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How to Make a Documentary

Making a documentary from scratch is a daunting task, even for the most experienced filmmakers. That is why it is important to approach filmmaking systematically, so that none of the important details are left out.

Below is a short guide to filmmaking. It is in no way meant to be THE filmmakers' manual to documentary making, but it does contain many useful tips and pointers that all good filmmakers should be aware of.


1. Aims/Goals: Identifying the purpose of the film

Questions to ask:
  • Purpose: What do I intend the film to achieve?
  • Audience: Who is the film intended for?

The first and most important step to making a good film is to decide who and what is the film for—in other words, we have to establish the purpose and audience for the film. The purpose determines the content of the film; whereas the audience determines the style in which the film is done. Any film maker who intends to make a good film needs to have a clear idea of who and what the film is for before he can proceed to the next step—story-telling.

2. Story crafting: Defining & creating your narrative arc


Questions to ask:
  • How do I best convey my intended message to the target audience?
  • In what voice and style should i present my film?
  • What is my filming strategy?

Story-telling is the most creative phase of film-making. In this phase, a film-maker must decide what the main narrative arc is, and how it should be delivered to the audience to maximize its impact. There are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to writing a good story, but here's a good strategy to go about doing this:

  1. Brainstorm as many potential ideas as possible. You can be as creative as you want, and don't let anything stop your creative juices from flowing—yet. Here, it is important to consider the narrative arc: How does the story flow from the beginning to the end? How do you want to represent time and truth?
  2. Define the criteria that the film needs to meet: tone, message, equipment, budget, production duration, themes, etc.
  3. Choose the best idea that fits the criteria set; or modify the ideas to better fit the criteria.
  4. Decide how the film should look and make a story—sketch out a brief comic of the whole film, on paper or in powerpoint. This helps you get a better idea of how you want the end product to look, which informs your shot selection when it comes to filming or sourcing for video clips.

Take your time during this phase of the film-making—it is not so much the technical execution, but the idea, that makes a good film. After all, creativity cannot be rushed.

3. Production planning & risk management: Making a plan, and sticking to it


Questions to ask:
  • What are the roles I need to assign?
  • What can go wrong?
  • Do I need any contingency plans?
  • Do I need to get permission to film at the locations I have chosen?

Possibly the most overlooked step when making a film, the production planning phase is crucial for ensuring that the whole film-making process proceeds smoothly without too many unexpected hiccups. In this step, we need to take a step back from all the creative ideas and consider how we intend to realize it. This means taking into consideration all the constraints—such as the location, manpower, and time—before springing into action.

In other words, as far as possible, plan the plan-able bits, and never underestimate the importance of practice and rehearsal, even if working with an experienced crew. Often when filming a documentary, the window of opportunity is small, which leaves very little room for error. Hence, the crew must prepared to capture every shot as perfectly as possible in the first try.

It is also important to visit locations before the actual shoot so as to get a better idea of what conditions—lighting, noise, crowd, terrain, etc—are like, and what needs to be taken note of whilst filming. Also when filming on private property, also make sure to inform the respective authorities to make sure that they are aware that filming is taking place in their premises, and if necessary, obtain permission for filming before the actual day of shoot.

4. Equipment and filming: Using the right tools for the right job


Questions to ask:
  • What kinds of shots do I need?
  • How many cameras do I need to achieve what I want?
  • Do I want stability in my shots, or mobility?
  • How much time do I have to set up equipment prior to the shoot?
  • How much does equipment hire cost?
Quick tips:
  • Always bring spare batteries if filming outdoors.
  • Unless the camera needs to be moved during the shot, always use a tripod.
  • Always pay attention to lights and shadows.
  • Adjust the mic to pick up only the sounds that you want.
  • Beware of reflective surfaces; you don't want to see your cameraman in the film!
  • Review all footages if possible; re-shoot any scenes that you are not perfectly happy with.
  • If time permits, shoot the same scene multiple times, and in multiple angles to make things easier when editing.
  • Think about how each shot should be composed before shooting.
  • Also check out video tutorials on Youtube (see sidebar on the right for more information).

5. Editing: Using the filmed footage to tell the story

Questions to ask:
  • What style best fits the purpose and audience of the video?
  • How should I pace the film? Quick, short cuts or one smooth, continuous shot?
  • How long do I want my film to be?
  • Should I include other types of media—like pictures, background music, sound effects, text overlays etc? Will I need to use any copyrighted material in my film?
  • Do I need to get permission for them?

When editing the film, always remember to keep it simple. Too much fancy effects and transitions distract the viewer and take the focus away from the intended message; unless it adds to the narrative, refrain from using them too often.

Another important thing to take note of is the issue of copyright. Much of the content found on the internet—music, images, photos, and even writings—are copyrighted and hence cannot be simply used in your own film until proper permission is obtained. It is always advisable to source for such media through royalty-free websites so as to avoid potential legal issues when the film starts making its rounds around the internet.

Questions to ask:
  • What style best fits the purpose and audience of the video?
  • How should I pace the film? Quick, short cuts or one smooth, continuous shot?
  • How long do I want my film to be?
  • Should I include other types of media—like pictures, background music, sound effects, text overlays etc?
  • Will I need to use any copyrighted material in my film? Do I need to get permission for them?

When editing the film, always remember to keep it simple. Too much fancy effects and transitions distract the viewer and take the focus away from the intended message; unless it adds to the narrative, refrain from using them too often.

Another important thing to take note of is the issue of copyright. Much of the content found on the internet—music, images, photos, and even writings—are copyrighted and hence cannot be simply used in your own film until proper permission is obtained. It is always advisable to source for such media through royalty-free websites so as to avoid potential legal issues when the film starts making its rounds around the internet.