Step-By-Step Guide to Making Documentaries

Step-By-Step Guide to Making Documentaries

From Discovery Channel, National Geographic, The History Channel, and lately Netflix and Apple TV, we have seen lots of great documentaries.

Netflix has some great engrossing documentary series such as The Vietnam War, a 10-part documentary series by Ken Burns and Lyle Novick. And the popular Michael Jordan-based sports documentary series “The Last Dance.”

Formerly relegated to cable channels, some documentary films have achieved mainstream distribution. an example would be Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary film “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

YouTube has also become a platform for documentary filmmakers to upload their documentaries to a much wider audience. There are now so many documentary vlogs populating the video-sharing site.

What is a Documentary?

A documentary is a non-fiction film or video meant to document reality as a means to inform, educate, or as a historical record of a subject.

There are six types of documentaries and these are:

Poetic Documentary- Focus on experiences and images, sort of an experimental type film

Expository Documentary- Is the type of documentary that we commonly see. They set out as an informational type of film with a narrator/voice-over, with a narration that is straightforward and devoid of ambiguous and poetic rhetoric.

Observational Documentary– Aim to observe their subject. Filmed cinema verite style.

Participatory Narrative Documentary– The filmmaker is involved in the narrative. The closest thing would be the vlogs we see on social media.

Reflexive Documentary– Similar to participatory documentaries, however, they focus on the act of making the film. Making the connection between the filmmaker and the audience. Reflexive concerns about how the subject relates to the world.

Performative Documentary- Sometimes called as the Michael Moore style, is used to stress the subject’s experience and share an emotional response to the world. They juxtapose personal experiences with larger world issues.

So if you are into creating your own documentary the succeeding articles would help guide you as you proceed into your documentary filmmaking journey.

How to Make a Documentary: A Guide to the Key Stages of Documentary Production | Wrapbook

Just like making a fictional narrative film, documentary filmmaking involves a similar process. From story development, planning, research, and pre-production to initial photography until the post-production phase.

When making a documentary we might dispel some wrong notions or myths.

First, there is no single approach to making documentaries. There are no rulebook or rigid rules in documentary filmmaking.

There are different ways to make a documentary film. No template that you would apply to make docs.

Making a documentary is a step-by-step creative process. For an effective documentary that topic should be something that is close to your heart or one that is within the sphere of your creative interest.

As with any creative project, there is a common element that will enable you to create an effective documentary. You must first learn and familiarize the basics before you can personalize and play around with it.

Here are the key stages of making a documentary:

  1. Pre-Production

A documentary involves a single central idea. And that concept will be developed into a screenplay then the ball starts rolling. The main parts of pre-production include; research and planning.

Getting your documentary right and factual involves a great deal of research. Seek as many reputable sources as possible. Among the many sources of research will include interviews with research persons, public documents, archival records, old news, academic papers and published literature.

With the wealth of information and data from your research, you might form a point-of-view that the documentary would carry

Making a documentary means a tedious process of preparation and that includes a heavy dose of planning. A documentary filmmaker would create an outline that will guide him during pre-production. That outline describes the planned approach of your documentary. It will combine your point-of-view and the data from your research which gives structure to your story.

Planning also involves schedules, shot lists, storyboards, budgets, and interview outlines.

Any production including documentary films would need a budget. However, unlike fictional narratives, it is hard to determine the budget for documentaries as the aspects of production are dictated by research.

Another aspect of pre-production is getting permission and consent for people you would want to interview, places you would want to shoot, and archival footage, and recordings you would want to show. Also include coordination and permits, particularly for places and communities where you would make your research and shoot.

You might also want to get insurance for you and your film crew.

  1. Production Stage

Now you have finished pre-production, taking care of the many details involved in the preparations to shoot your documentary. The production phase is the most important in the documentary filmmaking process.

The main goal of production or what we call initial photography is to get as much footage, shots, and recording as needed in making a documentary. Or to shoot what is provided in your shotlist. According to documentary filmmaker Michael Moore in his advice to documentary filmmakers that their mindset should be to make movies rather than become stuck in the rigid aesthetics of documentaries. The Fahrenheit 9/11 creator implies that the limits to making documentaries are the limits of cinema as an art form.

One important thing you will be shooting when you make a documentary is the interview. However, before the interview during the production stage, you should have already known the subject which is done with pre-interview during pre-production. The pre-interview prepares the subject for the main interview making it concise and relevant to your objective.

  1. Post-production

When you make a documentary, the phase where the filming or initial photography has wrapped and the editing of the visual and audio materials commences. Sometimes for logistical reasons, the initial photography and post-production happen at the same time particularly if the production phases involve a longer amount of time.

A filmmaker must stay organized during the post-production process as footage and materials come from multiple dates. Materials should be properly curated, catalogued, labeled, and organized for them to be easily accessible to the editors. One important aspect is proper archiving thus the need for high-quality file storage such as disk drives particularly external hard drives to avoid files from being corrupted and lost.

  1. Distribution

Distribution means the phase where you make the documentary available to the audience. One route is through film festivals. Nowadays many filmmakers are uploading it on video-sharing sites such as YouTube or you could negotiate with a streaming service.

Plan The Production and Story Structure

In making a documentary film, planning is very important. With your research you now have the needed background information for your documentary.

Know what is the core of your story, your main story points, the compelling elements, who are the primary characters, the structure of your narrative, and what is the general storyline.

Also you must determine what materials you would be using. Are you going to use all-original footage? or mix it with archival footage, would you put animation or other effects that can help you tell the story or capture the interest of your intended audience.

The late Kobe Bryant’s Oscar award-winning animated short film “Dear Basketball” is based on the letter he wrote on The Player’s Tribune announcing his retirement from basketball. the short documentary directed by Glen Keane experimented with different animation techniques.

Consider your plans so you can prepare the logistics for your shoot. If you are shooting on limited budget you must plan carefully before executing the shoot.

A good documentary filmmaker is a good storyteller thus it is vital to have a clear narrative structure. The documentary should have a beginning, a middle part and an end. Award-winning travel filmmaker Jennifer Peedom said a documentary must have the following elements in the story

  1. Story
  2. Conflict
  3. Structure
  4. Character

These elements provide the framework for a great and effective documentary. And if you are familiar with these elements the more likely you can identify them in your documentary even if you project is based on complicated real-life events.

Story– According to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, the subject is the focus of the documentary but the story is a manipulation of aspects of your subject that you are stitching together into a story. Finding a story in your documentary will take a lot of research, diligent production and creative post-production work.

Conflict– In simple terms conflict is the one that stands between the subject and their goals. It can be external ( a political system, deep-seated prejudice, a calamity) or it can be internal (self-doubt, fears). It can take the form of nature (calamity, viruses), a person (political leader, warlord, capitalist, competing athlete ) or even time.

Structure– The basic three act structure in drama can also apply to a documentary.

  • Act I- Sets up the premise ( Sir Edmund Hillary wants to conquer Everest)
  • Act II- This is where your subjects starts to move towards achieving their goal (He and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay start the ascent)
  • Act III- Is where the story finds a resolution. Either the subject succeeds or fails. (They make it to the summit of Mt. Everest)

Character-A character is at least a character that articulates that goal or idea. That character might be a human or an animal, it can also be a community. According to Jennifer Peedom choose a character that has a very strong goal and is willing to achieve it.

Do Some Research

Since documentary film is capturing reality, research is so important in the production. It provides you the raw materials you will need into making your own documentary. It gives the filmmaker the context need to understand, interpret and share the idea of your film, it also helps the filmmaker plan and organize the project. And most important, research gives you the credibility when you present your film.

Make a Shot List

The importance of a shot list when you make a documentary cannot be understated. It is a detailed checklist that serves to give the documentary its direction and prepares the crew what to expect and what to do in the actual shoot.

In the aspect of logistics and budget, a shot list helps a lot as it prepares the film crew. Out there shooting in the field you need to be efficient and productive and a shot list helps you achieve that.

Participatory Documentaries

When you make a documentary you might have to choose what kind of documentary your project would be like.

Participatory documentaries are one of the six types of documentaries. It is where the filmmaker is involved in the narrative. This is similar to vlogs we see on the internet. Where the vlogger with his selfie camera explores and interact with his surroundings (in case of a travel vlog) where he also narrates his experiences.

With the advancements of digital technology, we have people now access to equipment that can create videos. Smart phones with 4k and even 8k resolution, high-quality mirrorless DLSRs, drones, and editing apps. This enable people to produce vlog documentaries with one-man or a two-man crew.

Create a Budget

Another important aspect in making a documentary film is creating a budget. Here are some tips when you make a budget.

  • Know your story. Create a film treatment, which summarizes your story. A film treatment helps in making your budget for the project.
  • Budget in sections. Make a budget based on the phases of production.
  • Make a timeline. This will help you film within budget. Create a timeline for each stage of production. For example you allot 3 months for pre-production, 3 weeks for production and one month for post-production. Always remember that a day of production has its attendant cost or expense.
  • Account for all expenses. List and make an accounting of all expenses you incurred during the production (all stages of production)
  • Use a budgeting template. If budgeting and accounting your expenses can overwhelm you. You might as well get a budgeting template downloadable in the internet. You might want to try studiobinder.
  • Get a production manager. If you have a fairly large production you might as well get a production manager to help organize financial and human resource aspects of your project. The PM helps you manage the production while keeping it within budget. Being a filmmaker and managing the production at the same time is a very hard thing to do and will affect your creative work.

How to make a documentary: pre-production

Pre-production will give you the opportunity to organize everything before you start shooting. For documentary filmmaking it is as vital as the main shoot itself. This is the time where you go find your story, research, develop your story, gather the crew, stock on logistics.

Production Plan

An old airman saying goes “Plan your Flight, Fly your plan,” same holds true for documentary filmmaking. Production plan is basically a shot list and a schedule that will help you map-out the shoot. A Production Plan will also aid you in finding the missing elements that you would be need for your documentary. It will help you in shooting your raw footages more efficiently. A plan makes each shooting day more productive to cut on expenses.

Secure Legal and Copyright Permits

To avoid legal complications when your documentary is aired or screened to audiences. You would need to secure legal and copyright permits. So do not miss this aspect when making a documentary film.

When you want to use a video, music, recording or materials of other artists you must seek their permission or pay for their work. This is respecting the copyright to their original materials.

Before the film is screened, you must have clearances for:

  • Script
  • Locations
  • Music
  • Contributors
  • Products
  • Company Logos 

You must also secure consent form for people appearing in your documentary. You can either used a written form or make a video. It goes something like this:

“I, (name of person) , agree to be filmed in this documentary about such and such and understand it will be used for broadcast on the internet and television, without conditions.”

For children you would need the consent of their parents or legal guardians.

Also you might checkout ratings for your documentary if you are to screen your film in cinemas and public places. The United States has the Movie Picture Association film rating system. Though this is voluntary, many cinemas in the U.S. would not screen unrated films.

Select Essential Camera Equipment for Making Documentary

Shooting a documentary would mean going to the field. Most of it are outdoors and also would involve remote areas such as mountains, rugged wilderness or an impoverished location.

Here are several essential camera equipment that you must be bringing when shooting your documentary.

  1. Extra batteries– very essential when you’re shooting in remote locations without electricity
  2. Lots of memory cards– To capture days of footages
  3. Cage system– A rig enables you to attach equipment to your camera like microphones, monitors, lights
  4. External monitor- External monitors now are made lightweight and super portable. Will help you identify problematic shots like out-of-focus or the presence of unwanted elements in your shots.
  5. Headphones- To help you monitor audio while on shoot.
  6. Field audio recorder- Capture quality and clean audio on your shoot
  7. Follow Focus- When you’re doing action shots, a follow-focus helps the camera stay in focus as you follow your subjects. It will also help you nail tricky shots.
  8. Lenses- You would need a wide-angle lens to capture your surroundings, a telephoto lens if you are going to shoot far-away subjects or subjects which are dangerous like lions, bears and other deadly animals. You would also need a 50mm as your workhorse.
  9. Filters- Filters protect your lenses they also help you in capturing landscapes like waters and skies. Clear, UV and polarizing filters are among widely used by videographers.
  10. LED panel lights– Helps you light up your scenes especially during low-light situations.

10 Steps on How to Make a Documentary

Here is a quick preview on the 10 steps in making a documentary.

  1. Find the topic, develop the story and write the script
  2. Putting together your equipment
  3. Plan the production and story structure
  4. Create a budget
  5. Create a shotlist
  6. Secure needed permits and consent
  7. Schedule the shoot
  8. Start Shooting
  9. Post-production
  10. Screen and share your documentary

A quick note on documentary features vs documentary series

You might have seen Ken Burn’s “Vietnam War” or Jason Hehir’s Michael Jordan documentary series “The Last Dance” they are among the popular documentary series being streamed.

A documentary features has a running time equivalent to a fiction length movie. Micheal Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2 hours, 2 minutes) and Bowling for Columbine (2 hours) are example of documentary features.

A documentary series involves a bigger production and a much bigger funding to make. Usually they are commissioned or bought by companies such as Netflix or HBO. They also have complex stories which needed to be tackled in several episodes.

While documentary features would bring to spotlight a particular perspective one that would fit a standard running time.

Be prepared to abandon your outline

When you make a documentary you must not be rigid. When things change in the course of the production you might as well ditch that outline you prepared and go with the flow.

Make a Chart

A chart can also help you in the production as it helps visualize the status of your project. A chart condenses information into easy-to-understand formats that can communicate important points to you and your crew during production.

How do you start a documentary for beginners?

Here are simple steps for those new into making a documentary.

  1. Pick a topic ( for example my topic would be Squirrels as pets)
  2. Identify your hypothesis (ex. Squirrels make great pets)
  3. Research (here you might identify your resource persons that you want to be interviewed let us say a wildlife expert and a squirrel pet owner)
  4. Write a script
  5. Gather your equipment and crew ( a camera, external microphone and laptop for editing)
  6. Plan your shoot
  7. Shoot the documentary
  8. Edit it
  9. Share it

Setting up interviews

They key in getting a good interview is preparation. The first thing you would do is do some background research on your subject, one way is doing a pre-interview.

A pre-interview can either be recorded, over the phone or an informal conversation. It familiarizes you with the subject, so that the main interview will be concise and relevant to your documentary.

You do not have to ask basic questions like the subject’s name, age and other personal interview during the main interview, you do it during the pre-interview.

You then discuss with the team, the look and setting of the interview. Would it be in the subject’s home, or workplace, would it be a man-on-the street. You could also discuss lighting, the background and other details.

When interview proper. You must brief the subject. Avoid yes-or-no questions, be flexible and avoid preconceptions.

For a successful interview here are the five tips:

  1. Make the interviewee comfortable
  2. Establish expectations
  3. Don’t interrupt
  4. Have the subject repeat the question
  5. Take breaks during interviews.

Share Your Documentary

Sharing your documentary is the phase where you make it available to the public. There are many ways and venues to share your documentary.

  1. Online- This can be done through social media like Facebook.
  2. Online Documentary Channels- There are online documentary channels on YouTube that accepts submissions. Among these channels include DW Documentary, Vice, Real Stories
  3. Film Festivals – There might be film festivals where you can submit. You can find these festivals online. The benefit of joining a film festival is exposure, networking and you might get some awards which will being credibility to your documentary.
  4. Physical screenings- You can organize home screenings, in schools, community centers, bars and cinemas

How Much Does it Cost to Make a Documentary?

There is no clear answer on how much is the production cost of doing a documentary. It can range from a few thousands of dollars to millions of dollars. It is dependent on the script and film treatment.

There are four factors that will affect the costing of making your project.

  1. Quality
  2. The scope and scale of your story
  3. The amount of copyrighted materials you would be using
  4. Level of editorial control

What are the Five Elements of a Documentary?

To create a high-impact documentary there are five elements that you must familiarize:

  1. Subject- Your subject will determine your story
  2. Purpose- A clear idea what you want to achieve in your project
  3. Form- How you want to tell your story
  4. Production Techniques- The ways to achieve that form
  5. Audience Experience- How do you want the audience to experience the film.

Think outside of the talking head


An interview or a talking head, where the camera focuses on the interviewee while he is talking is a popular format of documentary. However a talking head format can bore some viewers and you might notice that attention span of the audience tapers off during interviews.

There are ways to address this. One is to use plenty of B-rolls, cutaways or sitners (situationer shots) during the interview. B-rolls are footage which shows what the interviewee is describing. Cutaways or sitners are footage which interrupts the talking head, either showing the subject in his home or at his place of work or conversing with the film crew.

You might also condense the talking head by selecting relevant and interesting soundbite from the recording.

Schedule the Shoot

The schedule happens after the pre-production phase is complete and the main production phase is ready to go.

The schedule synchronizes everybody in the production. The schedule harmonizes the availability of the subject, the location and the film crew’s schedules. It also must take into consideration the production timeline, budget and resources availability.

The stages of documentary production

The various stages of documentary production will include:

  1. Pre-production
  2. Production or initial photography
  3. Post-Production
  4. Distribution

Collect archival footage

Archival footage is very important especially if you are dealing with history-based documentary. Or those documentary where a historical perspective is vital in presenting the story.

Various sources can be TV network archives, government footages, or you can crowdsource from citizens who have several archival video footage.

A small crew can be an advantage

A documentary team can be lean and mean. there is an inherent advantage in a small crew. First and foremost is the budget. A small crew would mean lesser budget for talent fees. Production costs incurred on food, accommodation and living expenses during shoot will be lesser.

Shooting in far-away locations and crowded places makes a smaller crew very advantageous for the documentary filmmaker.

How to film a documentary interview

Here are some basic tips when filming a documentary interview

  1. Set-up the camera. You can choose how the camera is angled. The scene can have multiple camera setups. One camera facing front and one that is angled towards the interviewee.
  2. Light up the scene- Avoid shooting against the light unless you want the subject to be obscured. You can play with lighting to achieve a certain mood. You can utilize a three-point lighting technique. Or if you have a tight budget, a single lighting or ambient light shooting technique can be used.
  3. Check the audio- Do a mic or audio check and listen if the you are picking good audio.

Lighting Gear

Lighting is also important in making a documentary. But you don’t have to bring so much lighting equipment as it will be difficult to lug around when shooting documentaries as you and the crew are always on the move.

You can bring a LED light panel, which can properly illuminate the subject, some small foldable reflectors will be beneficial. If you have enough resources or if the documentary you are shooting would require a high-level quality output, Your lighting gear can consist of:

  1. Main Light– the primary light source
  2. Fill light- Reduces strong shadows
  3. Backlight- Separates the interviewee from the background.

Write a script

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns provides some tips when writing a documentary project.

  • Use narrative elements. According to him it is most important to tell the most dynamic story you possibly can. Use narrative elements to bring an added dimension to the documentary.
  • Use early drafts to find the narrative arc. According to Burns early in the writing process a story arc will emerge. The first and early drafts is said to be the loudest in telling us that the documentary will look like.
  • Find impactful ways to communicate your story. It is delivering the facts using poetic vehicle so that it will make sense to your audience.
  • Build structure around facts. It is your responsiblity as a filmmaker to verify the narration of your interviewees. 

The last stage when making a documentary? Distribution

Distribution is when you are going to share your documentary to the public. Making it accessible to an audience. You can either share it online, join film festivals, market it to distributors or organize film screenings.

Checking for legal and copyright issues

Make sure you get the written or recorded consent of your subjects and interviewees, you will also get the permits of locations, permission for the logos and other copyrighted materials you will be using in the video before you release your documentary.

How do you get a documentary on Netflix (or any other streaming platform)?

  1. Pitch directly
  2. Find an agent
  3. Work with a distributor.

Make sure the production meets the standards of Netflix. The streaming company has a list of camera systems that must be used in their films. You can check them here.

Have a film idea? Pitch your film idea here.