How to make a documentary film.
Explore the documentary filmmaking process and get tips from professional filmmakers on how to turn real-life stories into great nonfiction films.
Image by Ian J. Whitmore
What is a documentary film?
A documentary film records true events. Any subject matter can lend itself to a good documentary as long as it sparks your interest. “Documentaries have always been a way for me to live vicariously through a subject,” says filmmaker Truen Pence. “When I started making them, it was through things I was just interested in.”
Whether your end goal is a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, streaming for an audience on Netflix, or to air on your own YouTube channel, documentaries typically fall into the following six categories. Before you begin to think about storyboards or shot lists, first determine which type, or combination of types, you’d like to make.
Poetic documentaries are like audio-visual poems. They focus more on mood and tone than on narrative. Werner Herzog’s 1971 film Fata Morgana falls into this category, with an off-screen narrator telling a Mayan creation myth over footage of African deserts.
Expository documentaries tell true stories. These films often include archival footage or photographs paired with voice-over narration called “Voice of God” for its authoritative style. The Ken Burns films that PBS broadcasts about the Civil War, jazz, and the Great Depression are all great examples of the genre.
In these films, the documentarian interacts with the subject. To make a point or capture a deeper truth, the filmmaker appears on screen or adds their voice to the film. In Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston explores the ball culture of New York City and conveys the struggles of Black and Latinx gay and transgender New Yorkers.
More subtle than expository or participatory documentaries, the observational film attempts to show life in a particular place and time as it might occur if neither filmmaker nor camera were present. One great documentary of this type is the 1994 film Hoop Dreams, which follows two Black high-school basketball players from impoverished Chicago neighborhoods over eight years.
These films are as much about the documentary filmmaker and the process of making the film as they are about anything else. The 1929 Soviet film Man with a Movie Camera remains the most well known of these documentaries. In it, director Dziga Vertov used several new shooting and editing techniques, including the match cut and jump cut.
This last type aims to inspire emotion in the viewer. The filmmaker may start with a personal experience and then widen the lens to discuss a bigger issue. Michael Moore is famous for this style, beginning with his 1989 hit Roger & Me, about how the closure of GM auto plants in his hometown affected the lives of his friends and neighbors.
Once you have an idea of the type of film you want to make, you can think about the filmmaking process.
Image by Truen Pence
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.
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.
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.
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.
Image by Truen Pence
How to get what you need from interviews.
Often the best way to learn about people and their experiences or expertise is in their own words. Most expository, participatory, observational, and performative documentaries contain interview footage.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions that might seem dumb or obvious. You never know how many viewers have the same questions they’ve been afraid to ask, or where those answers might lead. But then ask informed questions based on your research. “Come at it from a place of curiosity. That will help you get past the obvious questions,” says Pence.
Many documentary films come together over a period of years rather than months. If your film could benefit from multiple interviews with your subjects, and you want to show how their lives change over time, you have to build and sustain relationships with them.
For Brethauer and her codirector/husband, that means staying in touch with her subjects and making frequent visits. “We make sure that we’re there and that we know what’s going on in this household, so we can see what’s happening and anticipate when we need to be back,” she says.
Think outside of the talking head.
It can be difficult to hold your viewer’s attention with a single long interview shot, so think about visual ways to keep people engaged throughout your interviews. “Errol Morris uses five different angles on one person during an interview, and he cuts between all of those, which makes a very dynamic interview experience for the viewer,” Brethauer says.
After the fact, you can watch your interviews or study the transcripts with an eye toward creative storytelling. Look for potential B-roll shots you can use to mix up the talking head shots, action you want to dramatize with actors, or even animation.
“You can use people’s voices and work with an animator to illustrate someone’s experience. Those are super helpful in illustrating past experiences,” Brethauer says.
Images by Truen Pence
How to do documentary video production.
If you have time, energy, and a little money, you can even shoot a feature-length nonfiction film with minimal help.
A small crew can be an advantage.
With a small team, you can create a more intimate environment for your subjects, which can help put them at ease and almost allow them to forget that you’re there. Of her method, Brethauer says, “We both film, so we usually have two angles on different scenes. We have Canon C300 cameras, which are great for documentary purposes, because they allow you to run audio in-camera.”
To get the best video possible and give you the most room to play in post-production, Pence recommends shooting in RAW mode with as much resolution as possible. “Get the best camera that’s available to you, that you can beg for or borrow from somebody, because your film is going to age so much better,” he says.
As you shoot your film, you don’t really know what it will be or where it will go, so try to capture everything. Pence says this maximal approach can be liberating because it takes the pressure off of getting the perfect shot or interview. “You’re really amassing this huge amount of content that you’ll cut into something later,” he says.
Image by Truen Pence
Put it all together in post-production.
In post-production, you finally get to construct your tale. “How do you make an edit so that everyone can connect the dots for the story that you’re trying to tell?” Brethauer asks.
Pence suggests making a paper edit. “I’ll go through and make a paper transcript of what I think the story is going to be,” he says. Once you have a sense on paper of what the story is, you can cut the video and audio more efficiently.
To introduce key players, tie different parts of your film together, or just add information, you may find it helpful to include voice-over narration. With Adobe Premiere Pro editing software, you can record voice-over on top of B-roll or montage footage. This is an easy way to provide backstory or explain who’s who to your viewers without having to do reshoots or set up additional interviews.
Add some visual style to your real-world story. Use tools like the Lumetri Color panel in the Adobe Premiere Pro editing software to color grade and adjust the white balance to give your film an artful, unified look.
Create animated title sequences that engage your viewers from the start. You can also use motion graphics to give your viewers details like time, place, and the names and titles of interview subjects. With Premiere Pro, it’s easy to import motion graphics templates, drop them into your timeline right where you need them, and customize them to fit your project.
Image by Truen Pence
Share your film.
When you’re happy with your edit, show your film to others to get their feedback. Take a break for a while so you can go back to work on it with fresh eyes. Once you have a final cut, you’re ready to submit to film festivals. No one can predict which documentaries will attract attention and get picked up by distributors, but no matter the subject, if you are interested in it, you’re sure to find other people who are interested in it too.
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