How to make the most of pre-production.
Set yourself up for success before you turn on your camera. “Do your research and try to figure out what your story is, even if you have no idea yet. Learn as much as you can about the people you’re spending time with or about the subject, so that you can ask informed questions,” says Pence.
The type of research you need to do will depend on your subject matter. For a historical documentary, you can expect to spend a lot of time in libraries or historical society archives. For a film on the rainforest destruction in the Amazon, you can learn a lot online and through phone calls, but you’ll eventually have to pack your bags (and bug spray) and talk to people on the ground.
Collect archival footage.
In your research, you might find relevant archival footage. You can also ask your interview subjects for any old photos or videos they might have and be willing to let you use.
Outline the story.
Though documentary films aren’t scripted like fictional narratives, you can create a broad outline or even draw up storyboards to help you think about the footage you need and the possible directions the story might take. “Sometimes I’ll write a storyline to help me envision the story or to help my stakeholders understand the type of story that I’m going for,” says Pence.
An outline can also help you build trust with your subjects. “If you’re telling a story about someone’s personal experience, make sure they understand the story that you’re trying to tell so that you can get the appropriate access that you need,” says documentary filmmaker Erin Brethauer.
Be prepared to abandon your outline.
“Think ahead and think strategically, but you also need to recognize that sometimes things change, they don’t go as anticipated, and you need to react and just go with the flow,” says Brethauer.
Imagine the look of the film.
Just because documentaries are true doesn’t mean they can’t have style. You can create a moodboard and compile visual references to help you envision the film. You can even think about the types of camera shots you want to use. “You’re learning and changing throughout the whole thing, but if you go into it with a point of view, a lot of times you’re going to hold true to that,” says Pence.