When you’re creating a documentary, you’re presented with the unique opportunity to tell a story that’s unfolding before your eyes. Now more than ever before, audiences everywhere are fascinated by the incredible diversity and authenticity of the documentary genre – in fact, today’s most successful documentaries can often create as much buzz at the newest Hollywood blockbuster.
For new filmmakers learning how to make a documentary, there’s quite a bit of unique ground to cover. From coming up with interesting documentary ideas to producing, shooting, and editing real-world subjects, documentary filmmaking certainly presents its own challenges.
If you’re already an avid viewer of documentaries, you’re likely already familiar with what your future audience will expect: content that captures their attention, an authentic story, and a vision that comes to life onscreen. For documentarians, the stakes are high – but so is the potential for personal fulfillment and professional accomplishment.
If you’re interested in making your own documentaries, the best way to learn your way around the genre is simply through experience. Dive into filmmaking with an open mind and a readiness to learn, and you might just discover a wealth of valuable lessons along the way. No matter where you are in your journey of learning how to shoot a documentary, here are a few tips to help you find your way.
Build the documentary around a story you genuinely care about.
The first – and perhaps most important – ingredient to producing a good documentary is a subject that you feel passionate about. Your audience will be able to sense if you’re not excited by the topic, and your lukewarm interest will come through in the film itself. Rather than trying to grasp at topics that you think audiences will want to explore, focus on stories that fascinate you. Inevitably, your authentic interest in the story will make for a far more successful final product.
Examine your sources of inspiration from a new perspective.
For anyone that’s considering a career in filmmaking, the odds are high that they can name at least a handful of favorite movies, videos, directors, or producers. Nearly everyone can think of at least a few films that inspired them in a special way, whether they are documentaries or fictional stories. Take a deep dive into your personal sources of inspiration, analyzing them closely to pinpoint exactly what made these specific films speak to you. Examine elements like lighting, sound, camera angles, cuts, and more, using the details to inform your own work going forward.
Take time to do the research.
An important part of being a good documentarian is effectively researching your selected topic. Even if you think you have a good grip on the information at hand, dig deeper into the storylines and subjects you’re planning on featuring. Think of yourself as a reporter, seeking out leads and working to uncover even the most buried stories. Also, make sure that you fact-check all of your information, verifying multiple sources to confirm their validity.
Develop a plan before you begin shooting.
Many good documentaries have an effortless feel about them, but there’s actually a massive amount of work to do before you even begin filming. Create a clear plan for your documentary, outlining all of the key details to create a handy guide to use throughout the entire filming and editing process. Here are just a few questions that you should ask yourself when developing your plan:
- What story do I want to tell?
- Who is my target audience?
- How long do I want the documentary to be?
- What are my core story points?
- Do I need to be prepared to film specific situations/events or will I need to create moments?
- How much time do I have for shooting?
- How much time do I expect to need editing?
- Is there a certain look or feel I want my documentary to have?
- Besides b-roll and interview footage, what else do I need (infographics, music, etc.)?
Ideally, your plan will establish solid guidelines and keep you on track, preventing you from getting lost in unexpected details along the way. Typically, a documentary will use a shot list, just like any other style of film, so take the time to create one before moving forward.
Remember to build a basic foundation for your story.
Regardless of the topic, you’re planning to explore in your film, you’ll need to establish the who, what, when, where, and why for your audience. Every story, fact or fiction, must be clearly communicated to have any impact on the audience. Keep these elements in the forefront of your mind throughout the entire process, not just the beginning.
Seek out interesting personalities.
While your documentary may be based around a larger story or concept, one of the best ways to connect with your audience is by featuring fascinating characters. The right people can contribute a true complexity and depth to your content, helping it stand apart from others focusing on similar topics.
Many documentarians find that focusing on a central character throughout the duration of the film can be an excellent way to draw in the audience and make nearly any topic relatable.
Incorporate multiple camera angles.
As you’re filming, you already want to have the editing process in the back of your mind. By using a variety of camera angles, you’ll be able to ensure that you have plenty of flexibility in edits. Additionally, mixing up your angle can add dimension to your video, keeping things interesting and avoiding the film from falling flat.
Don’t underestimate the importance of audio and lighting.
Lighting and audio contribute considerably to an audience’s experience of any film – so don’t forget to consider them while shooting. Even if you’re working with the most basic of gear (like your smartphone), you can still take a thoughtful approach. Lighting, music, and sounds have the power to evoke emotion and completely change how a film feels, so use them wisely.
Help Your Filmmaking Skills Flourish with a Multimedia Education
Creativity, hard work, and inspiration are all key components of a successful career as a documentary filmmaker, but having the right skills is important as well. By building a solid foundation of technical knowledge, as well as an understanding of the industry, you’ll be ready to dive into an exciting and promising future.
At the Media Schools, located in Colorado, Ohio, Illinois, and Miami, our multimedia-focused programs blend hands-on experiences with diverse course content to help prepare you for a career in documentary filmmaking and other creative roles. Whether you’re interested in being behind the camera or a familiar face on the screen, the right education might be exactly what you need to start off on the right foot.
Spend your classroom time with the passionate, knowledgeable instructors at the Media Schools, located in Colorado, Ohio, Illinois, and Miami, then take your newly-learned skills into the field through industry experiences, internships, and more.