Making a Documentary: Where to Start?

Documentary film and video production is my personal favorite type.  For me, there is nothing more fun in this whole world than producing a documentary on any subject that contains enough depth to warrant  detailed coverage.
Lots of you reading this blog have ambitions to be documentary filmmakers and I want to do everything in my power to encourage you.  I think the world needs as many documentaries as it can get.  Forget American Idol, give me a documentary to watch any day!  Yup, I am a hopeless nerd in this department.

I am lucky enough to have worked on more docs and news series than I can count.  The video above is the first portion of a short documentary I worked on covering the topic of Liability Insurance. There had been a recent surge in liability insurance premiums for business and this video was an evaluation of that trend.

So what does video of an old choo-choo train have to do with the gloriously dull topic of liability insurance?  Read on to find out. In short, it is an attempt to help the topic not be so dull!

Although documentary films usually do not have the world’s hugest audience compared to other genres, they are vitally important because they are the only way to cover a subject in-depth. Most subjects are too complex for the basic 1:30 time allotted in a generic newscast.

For this post, I am going to call a documentary anything over 5 minutes on one subject.  Granted that’s on the short side, but you can pack a lot into a well constructed five minute video.  Longer videos still needs to be concise.  Length is not an excuse to ramble.

I get lots of questions asking where to start when making a documentary-style video.  Here’s the answer!

WHAT IS A DOCUMENTARY STYLE VIDEO?

Let’s start by defining “documentary style”  beyond the length of the finished piece. > Documentaries by definition are fact based, information driven videos.  They usually rely heavily on interviews with people affected by the topic or expert at the topic.  These interviews are known as talking head videos.  Short, individual portions of the interview are called sound bites.

Typical documentaries also include video taken in a run-and-gun, fast paced style.  Documentary films are low budget, usually have a small crew and do not stage anything.   Theoretically, they are documenting reality.     They often rely on natural light or a simple 1-3 light set-up.   A good documentary crew ALWAYS has a shot gun microphone running to pick up whatever sound might happen.  This is called natural sound, or ambient sound.

Video Camera

The microphone directly above the lens is on all the time capturing whatever sound is occuring. (Known as natural sound or ambient sound) For interviews, plug in a lapel microphone to get the best sound.

QUICKLY NOW!

Documentary style is quite different from high end Hollywood style production where the tiniest details are controlled and they might take a week to set up one shot.

“Documentary style” has evolved beyond “real” documentaries that are a work of journalism.  It’s known as a production method that might be incorporated into a music video or fictional work.  The “style” of the newsy, run-and-gun production method shows up everywhere.   Since I myself worked in journalism, this post is going to assume journalism is at the heart of what you are doing.

PICK A SUBJECT AND LET’S GO!

Any subject with some depth will do in my opinion.  The more people affected by the topic, the larger your potential audience.  There are no set rules on how broad the topic can be.  You can cover the world in an hour show.  You can cover something quite well in a 5-10 minute show.

Once you have a basic subject matter, do a bit of research to get a decent grasp of the big picture.  Figure out who the experts, movers and shakers are on this particular topic.  Then, call them up.   Talk to as many people as possible.  You are NOT trying to set up video interviews at this point.  You want to talk by phone to everyone you have time to speak with.  Interview them casually as you speak to them on the phone and take copious notes.  It helps to have a headset so you have two hands to type.  Write down who you are speaking with, when you speak with them, the number where you reached them and as well as the gist of what they say.  Use the conversation to get a good feel for their opinions and how well they present themselves.

ALWAYS ASK WHO ELSE THEY KNOW THAT YOU SHOULD TALK TO.

One expert leads you to another, then to another and so forth.  Also ask your experts for “regular” people they know who have been affected by the subject matter.  Ask them for real world examples and make notes of it all.  You will end up hanging your story on the “real” people you find.   Experts are usually  your best source to finding the “real” people.  In the final video, the real people might be more prominent, but in the pre-production phase, you usually begin by locating experts.

Have the experts written articles or books on the subject?  Find out, get a copy and read it.

As you talk to people on the phone, evaluate  how well they would perform on camera.  Do they speak clearly and articulate their opinions well?  Are they saying things that advance the ideas you think are important to your show?  If so,  ask them to consider an on-camera interview. If not, tell them you are just calling them for background info.

You can spend days on the phone researching this way and you will learn a lot.  Use this information to further outline and plan the story you will be forming.  In my opinion, the more angles you cover the better.  I am a big fan of giving all sides of the story a chance.  You may have heard that every story has two sides.  Nope.  Every story has thousands of angles.  The question is: Do you  have the time, energy and money to track them all down?

If you are producing an hour long show, you can use up to twenty (or even more) on-camera interviews.  You may not need that many at all.   I have seen well-done shows with only one or two interviews.  It depends on how deep you want to go.

You find experts at lots of places:  Academic institutions, professional associations,  government offices, support groups, businesses, the neighborhood bar.  Depending on how you define “expert,” they are everywhere.  People love to talk about themselves and their expertise.  Most people will be happy to share with you and flattered that you asked.  As a member of the media, you have to approach most of these people by contacting a public relations department first.  Academic institutions are easier to deal with than corporations.  Trying to get an interview with a corporate representative can be an exercise in mind-numbing bureaucratic voice mail hell.  :)  Dealing with PR companies in order to make video is a post for another day!  Mom & Pop stores are ALWAYS easier to deal with.

After you have done all this research, you are ready to outline what seems to be a practical finished version of your show.  Decide who and what you want to actually videotape.  Call them up and get it scheduled.  You are done with the pre-production phase.

Documentary production is fluid by its very nature.  You must learn to be flexible and the precise content of your show can not be determined until  you get out there and actually videotape everything.

I am not going to cover production in this post.  Whatever interviews you shoot, transcribe them word for word. Biggest pain in the butt every but you have to do it.  Also, keep a record, or log of all the video you shoot.    In order to avoid a mess, please be extremely organized as you gather your video.  Label everything clearly.

Video camera ikegami

The professional Ikegami HDN-X10 video Camera for high end documentary style video production.

WHAT DO YOU USE FOR VIDEO, AKA B-ROLL?

One of the most frequent questions I get is where do you get  ideas for video shots?   The answer to that is a lot easier than you might think.  (This type of video is referred to as B-roll. Your interviews, or talking heads, are called the A-roll although that term is not as common.)

Start by taking some b-roll video of every single person you interview.  Take video of them doing whatever  it is they do.  Hopefully, it will relate directly to your story but if not, you can still make it work by tailoring your narration so the video seems logical.  The example video on liability insurance I have with this post is a good example of matching the narration with the video we ended up getting.

If you are interviewing a scientist, get video of them working in the lab.  If you are videotaping a boxing expert, get video of them working out and practicing their moves in the ring.   If you are videotaping a truck driver, get video of them driving the truck plus video of them washing or maintaining the truck.  As a last resort, get video of them walking down the sidewalk or hallway.  I often asked people, “What would you be doing right now if I were NOT here?”  Then I would take video of them doing that.

In addition to getting video of them working, get video of them relaxing.  What do they like to do?  Read?  Watch TV?  Cook?  Play with the kids?  Take video of them doing whatever they like to do and you can make it work by writing your narration properly.

As an example to illustrate this for you, I dug up this old story I worked  on about liability insurance.  The actual subject matter was about how the gigantic rise in liability insurance premiums was  strangling businesses.  Sounds boring, right?  How in the world would  you visualize a story about something as bland as liability insurance?  Well, we found experts who told us about real people and real businesses who were feeling the strain.   One of those businesses happened to be a historic railway museum that ran an old coal-fired steam locomotive.  So we went for a ride and I took video of everything that moved.  Workers stoking the fire.  Shoveling coal.  Ringing the bell.  Visually exciting stuff for a boring subject.

Now if you had asked  me in the very beginning how I was going to visualize liability insurance I never would have said by taking shots of a guy shoveling coal.  That never would have entered my mind.  But by following the basic procedures I have outlined  here, it became the logical video to use.

This clip is only the first minute or so of what was actually a 10-12 minute story but it will demonstrate exactly what I mean when it comes to creative but easy ways to visualize your documentary topic.  As I watched this video while posting, it struck me how slow the pacing seemed slow to the way I would edit it today.    Like i always say, video production is fluid and there is never just one right way to do things.

If you enjoyed this topic, please let me know.  I can write forever on documentary making if you so desire but this is enough for one post.

Thanks for reading Video Production Tips.

Lorraine Grula

Comments

  1. Hi Caitlin
    I would enjoy helping you with your documentary. Drug addiction is a great topic that you can really go in-depth with and of course there is a lot of emotion within the stories. I guess with your personal experience you already know that. email me at VideoProductionTips@gmail.com and we can exchange personal contact info.
    Lorraine

  2. Outstanding site, thank you for sharing your knowledge! I am currently working on my first documentary and did not think about transcribing all of the interviews. Great tip but can you please clarify the benefit to doing this?
    We share he same passion for documentary style story telling and I love to hear others out there are doing this and recently I have discovered a channel on Direct TV that is specifically for documentaries which is where I do all of my “research” on what works and what does not.

  3. Hi Sofia.
    I applaud you for getting into documentary video making. I am so glad to hear that you find the info here at VPT useful! Transcribing interviews word-for-word is an incredibly important step that can not be overlooked. The benefit of transcribing the interviews is enormous. To put the final script together, you have to know precisely what you have on tape (or memory card or hard drive or whatever it would be today) and precisely where you can find it. (i.e. on Tape #39 at time code 23:53:12). When you put the final script together, you will refer back to the transcripts a million times in order to find the exact portions of the interviews you want to use. If you don’t transcribe, you will NEVER remember well enough what people actually said. You can not spend the time to actually sift through all your video over and over to refresh your memory about what is there. You have to have it all on paper for quick, easy reference. Plus, videomaking is usually a team effort and the interview transcripts are one more tool you have to share with others who are working with you. Transcripts help keep everybody on the same page, knowing what has already been shot. Honestly, transcribing is a pain in the butt to say the least. It is tedious and boring. BUT YOU HAVE TO DO IT. I think it is universally loathed by all who have done it, but if you don’t do it, you’ll be lost. Now if you are doing a real short video, with only one interview, you could get away with not transcribing. But a good documentary might interview 20 different people. You have to have a quick, easy reference to all that material. You should also transcribe all your b-roll too and make what’s known as a shot sheet. If you have good natural sound, write that down on your transcripts too. In short, any documentary is basically edited on paper before the actual video is edited. Transcripts are an integral part of the process. I hope this answer helps you. Good luck with your project.
    Lorraine

  4. I thank god for coming across a wonderful site like this,guy u are just too much for d good job u are doing.am from nigeria.i am about to shoot a documentary on mambilla plateau which happened to be the highest hill in nigeria and d coldest region in the state.its uniqueness make it a tourist site that evrybody like to visit.but my problem is marketing,how to market a documentary so as to be a rewarding adventure expecially in tourism sector.pls put me through.

  5. Hi Ezekiel.
    Thanks for your compliments. I am glad if the info on this blog can help you! First, I must say that I am more experienced at making documentaries than marketing them. All the documentaries I made were done at a TV station, so I was not an independent producer then. In that scenario, you are not really marketing in the same way an independent producer would be. But I can still give you some tips. I just do not want to mislead anyone about where my real expertise lies. What you need to do is network and ask around. Call the tourism board, if there is one, in Nigeria. Call other government or private sector agencies that might be interested. Contact anyone you might think would be interested in your project and ask for the help you need. Thanks for your comment and good luck with your project.
    Lorraine.

  6. Hi Lorraine,
    I’m in total agreement with Lyirq, she said it best. “I’m soooo thankful I found this website. Reading through all these helpful tips have been a blessing” – You really are a blessing to everyone here. I was thinking about finding someone to do a documentary on you! . . . Then the whole world could see what tremendous value you have to offer. So I searched the entire Internet for the very best documentary video production person I could find, but all paths led right back to you. Now what? -))

  7. Hi Tony!
    Bless you Tony, I appreciate you wonderful comments. I see a show in my future called Scrap Jewelry Road Show, or something like that! LOL!
    Lorraine

  8. Victoria Sethunya says:

    Lorraine!
    Suddenly,
    I have a third eye and can see clearly where I am going. All because of you!

    My father is a filmaker whose work hardly earned any recognition because of…um…a..ha! I am working on a minuature documentary film in order to share his skills with others. My documentary is on questions I have as a convert to the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) religion and would like to have him critique it when I am done. I had no idea where to start but voila…another eye just emerged. Thank you for your website.

  9. Hi Victoria.
    You are most welcome! I enjoy sharing my video making knowledge with others and I encourage you to make as many documentaries as you can! I’d be interested to hear your dad’s perspective.
    Thanks for your comment.
    Lorraine

  10. Victoria Sethunya says:

    The film making experience I have is from watching my father. I told him about the project I shared with you and that a friend said I should take a class in film making.

    This is what he had to say:
    “If you know how to arouse interest in telling a story with unexpected short contrasting turns with mental-picture-forming words, then you need very little(if any) tuition on that. Retain your personal originality….then you will be ok with some editing.”

    I will have my family watch my first documentary online next week: The Joys of a Black Mormon – Part One.

    I very much look forward to sharing the experience with you, and, of course to receiving your feedback!

  11. Hi Victoria.
    Your father sounds like a wise man! I look forward to watching The Joys of a Black Mormon – Part One.
    Lorraine

  12. Cory Lestochi says:

    I Have multiple questions about conducting research and swift transitions from open research, into dense information. Please email me if you have a chance. Please make sure you tell me who you are so I don’t overlook your message in my inbox.

    Much Apreciated,

    Cory Lestochi,

  13. Prandip says:

    Hey thank you very much. It is very help ful to me. I am a student of mass communication and this year i have a audio video project. Will you help me sir. . .

  14. Hi Prandip
    Well I am a ma’am but I’m happy to help. :) I have tons of free information at t his blog. sign up for the free home study course. Also, here is a link to a post that links to lots of other useful posts.
    I hope this helps you!
    Thanks for visiting VPT.
    Lorraine

  15. MonicaRossouw says:

    Wow! Please write more! I am learning SO much. Thank you, Lorraine.

  16. Hi Monica
    I sure will! Thanks for the comment! good luck with your videomaking!
    Lorraine

  17. Rob says:

    My Mom has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. It’s slow moving so we don’t know how long she has left. I want to do a documentary of her remarkable life and amazing accomplishments but I need to read up on how to begin. I’m just learning my new Canon t3i capabilities but might not have time to make too many mistakes to re-do. What’s the best way, online, to get a quick brain dump on this topic? Your article is great as a starter but now I need to dive deeper. Thanks.

  18. Hi Rob.

    I am so sorry to hear abut your mom. Doing a documentary on her life a great idea. I have tons of information on this blog, much of it accessible from the home page. Read and watch the tutorials you think would help you. I bet I have more free info on this blog than some online paid products in how to make video. Then practice with your camera shooting anything you can, just to get a feel for it. I am talking about just practice video that you won’t use in the doc, but merely for the experience. Once you feel comfortable with what you’re doing, then, start interviewing people. Interviews are called “talking head” videos so read up on that, I have quite a lengthy post about it. Then gather other visuals, those you shoot yourself on video but also get as many still pictures as you can into digital form. It will just be a slow process of piecing it together. I am sure you can find other advice online, but I do know if you spent a lot of time on just this one blog, then you will learn a lot. You can email me for specific advice if you want. I hope this helps. Good luck. Lorraine

  19. Ruth says:

    I am working on a documentary that has a lot of photos available. My question how do we get the photos on Digital Video? Do we simply scan them in on my computer into my computer?

    Many years ago I worked on a doc with photos. We had a guy with a special overhead mounted camera that shot the individual photos on to the film.

    Help!

  20. Hi Ruth.
    I certainly remember the old way of using the overhead mounted camera that you described! That was for high budget stuff. for low budget stuff we just scotch taped them to the wall! LOL!

    But to answer your question, yes, scan the pics into digital form. If you do not have a printer to do that, any store like Kinkos could do it. Scan them in at the largest resolution possible. Any video editing program ought to be able to use the resulting jpegs. You can zoom in or do other movements while editing.

    I hope this helps.

    Good luck!!

    Lorraine

Trackbacks

  1. […] readers of Video Production Tips are interested in Documentary film making.    I’ve blogged about it a lot as documentary style videos are what I spent the majority […]

  2. […] readers of Video Production Tips are interested in Documentary film making.    I’ve blogged about it a lot as documentary style videos are what I spent the majority […]

  3. […] readers of Video Production Tips are interested in Documentary film making.    I’ve blogged about it a lot as documentary style videos are what I spent the majority […]

  4. […] Documentary-style offers more control over what footage to shoot and requires advanced planning […]

  5. […] Recreation Room Remodeling TipsCan you trust a science blogDocumentary Filmaking Where to Start […]

Leave a Reply