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How to Make a Documentary

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The term documentary can mean many things. Some documentaries are historical and rely on old photos and footage. Some are educational and use lots of interviews and graphic illustrations. Even reality TV shows are a type of documentary.

This guide to How to Make a Documentary gives an overview of planning and producing any sort of nonfiction, documentary-type video.

Difficulty: Average
Time Required: Depends

Here's How:

  1. What's the Story for Your Documentary?

    Just like any movie, a great documentary a powerful story and strong characters. But that doesn't mean you need exotic places and death-defying escapades. You just need to look at whatever situation you're filming and find the cinematic story arc. With attention and practice, you'll be able to find a movie-worthy story anywhere.

    It helps to watch documentaries, to get an idea of how the filmmakers treat their subjects. You'll also get a sense of different documentary styles and storytelling methods.

    Even if you don't know exactly how your documentary will turn out, you can create a rough outline. At this stage in the process it helps to write a treatment, which is a page or two narrative description of the plot of your documentary. This document will be the basis of all the planning and production that you do.

  2. Planning Your Documentary

    In the pre-production stage you'll want to coordinate with all of the people, locations and events that you hope to film for your documentary. It helps to be clear about what your project is and how you're presenting the story, especially if it's a controversial subject. No matter what, get everyone to sign releases before any filming.

    Once you know what you'll be filming, you can create a production schedule. For many documentaries, you may not know exactly when and where you'll always be shooting. If that's the case, you'll still need to plan for that and make sure you'll always be able to have a someone with video equipment ready to go. You'll also want to have an idea of how many days you'll be able to shoot and how long you can let production go on.

    In the planning stages you should also start to think about who your audience is for the documentary, and how you're going to reach them. These considerations can really influence the tone and tenor of your movie.

  3. Funding Your Documentary

    No matter how you plan to fund your documentary, it's important to create a basic budget. You'll need to figure out how to pay any real costs for travel, production help and equipment rental. And even if you're doing the entire production yourself or with volunteers, it's nice to know how much effort will need to go into the project to see it to completion.

    It's difficult to get grants to fund documentaries, but there are some online video competitions that can help, and sites like Kickstarter can also work for funding.

  4. Recording Your Documentary

    For most documentaries, you'll want to shoot some video interviews and lots of b-roll and action footage. Make sure that you use proper video recording techniques, record good audio and light your video well.

    Try to avoid having too many "talking heads," and instead find creative ways to get video footage to illustrate the story. Animated photos and stock footage are two simple ways to make documentaries more engaging.

  5. Editing Your Documentary

    I love editing documentary-style videos, because instead of following a script that's already been written, I'm finding a story in the things people say. For this purpose, I find it really helpful to transcribe any interviews so I can easily see what was said and when.

    When editing a documentary, it's crucial to keep all of your footage organized, especially if it's a long project. I usually have a separate external hard drive devoted to my project footage, and I use folders to organize clips in my video editing program.

    Depending on the complexity of the video you can edit with a free program like iMovie, Movie Maker or an online editing app. If you want to get more intricate with the editing, try intermediate or professional video editing software.

  6. Distributing Your Documentary

    Once your documentary is edited, there are many options for getting it in front of audiences. The simplest is to upload to YouTube, and distribute your video from there. It's free, and it reaches a massive audience.

    Film festivals, of course, are probably the most popular destination for documentaries. Withoutabox lists thousands of film festivals, and makes it simple to apply to any of them.

    Selling your documentary online is another possibility. If you sign up with a content delivery network, you can set a price for your documentary and charge for downloads.

What You Need

  • Video camera
  • Lights
  • Microphone
  • Video editing computer and software

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