Making a documentary film is different compared to a fictional film. Although a documentary film has fewer pieces of the puzzle to put together compared to a fictional film, it still requires hard work in being able to capture real life to maintain a good story.
Beginning filmmakers looking into making a documentary often forget that documentary films have a story and game plan that involves countless hours of research, a solid budget, and elaborate editing.
I have worked on a few documentary films in the past couple of years, and have seen the good and bad of trying to make a good documentary film. With each documentary film, I was part of behind the camera, I took notes on what worked and what didn’t work with these productions and felt that I should share what I learned with you.
If you are a beginning or aspiring filmmaker looking for steps in making a documentary film, then you should continue reading along. In this article, we’re going to break down, from beginning to end the steps you need to undertake to make a documentary film.
How to make a documentary film
When it comes to making a documentary, there are no rules in making documentaries. Each documentary production will follow a different path from pre-production to post-production for it to be ready for distribution.
But what you will read below is a rough guide on the methods by which many documentary films are made. Keep in mind that not every filmmaking project will include every step through production, and some films will incorporate extra actions besides the essential ones listed here.
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Step 1 - Documentary Film Pre-production
Investigation & Writing
It doesn’t matter what film you are making whether it‘s a documentary or fictional narrative they have to start with an idea.
The only disadvantage to making a documentary film is it requires research beforehand to come up with a storyline that will have a proper conclusion.
From this research, you will begin to write a screenplay or treatment on how you want to tell the story. I have to warn you though that a lot of your research may not make it into the finished project.
But, if you don’t do enough extensive research beforehand to back your story up, it may fall flat.
Pre-interviews and interviewee choice
Even if you are doing a documentary film on something or someone from the past or present it will be the research you do beforehand that will help guide you through the story process.
But, if you want interviewees to back up your story, you will need to do some casting to decide the right candidates to be in your film.
Everyone from historians, experts to even scientists should go through a casting process to make sure you have the right people to help you tell your story.
Just like research, documentary filmmakers may end up speaking with several people that may not end up in their film. The key to the selection process is to perform pre-interviews where you’re researching the experts to figure out who will make more of an impact in your film.
During the pre-interview stage and casting for your documentary film, you will need to film these sessions because you will want to make sure these subjects look good on camera and have the ability to speak understandably and engagingly.
If you find the best experts in their field, but don’t work on camera, still keep them in mind during the editing process as they can help with feedback on rough cuts of the film later on.
Fundraising & building a crew
The next step in the documentary film pre-production stage is to come up with a budget for what it will cost you to make the film. If you are planning on filming an ultra-low-budget documentary, you may be able to pull in some favors to fund it yourself.
But, if you are thinking the costs will be higher than you can afford, you may want to start a crowd-funding campaign, or applying for media grants.
What you will need to do after building your budget is start building your crew. Look at adding a camera crew and sound technicians, an editor, etc.
Plus, you will need to start sourcing out locations for where you want to film and get permits or permission to film in locations where you will be filming your interviewees or subjects.
Related Article: 5 Best Cinema Cameras For Documentary Filmmaking, Plan Of Attack | Step One – 7 Important Steps To Making A Low Budget Feature Film and The Story | Step Two – 7 Important Steps To Making A Low Budget Feature Film
Step 2 - Documentary Production Phase
Filming interviews & tracking your subjects
Depending on the kind of documentary you’re shooting, you may be filming a variety of material. For historical documentaries, you might be filming re-enactments and accumulating interviews with biographers.
For a documentary film that accompanies a modern-day person, as they try to accomplish a goal, you might be shooting them as they train and work to accomplish their goal.
One of the most things to remember regardless of the documentary style of your film, make sure you get documentary film release forms signed by everyone involved in front of the camera, and behind the camera so you can legally use the footage you shoot with them.
Coverage and B-Roll Footage
When you are filming a narrative feature or documentary film, you want to have enough footage captured to make sure you have enough to work within post-production editing.
So, when you are filming a documentary feature, you need enough coverage and b-roll footage that isn’t just interviews. If you’re making a film about basketball you might want to collect lots of cool footage of players dribbling a basketball, taking shots at the basket, drinking water, etc.
This footage will come in handy later when it’s time to piece together your interviews and other footage into telling a story. Coverage and b-roll can cover up edits that you make in your interviews and help you blend together a visually compelling story.
Find archived footage
While some documentary films don’t require old photographs or archival videos, but if your film does, you should start researching to help build a better story.
You’ll want to search, collect and digitize those elements so they’re readily available for you to use in the post-production editing process. But one thing to keep in mind with using old archival footage, you will need to get permissions and documentation from the rights holders or creators of this footage if it’s not in the public domain or covered under the fair use loophole.
You never want all your hard work to be ruined because of a clip you can’t use that was inserted in your film because of legal reasons.
Step 3 -Documentary Post-Production Phase
The post-production stage of documentary filmmaking is where all the magic happens. Depending on the length and coverage you have, the editing process could be simple or complex.
Full-length feature documentaries usually begin with a paper edit or a collection of interview transcripts that roughly sketch out the structure of the film before any footage is edited. Shorter documentaries in the editing phase can be a breeze where you make adjustments along the way.
But, always work with your pre-production storyboard plan, regardless of the length of your film. You may also want to record any temporary and final voiceover if your documentary has narration.
Regardless of whether a film is a fictional narrative or documentary, getting feedback during the rough cut editing stage is a perfect way to fine-tune your cuts.
Gather people you can trust, like material experts or other filmmakers, to watch your rough cuts during the editing phase will help you figure out what the weak or unclear parts of the film are for you to work on.
The great thing about technology today for a filmmaker is that you can share private links via google drive or youtube, which allows you to instantly get the cuts to the people you want feedback from, and they can respond to you with notes quickly.
Now that you have made the adjustments to your rough cut, and are happy with the edits of your film, it’s time to work on the sound mixing and color correction portion of editing to make the film look and sound good.
If you are thinking about a film score, this is the piece of post-production where your composer will begin to add custom music to some scenes to create a bigger impact on your documentary film.
Step 4: Documentary Distribution
This last piece of the puzzle in documentary film production will be different from film to film as they all have their own unique distribution path. If you are unsure of where to take your documentary after it’s ready, here are some examples of what you can do for your documentary in the distribution phase.
Submit to film festivals
If you are looking to get your film seen by the masses, one of the most common ways of doing this is to submit a film to a film festival. Most filmmakers use submission services like Film Freeway that will, for a price, send your film to various festivals around the world.
If your film is selected in a film festival, you will want to attend them in person to show your film, give Q&As afterward to the audience, and meet with other filmmakers or distribution agents from companies that might be at that festival to discuss your work.
I love film festivals, and I wrote a blog post on how to get selected into film festivals that you may want to check out to understand what it takes to get selected.
Get a distribution agent
This step will depend on the type of documentary you have made, but if you have completed a full-length documentary, getting a distribution agent to pitch your film to production companies is a great option.
Plus, if your film is a full-length documentary enjoying a great run on the festival circuit, having a distribution agent makes it easier to sell your film than you doing it yourself.
While getting your film to stream via Netflix or Amazon prime may only be done via a distribution agent, there are other streaming platforms out there like Amazon and iTunes that you can upload your product to distribute online and make money.
Online storefronts like Amazon, iTunes, and others will allow you to market your film and sell directly to consumers with a small percentage fee taken from these platforms for using their services. These are great options if you can’t get distribution via Netflix, Amazon Prime, or theatrically.
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I hope that this step-by-step documentary filmmaking guide will point you in the right direction to make your next documentary project.
While I understand that not every film will incorporate all of the steps as every film project is unique, but with this bird’s eye view of what the documentary filmmaking process is commonly like you can be ready for whatever comes your way.
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About the author: Trent (IMDB | Youtube) has spent 10+ years working on an assortment of film and television projects. He writes about his experiences to help (and amuse) others. If he’s not working, he’s either traveling, reading or writing about travel/film, or planning travel/film projects.
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