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Both in the US and Canada, “doc audiences” are growing, which is great news for anyone who has a story to tell.

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:

  • Decide on your point of view.
  • Create your vision.
  • Decide on visuals.
  • Prepare a roadmap.
  • Compose interview questions.
  • Make a shot list.
  • Put your crew together.
  • Conduct the interview.
  • Take technical notes.
  • Transcribe the interview.
  • Edit the footage.

Advice from Documentary Filmmakers

What do up-and-coming documentary filmmakers need to know?

Jonathan Chinn (Tina, LA 92, American High, 30 Days)

You’ve got to follow your heart. I know that sounds cliche, but…

Simon Chinn (Tina, LA 92, Searching for Sugarman, Man on Wire)

It can never be about the winning of awards, can it? It’s about the work and finding the film’s rightful audience as well as a Producer. The awards process is a crapshoot. It’s the biggest crapshoot there is actually. So you can’t get sucked into it.

Jonathan Chinn (Tina, LA 92, American High, 30 Days)

You have to look critically at whether the story that you want to tell has legs. What we see with younger Directors is just having a bit of ability to look critically at [why] what you’re doing is important, along with a passion and belief that everything you’re doing is worthwhile.

I guess what Simon is pointing to is that sometimes some great work sort of gets a little buried and you know, we all have a responsibility to try and dig some of it up and say, “Guys pay attention to this.” Because you know, that great, great art is hard to make and when it does get made, it should be recognized, one way or the other.

To check out the full interview with Jonathan and Simon Chinn, Oscar- and Emmy-winning Producers of Tina and co-founders of Lightbox, check out their interview with our friends over at Alamo Pictures.

Developing Your Idea

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Staff Pick:
The upcoming animal rights documentary Good People.

TV Producer & Showrunner Jonathan Chinn
Jonathan Chinn

Jonathan Chinn is an Academy Award-nominated and double Emmy Award-winning Producer and co-founder of Lightbox, a multinational media company headquartered in London and Los Angeles, focused on creating high-quality non-fiction programming for film, television, and digital platforms. He and his cousin, double Academy Award-winning Producer, Simon Chinn, founded Lightbox in 2014.

Since its formation, Lightbox has produced many notable projects including documentary films Atari: Game Over and The Thread, for Xbox Entertainment Studios; an ESPN 30 for 30 film about the 2006 Duke Lacrosse scandal entitled Fantastic Lies; Gypsy’s Revenge for Investigation ID; as well as several series for both the UK and US markets such as The Traffickers and Food Exposed for Fusion, Inside British Vogue for BBC, The Runner-Up for Esquire, War Child for Channel 4, and the groundbreaking series Captive for Netflix.

Among Lightbox’s recent projects are the theatrical feature, Whitney, directed by Academy Award winner Kevin Macdonald, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival; National Geographic’s Emmy-winning and Oscar-shortlisted film, LA 92; the Oscar-nominated documentary short Black Sheep; and Untouchable, the company’s most recent feature doc about Harvey Weinstein, which premiered at Sundance in 2019 in advance of its launch on BBC Two and Hulu; Diagnosis, the groundbreaking Netflix Original documentary produced by Lightbox in partnership with Scott Rudin Productions and The New York Times; and Tell Me Who I Am, a feature documentary for Netflix about memory, secrets, and unbreakable family bonds, which premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival.

Prior to co-founding Lightbox, Jonathan was one of the most respected non-ficton television Showrunners in the US, winning an Emmy for American High (Fox/PBS) and the Television Academy’s prestigious Honors Award for 30 Days (FX), the latter of which went on to become FX’s highest-rated unscripted series. Other producing credits include Kid Nation (CBS), Push Girls (Sundance), and Hotel Hell (FOX).

Documentary Producer Simon Chinn
Simon Chinn

Simon Chinn is a double Academy Award-winning Producer who has been responsible for some of the most successful feature documentaries of recent years, known for their high production values, powerful narratives and innovative blending of documentary and fiction techniques.

Simon conceived and produced Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh, which won over thirty international awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, the Producers Guild of America (PGA) Award, and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and was named by The London Observer as one of the best British films of the past 25 years. It was released theatrically in over 25 territories around the world in 2008/9 and became one of the highest-grossing documentaries of recent years.

His follow-up film, Project Nim, also directed by James Marsh, opened the Sundance Film Festival where it won the World Cinema Documentary Directing award. It was released theatrically around the world to great critical acclaim and won the Directors Guild of America’s (DGA) Award, was nominated for a BAFTA and a PGA Award and shortlisted for an Academy Award.

Simon launched three new films in 2012: Searching for Sugar Man, The Imposter, and Everything or Nothing–a feature documentary directed by Stevan Riley for MGM and Sony Pictures to mark fifty years of the Bond film franchise.

Searching for Sugar Man, directed by first-time filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, opened the Sundance Film Festival where it won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury and Audience Awards and was the very first acquisition of the festival–by Sony Pictures Classics. It was released in North America in the summer of 2012 where it played in theatres for over nine months and has grossed over $3.5M. It is being rolled out around the world with considerable box office success and has revived the career of its subject, Sixto Rodriguez, who is in the midst of a sell-out world tour. The film went on to win more than thirty international awards including the PGA, DGA and WGA awards, the BAFTA, and the Academy Award for best documentary.

The Imposter, which was also launched at Sundance in 2012, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Miami Film Festival, best documentary at the Zurich Film Festival, the Filmmaker Award at Hotdocs, two British Independent Film Awards, was shortlisted for an Academy Award and won the BAFTA for best debut for its director Bart Layton. It was released in the UK by Revolver and Picturehouse and grossed $1.8M, becoming the eighth highest-grossing (non-concert) documentary of all time in the UK.

Simon currently has a slate of projects in development and production, including The Green Prince, directed by Nadav Schirman, a feature documentary telling the extraordinary story of the son of one of the founders of Hamas who was turned informant by Israel’s notorious Shin Bet. He also has a small slate of television drama mini-series, one of which James Marsh is attached to direct.

Prior to forming Red Box Films, Simon had a successful career producing documentaries and drama for television. Credits include: Smith, Mugabe and the Union Jack (BBC2), War in Europe (Channel 4/PBS Frontline), Invading Iraq (Channel 4/PBS Frontline), America Beyond the Colour Line (PBS/BBC) and the groundbreaking dramatized documentary Smallpox 2002 (BBC/FX). He also co-produced the landmark Channel 4 drama The Government Inspector, written and directed by Peter Kosminsky and starring Mark Rylance as the late UN weapons inspector Dr David Kelly. That film won three BAFTA television awards including best single drama.

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