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6.5 Ways To Start And Finish A Documentary Film Project

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For the past year, I have been working on an online documentary video series called Innovators of Vancouver that documents leaders of vision, passion and action throughout my hometown of Vancouver, WA. Each episode is 5-10 minutes and combines a filmed interview with B-roll of the Innovator doing the work that inspired me to choose their story for the project. I have finished six episodes, currently working on the seventh episode, and because of my work on this project, I often get asked by aspiring documentary filmmakers what they need to know to get started making their own documentary projects. Among everything that one could know about making documentary films, here are six and a half things that any aspiring documentary filmmaker needs to know about starting and finishing a documentary film project.

1) Know What Interests You

A lot of people don’t know where to start when it comes to making a documentary and it is important to start with what interests you. It could be something serious that you have personally struggled with such as depression or cancer. It could be the story of your grandparents coming to America. It could be a visual blog post about your addiction to gator meat or your love affair with coffee and doughnuts.

2) Start In Your Own Backyard

You don’t need to travel the world in search of experts or subject matter for your documentary film. What you are interested in and what you end up making a film about can be filmed in your own community, all it takes is finding the people that share the same affinities that you have. Start with your friends, family, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse or kids. Ask them their thoughts on your subject, this is formally known as conducting a pre-interview. It helps you to develop a report with your subject off-camera, ensuring that you know exactly what they bring to your documentary film. It also helps you with step three.

3) Learn How To Ask Great Questions

Essential to great documentary film production is the ability to ask great questions that are open-ended and specific to your interviewee’s experience with your subject. By pre-interviewing people you learn about the depth of their experience, their passion or dispassion for your subject, and helps you to craft a series of questions that go beyond who, what, when, where, why and how. With that said, the best place to start is:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you do?
  • What are your feelings on [subject]?
  • When did you first experience [subject]?
  • Where can people learn more about [subject]?
  • Why does [subject] matter to you?
  • How can [subject] affect others?

These aren’t the best questions, but they are a starting point, but you will only get to the ending point if you…

4) Shut Up And Listen

Don’t be like newsanchors and pundits that interrupt to get their agenda and point across, shut up and listen to what the person is saying. Nod your head in agreement, emote with body language, empathize when necessary. If you think of something to ask as a follow-up, write it down and wait until they are done talking before asking the question. Learn how to make people feel comfortable by looking them in the eye and giving them 100% of your attention.

5) Adding Images And Video To Further Tell The Story

Now that your interview is recorded, find photos and film B-roll that will help visually tell the story. Childhood photos go well with stories from your grandparents. Film volunteers serving in the community, follow your subject as they go about their business during the day, and don’t forget to get multiple angles, wide-shots, close-ups and everything in between.

6) Edit Everything To Tell A Broader Story

Open your favorite video editor: Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, iMovie, Windows Movie Maker and start watching the interviews. Clip what stands out, forget the rest. Start adding the B-roll on top of the interviews. Keep building without worrying about the length of the project. Once you have a strong beginning, middle and end, eliminate the fluff. Fine-tune the edits. Level your audio so that all of your interviews are at the same volume. Add some background music, but don’t break copyright laws: use royalty free music or find a local musician that will let you use their music in return for free advertising.

Now that you have a finished documentary film, here is the final tip:

6 1/2) Do it again

Don’t just check “Make Documentary Film” off your bucket list, do it again with a different subject. You’ll learn better ways to do specific techniques, your editing will tighten, you’ll learn what to shoot and what not to shoot, and you’ll become more comfortable reaching out to subject matter experts that bring depth and credibility to your finished film.

With that, get out there and start your next documentary film. Most importantly, finish it, upload it to YouTube or Vimeo, and share it in the comments of this post.


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  • Jacedev85

    Good article Chris.  Do you recommend any particular places to get royalty free music?  I recently stumbled upon Royalty Free Music Library and have been very happy with the quality.
    JD

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