How to make a Documentary Film

‘What do you like about fishing?’ I once asked an Irish fisherman from the west coast village of Dingle. ‘I don’t’ he replied. ‘When I’ve been out at sea and experienced bad weather, and return to port 3 days late, I hate every moment. It is only when I can see my home on the shore, and unload a nice catch, that I feel some joy.’

I remember this statement, because in a lot of respects, it reminds me of filmmaking. I love the rough and tumble of finding a story, filming on foreign shores, meeting interesting people. Then I am alone, just me and my laptop, viewing footage again and again, trying to make a succinct story. This I don’t enjoy, filming has deadlines, editing presents 1,000 alternatives.

I always start with the audio, I listen to my interviews, and try and craft something out of it. When interviewing, I don’t usually have a list of questions, I may have an idea where I want to go with a story, but I am always open to see where the interview leads me, to try and find a spark of passion in my interviewee, to learn more.

Many times I ask an interviewee to repeat their answers, knowing that documentary works on sound bites and that time must be compressed. I sometimes remember interesting things people have said to me in conversation, and get them to repeat these things for the interview.

Sound is emotion, images let people see what they hear. I usually try to get shots of people doing what they normally do, sometimes shots do have to be set up. If I’m showing a location, all my street shots are candid. I go to great lengths to capture ‘real life’ street scenes ie use a long zoom lens, set up shots quickly before people are aware.

I think flow is something you develop with time, that is, how you structure the speed of your storytelling. I enjoy trying to fit stories into internet ready timeframes ie 3-5 minutes. It suits my limited attention span and can be done quickly.

Documentary allows me to tell other people’s stories, and have a brief view into their lives. But I think essentially, the stories I put together are a part of me, my interests, my beliefs. I try to be impartial, but in the end, I film stories that interest me. I do try to think about what people may want to know about a story, but I tend to allow myself to be drawn to the words, images that I like.

I also try and not give too much importance to what I am doing, sometimes setting tight deadlines so as I don’t labor too much over a story. If you worry too much about whether your work is good or not, or whether others will like it, it will be difficult to start, and you will lose the intrinsic value a creative act can give one. That moment when time dissolves, and an alchemy of words, pictures, images and sounds meld together

Carl Jung said, ‘The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.’ I think we need to be like children, just play, just create, we are all creative, there is no right or wrong. And if you tackle a project with this in mind, enjoying the process, you will be closer to achieving work that touches others.

At the end of the day, talking about how to make films, is a bit like a prize fighter telling someone how to box. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. Theodore Roosevelt

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15 thoughts on “How to make a Documentary Film

  1. Love your openness to the moment and where it might lead when creating. I’m writing a play at the moment and there is a huge drive to keep the job going, to churn out pages. I think that this is OK in the first draft when you write mainly from the unconscious and let it lead you. But from you quote from Jung, I look forward to playing with the scenes later in the editing and not letting the process become too left brain. Cheers for that uplifting thought – Best Wishes!

  2. Really great advice. I’ll keep in mind that tip about crafting the audio first. You’re very right, it’s so important not to worry so much over the story, otherwise it will be self-defeating.

    “The creative mind plays with the objects it loves”

    Thank you for inspiring me this day!

  3. Hi
    I’m so inspired by the creative work of documentary makers like you. I’m not a professional. I visited Australia and did a few interviews with Aboriginal women. They shared their life stories with me and I recorded them with the help of a Sony DCR-SR 62 (25X, Optical zoom, mega pixel). I have a story that I would like to present based on these recordings. I have 2 questions
    1. Do I need professional training to do this?
    2. Is my camera adequate or do I need better equipment?

  4. For putting footage online, this camera is fine.

    Get an editing program on your computer, put something together, load it up on youtube, and whammo….you will soon know if it is good or not!

    The Youtube audience is a great litmus test for videos

  5. Somehow not at all surprised by your quote from Jung. Over his “Tower” doorway, he wrote “Whether called or not, the god is present here”. Perhaps that’s the secret of all good art forms, whatever form they may take.
    Good Luck!

  6. I would take issue with starting with sound first. Your making a movie not a radio program. Three of the greatest documentaries ever made were silent films.

    As far as structure gows, I structure my film before I ever shoot a single frame. From my outline, notes, Proposal and Treatment, I have a pretty good idea what I want in the film. I even have a pre-edit in the form of cards on my planning board of what the film might be. Then I shoot. This allows me to know what to look for. Mind you the film can end up differently then what I originally planned and I never know how it is going to end, until I shoot the last shot. But my plan is visual, shooting is visual, and editing is what you see. Then you put the sound in. Sound has to bee good or it is distracting. But keep in mind we watch movies and sound only suppliments what we see.

  7. Thanks for your comment Sean

    You have made a good point. Film is an audio visual experience, and imagery is as important as sound.

    For my travel videos, which are very much based on putting together a story from an interview, I do start with the audio.

    But on other projects, the imagery does determine the sound, or should I say, the imagery tells the story, and sound is secondary.

    I’m glad you raised this point, to help clarify that there are different ways to put a project together.

  8. I have always said that audio is the most important factor, its up to each person due to the subjectivity of this, but the early films had to be made that way, so yes they wrote narratives based on visual cues,
    I am more about story telling, content and words do more for me and i dare say most people.
    The visual aspect in my opinion fleshes out the bones and when done well is obviously a pleasure, but not the most important part of telling a story in an audio/visual way…..think when the audio goes from a news broadcast, so long as audio is there the story is being told….let the mind do a bit of imagining, it cant hurt!

    There are no right or wrongs in anything just lots and lost of grey, yes i am from the UK

  9. I agree… There is definately different ways to put it all together. Audio and Visual story telling. I suppose it dpeends on how you start working. Some artists mix colours before they apply to the canvas and some mix them while applying on the canvas… Its just important to know that both elements i.e. Sound & Visual are important.

    Thanks to all for the tips!

  10. Hi

    You have some good tips there, even among peoples comments. I only have one or two questions?

    Would people still be interested in a World Adventure Safari similar to what Alby Mangles did and would someone like Discovery be interested?

    I have no expereince in making film at all but have traveled quite well.

    Thanks for your time

    Gareth Millard

  11. I think people will always be interested in seeing the world on film, and now with online media anyone can put a show together

  12. Your right abotu Audio. Silent films imply a result which you have to enterpret which like all good documentaries is how it shoudl be done but then no one expected any more.

    Do two things:
    Watcha film with bad audio then watch a film with good audio but bad pictures.
    Which is worse?

    People will always watch a film or documentary with good audio regardless of the picture quality(just look at old early film) wheras if your watching old analogue TV and the bad weather comes in giving you fuzzy audio you turn it off as you cant understand it.

    I always try and leave my documentary outcomes open showing the evidence and my opinion but leaving the audience as much an unbiased result as possible to enterpret themselves the result.

    Its not my place to jusdge only present the facts and my feelings.

    Im producing a doc at the moment in the UK Im looking for production on a few stories of history of a place through the eyes of locals passionate about the history and those stories
    Depending upon how I tell it I can make the subjects good or bad, adventureous or quiet enthusiastic or uninterested. Its this control of what clips you include in what order that determine the output bias and what makes good documentary makers so endearing.

  13. hi,

    thanks for your valuable sharing. For the first time in my life i am gona take a documentary film with all effects. Previously I have taken two documentary films in two minutes and 4 minues on my mobile. Many loved it for its feel of touch. Let me share more about my film after I did it. But thanks for all the postings which gave me some new idea.

  14. I am dying to learn the trade of putting together a documentary, what are the steps, if anyone can suggest to follow? Also, how and where can I gain on hands experience in putting a documentary together.

  15. Just buy a camera, set up a youtube account, and start experimenting.
    Find you voice, no one can teach you that

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