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Making a Documentary

A documentary is a non-fiction video meant to instruct its audience about a topic or document a true story or event. It can be either filmed outright, composed of archival or found materials or a combination thereof depending on the subject being explored.

Project Planning

Research

  1. Conduct background research on the topic that you were assigned. Consult articles, books, and reputable internet sources to become well-versed in the topic.
  1. Research potential interviewees who would provide interesting and relevant information to your documentary. Create a list longer than you need, since some people may be unwilling or unavailable.

Be Focused

Don’t try to do a documentary on a topic in its entirety – pick an angle of the topic that you would like to approach. For example, if you’re assigned a documentary with “tobacco” as the topic, choose angles such as “tobacco’s negative health effects,” “trying to quit smoking,” or “educating children on the dangers of tobacco.” This makes your documentary much more manageable and focused. If there’s material from the course that can help to refine your topic, be sure to reference it.

Be Concise

Decide the length of your documentary and determine its audience. Tie this in with the course requirement for length, if applicable.

Plan Ahead

Contact your interviewees via phone or email at least a week in advance of when you would like to interview them. For more tips on interviewing, see this tutorial.

Map It Out

Map out the “story” of your documentary. A documentary is, in a sense, kind of like a visual essay. You want to introduce your topic, support it with sources, and then conclude it.

  1. Create an overarching question that your documentary will ask and then set out to answer. Using the examples from above: “What are tobacco’s negative health effects?”, “How do people try to quit smoking?”, or “What are some ways to educate children on the dangers of tobacco?”.
  2. Pose this question at the beginning of your documentary. Introduce the audience to the issue or topic at hand. Provide background information that might be necessary in order for the audience to fully understand what you’re going to be discussing, or to allow them to understand that this is an issue that needs to be addressed.
  1. Answer the question. Provide information in a logical order that will support your answer or argument. This is where the main substance of your documentary will go: interviews, graphics, explanations, etc.
  2. Come to a conclusion or a call to action. Give your audience take-home points that are important for them to remember once they finish your documentary. Why is this important or significant? Why should the audience care?

Production

You will want to gather many different types of media assets to make your documentary engaging. Some types of media assets to consider including:

Interviews

Review our tutorial on Interviewing for tips.

Voiceovers/Narration

This provides context and additional information for the audience that is not included in other media assets. Occasionally it is not necessary, and back-to-back interviews can act as narration.

Audio Clips

You might end up collecting audio clips that do not have accompanying video from interviews, speeches or podcasts. You can use it with b-roll acting as the video component.

B-Roll

B-roll is footage and photos that supplement an interview or voiceovers with interesting and relevant images. Collect more B-roll than you think you need!

Images/Graphics

Images can act as additional b-roll, while graphics can provide additional information in picture form.

Music

This can help with the tone of your documentary and also make it more engaging.

For more information and best practices, visit our Video Production Tips tutorial.

Post-Production

Choose the Right Tool

Use a program such as iMovie or Final Cut Pro to edit your project together. For personalized help with editing, make an appointment with Media Commons (UP only).

Be Deliberate

Generally, there should always be a visual aspect throughout your documentary. Only let the screen be black if it has significance or highlights something important. This is why it’s so important to gather and use B-roll.

Use Smart Interviews

  • If you chose to conduct interviews with the interviewer off-screen, cut out the questions that you asked in your interviews. Choose the best takes from the interview responses. You can use B-roll to cover jump cuts in your interview clips, as well as to provide interesting footage over a long interview clip.
  • It’s a good idea to introduce your interview clips with narration. This helps the documentary flow, so that it’s not constantly jumping from topic-to-topic. Example: “Dr. Smith has personally seen several patients suffer as a result of many years of smoking cigarettes.” (Then provide clips of him talking about these specific instances.)
  • Introduce each interviewee with a “lower third” the first time they’re on screen.

Credit Where It’s Due

Make sure you appropriately credit everyone involved in your documentary.

Share (and Protect) Your Work

When you’re finished editing, make sure you properly take care of sharing and saving your project. For tips on exporting, see this tutorial for iMovie.

Back up your media! Have it stored in more than one place. Technology does malfunction, and it would be terrible if all of your hard work was lost.