you want to capture. This might include coverage of the interview subjects doing something or it might be getting shots of what your subject is talking about. Plan as much as you can but be flexible. You may discover something you didn’t anticipate that’s more interesting.

7. Put your crew together.

Your crew size will vary depending on your budget, but make sure you have a good Cinematographer and a good Production Sound Mixer. These two department heads will likely need support crew, but that, again, depends on budget. One of the things to consider when choosing team members for a doc is that they not only need to have creative and technical skills, they should also be able to make your subjects comfortable. Documentary subject are rarely Actors and might get nervous.

Production

This is the moment you have been waiting for! With all your preparation you are ready to roll those cameras.

8. Conduct the interview.

You have your list of questions, but the best way to approach an interview is as if it were a conversation. It’s a good idea to start with warm up questions because it takes time for people to get comfortable on camera. Remind your subject that they can stop at any time and start over if they feel like what they are saying doesn’t make sense. If they start rambling and don’t notice, redirect them. You also want to remind them to speak in complete sentences. It helps to have them repeat the question in the answer. For example if the question is: “How old were you when you started?” The answer would be: “I was twelve-years-old when I started.” If you just got the answer “twelve,” it would be hard to edit later.

9. Take technical notes.

Slate each interview and have your interview subject say their name on camera. Slating helps you sync your camera footage to your sound and is a tool to keep your footage organized. Your Sound Mixer should also get what is called “room tone,” which is the sound of the room with everyone being quiet for 30 seconds. “Room tone” is used by Editors and Post Sound Mixers to smooth out dialog. And don’t ever forget to backup your material!

Editorial

The bulk of work for documentaries happens in the editing room. This is when you find your story and make the most discoveries. This is truly where the magic happens. So don’t be afraid to take your time with it.

10. Transcribe the interview.

The first thing you need to do is get your interview transcribed. You can use the transcriptions to write a script and organize all of your thoughts. This will give your Editor an idea of what your vision is and he or she will be able to contribute better. It will also help you find things instead of scrolling through the video.

11. Edit the footage.

Your Editor will get to know your subject as much as you do. She will start by sorting the footage into bins and timelines so it is easier to navigate. It takes time but it gives her the opportunity to make her own discoveries. Before she dives into editing, it’s a good idea, even if you have a script, to discuss her ideas and make sure you both are on the same page and to create a partnership. Once you are both clear, your Editor will start by building an A-roll cut, which is arranging your interviews based on your script. It’s best to get a solid A-roll cut before you put B-roll on it.

Here’s the trick about editing. This is when your ideas marinate. Give yourself time to uncover new ideas and try different things. Don’t be satisfied with your first cut. Have screenings and get feedback to make sure the film makes sense. After living with something for a long time, what is obvious to you might not be to someone else. Like writing is rewriting, editing is re-editing. You might even need pickups (shoot more footage/interviews) to fill in gaps.

Post-production

Once you have a locked picture – that means you won’t make any more edits — you still have work ahead. You will need post-production sound, (which includes dialog editing, sound design and mixing), music, color correction and mastering. Your post team works simultaneously. As a general rule, you will hand off your edit to your sound guy, your Colorist and Composer all at the same time once you have locked the picture. Your Composer will then deliver his music to your Sound Mixer before your sound mix. Once you and your Sound Mixer have refined the sound, you send the tracks to your Colorist, who lays the sound in and creates your masters that you share with the world.

Avoid Pitfalls

There are many pitfalls that documentary filmmakers fall into. Some filmmakers dive in without developing their idea and discover, after viewing hours and hours of interview footage, that they don’t have a story to tell, and even by introducing narration, they can’t piece anything together. Some have gotten great interviews, but have no B-roll and are stuck with a bunch of talking heads and jarring edits. Other fledging documentarians spend all their money on production and are shocked to discover that there is work to be done after editing. Others spend all their money on editing, changing their mind because they can’t zero in on what they really want to say. With solid planning, good organization and proper budgeting, all these problems can be avoided.

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