Storytelling (2001) is a great movie. Paul Giamatti plays a dead-broke pseudo artist who’s been jumping from one artistic hobby to the next, succeeding at none of them.
When he decides to make a hard-hitting documentary about the pressures that modern-day teenagers face, we know the finished product won’t be good. His deadbeat roommate runs the camera and we watch the two as they struggle to create something that looks even a little bit professional.
I remain convinced that the general public shares this character’s view of documentaries: you get a camera, point it at people, and you let the subject make the movie good. How hard can it be?
A small part of me still believes it, too. Who wouldn’t want to make their own doc? Just document a small corner of life and call it a day.
Obviously, actually making a documentary is extremely challenging, especially when you manage to find interesting subject matter that hasn’t already been covered a million times before.
(By the way, if you’re looking for some behind-the-scenes documentary content, Cameraperson is a great place to start.)
Doc filmmakers need to know their stuff, and even when they do, things will still go wrong. People won’t show up. Weather will ruin shoots. Most of the time, nothing interesting will happen at all.
Maybe you’re looking to make your very own documentary. And if you are, then first of all, everyone here at GL is very proud of you. That takes guts.
But if you’re still in the early stages of pre-production, you might be swimming in uncertainty and looking for a bit of guidance.
We’ve talked with quite a few documentary filmmakers in the past, and they told us about just how uncertain the whole process is.
Below you’ll find some very important questions to ask when making a documentary. Hopefully you’ll be able to take a closer look at your doc concept and prepare for the challenges ahead. At the very least, you might gain a deeper understanding of the work and consideration that goes into creating an original documentary.
Grab a yellow legal pad and let’s get started.
“What’s the point?”
You’ve decided what your documentary is going to be about, but why this idea? Why are you drawn to this particular subject matter?
When you’re creating a feature film, deciding on messaging is very important. You should know what you’re trying to say before getting started.
But docs are different. Instead of deciding that there’s something very specific you’d like to communicate, instead try to settle on a subject that you find to be interesting, regardless of the specific events that you might capture on camera.
There’s one doc that illustrates this very well: The Queen of Versailles (2012). If you’re not familiar, it follows a wealthy family as they construct a mansion based on Versailles, only to have their lives shaken by the financial crisis of 2008.
It’s safe to assume that the filmmakers didn’t have any special admiration for these ultra-rich individuals, and the doc does indeed have a tone of disapproval and it does warn against the dangers of excess. But if the filmmakers had gone into the project with a more condescending approach, it would have been at risk of feeling mean-spirited, which would have been to the detriment of the film.
Instead, The Queen of Versailles is quite an empathetic documentary. It doesn’t villainize the subjects, it even casts them as victims of a larger system, one that encourages their business practices and rampant materialism.
Contrast that with 2004’s Super Size Me, a documentary I kind of hate. Why? I don’t doubt that the intentions were somewhat noble: highlighting just how unhealthy fast food is and the extent to which unethical practices harm customers.
But the finished doc is dripping with ego, condescension, and mean-spiritedness. Now, being mean to McDonald’s? That’s A-OK. But there’s this uncomfortable sense of looking down on the people who eat there, especially those who visit regularly and have gained large amounts of weight because of it.
(Are you gettin’ a sense for just how subjective this list is?)
My point is just that docs are more successful, in my eyes, when they tell a story somewhat objectively. Obviously editing can shape a documentary and its messaging, but when it comes to capturing footage, the fly-on-the-wall approach is preferable. If you’re not the focus of the doc, then don’t put yourself at the center.
We’ll be talking about inconspicuous filming techniques later on, but the goal of this first question is to make sure that you’re really passionate about your subject. Things are gonna get rough out there, and if you don’t care about the project, you’ll be far less likely to finish it.
“What do I need to get this finished?”
Be realistic when it comes to what you’ll actually need to complete this project. In this instance, let’s focus on gear and crew members.
Is it possible to shoot a documentary all by yourself? Sure. D. A. Pennebaker came pretty close back in the 60s, after all.
But just because it’s technically possible doesn’t mean you should try it.
If your project isn’t going to involve very complicated shoots, then you won’t need a very large crew, but you’ll still need crew members to cover the camera, sound, and lights, at the absolute minimum.
When we switch to gear, you’ve got a lot of options.
In terms of cameras, low-budget filmmakers can usually get by with a nice DSLR or, in some situations, a few iPhones.
If you have a more substantial budget, you can look into renting professional-grade cameras through a local store or through an online rental service.
The exact gear you choose should reflect your vision for the film as well as the conditions under which you’ll be shooting.
Gonna be capturing a lot of action? You’ll want a nice zoom for sure. Shooting indoors most of the time? You’ll want some versatile LED panel lights, which are only getting cheaper and cheaper.
A simple shotgun mic can often be enough for simple interview setups, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a boom mic handy.
There are plenty of great resources online to help you pick high-quality gear that fits your budget. Just keep in mind that the two most important factors are budget and the quality of the end product.
“How can I go unnoticed?”
Remember what we were saying earlier about not manipulating the subject(s) of your doc? This is subjective, but we here at GL tend to enjoy documentaries where the filmmakers stayed out of the way and documented whatever happened next.
So how can you facilitate natural actions and responses for whoever or whatever you’re filming?
The big tip here is to make your subjects feel comfortable. A lot of people are uncomfortable in front of cameras, but over time, they often become more comfortable and natural.
No, you don’t have to be friends with the people in your doc, but you should definitely be friendly and polite. Never make someone feel that they’re being exploited or made fun of. You’re just there to watch what happens.
When conducting interviews, it’s more than ok to ask someone to repeat a particular sentence or to clarify a statement. But when you start asking especially leading questions or nudging someone in a certain direction, problems start to creep in.
This practice of manipulating the subjects of your documentary isn’t illegal, and it’s even been done quite a bit, and Albert Brooks even made a satirical movie about invading the lives of his subjects.
But that kind of manipulation is unethical. At least we think so.
Taking time to think of very insightful questions that might inspire more interesting answers is a great solution, but you may also consider just stretching out the interviews. Make it more of a casual conversation, not a job interview. You’ll be surprised how much people are willing to share when they trust the person on the other side of the camera.
“What’s my timeline?”
How long is it going to take to complete your documentary? And we’re not just talking about capturing footage. How long will it take you to edit the film? Are you planning to look for distribution? Do you have the time required to make this project everything you want it to be?
If you’re an amateur filmmaker, then your time is probably a big issue. If you have a day job, then finding opportunities to go out and shoot footage can be difficult. It may even stretch out the production schedule until it’s suddenly a five-year project.
Whether that’s a dealbreaker is up to the filmmaker. Are you willing to put in that much time before your movie sees the light of day?
Try to map out a tentative production schedule. This schedule will almost definitely change, but when you have a more accurate conception of how long everything is going to take, you’ll be able to budget much more accurately as well.
“Will I need help with post-production?”
Once you’ve shot everything, it may seem like you’re very near the finish line, and you are. But post-production is not the time to switch to cruise control.
You’re the director, and you need to be heavily involved in every aspect, including the editing process.
If you’re already a skilled editor yourself, great! That’s great. But you still may need extra help, or at the very least a second opinion to help you craft a cohesive edit.
On the other hand, if you have little to no editing experience and you don’t even have a computer capable of stitching together a feature-length film, then you need to find an editor. Plain and simple.
Editing is important in every movie, but it’s especially important in documentary filmmaking. Editing is where the story really comes together. It’s the means by which you communicate your message.
it may seem easy enough to tackle in concept, but editing is an art form, just like cinematography and sound mixing. Don’t assume that you know exactly what you’re doing. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“Who is my target audience?”
So let’s say your doc is shot and edited. Congratulations! We applaud your follow-through and we hope you’re happy with the end result.
But now you need to market your movie. If you’re an established filmmaker, then you probably already have a few in-roads with distribution companies. But if this is your first real film project, then you’re going to have to do a lot of the work yourself.
It’s tricky, to say the least, but things will get a whole lot easier if you know who your audience is.
Who do you want to watch the movie? What kind of person would be interested in watching your movie?
Deep down, we all might want to say, “Everyone! I think everyone should watch my movie!” We love the optimism, but the fact is every movie tends to appeal to certain age groups or personality types.
If you just made a doc about the creation of an indie video game, then you’d do well to market the doc at gaming conventions and on gaming-centric online venues, from specific subreddits to YouTube channels and even Twitch.
If you just made a doc about an aging college professor, then your core audience is probably significantly older. You might need to stick to more traditional channels that older age groups are already familiar with.
You don’t have to have eagle-eye precision regarding your target audience; that kind of accuracy usually takes thousands of dollars. But you’re the expert on your movie, and you know best who would probably want to watch it.
We hope you’ve found these questions helpful for your pre-production musings. If we haven’t already mentioned this enough, making a documentary is a lot harder than it looks, and if you’re new to the game, there’s going to be a steep learning curve.
But if you truly believe in the project and you’re willing to put in the time, then you’re about to have one of the most creatively satisfying experiences of your life.