We’re here to talk about how to get into documentary filmmaking.
This article will cover both sides of the equation: getting to know documentaries and what you want to make AND making inroads to documentary filmmaking on the professional side.
But before we get to the meat of the matter, it’s important to ask one basic question: why do you want to make documentaries?
You don’t necessarily have to have the answer to this question right away. It might come over time. But at the very least, you need to know whether or not you’re completely committed to making these kinds of films.
Documentary filmmaking is notoriously difficult, and for most filmmakers working in this area, it’s not an especially profitable field. So if your main motivation is to get rich and famous making docs, this probably isn’t going to be an enjoyable experience for you.
But if you really are dedicated to documentary filmmaking, then you’ll find rewards every step of the way.
Watch Documentaries, Then Watch Some More
Our first big tip, and perhaps the biggest of them all, is to watch as many documentaries as possible.
You’ll be surprised just how many documentaries you can find online these days, whether on official streaming services (each of which inevitably has some small sampling of documentaries at any given time) or for free on Vimeo or YouTube.
Whether or not you’ve ever been to film school, watching documentaries can be educational, even if you don’t know exactly how the filmmakers achieved a certain shot or managed to get a certain interview.
At any stage of your career, you should probably be watching documentaries consistently. They can give you ideas for your own work and also just give you a better sense of just how different documentaries can be.
When you know more about the range of content that can be created within this single genre, you’ll be that much closer to knowing what kinds of films YOU want to make.
Make Documentaries, Even With No Budget
Here’s some really good news: you could make a documentary film today, right now, with whatever you have on hand.
If you have a phone and/or a computer, you can absolutely make a doc of your very own. Depending on execution, it might not be very good, but the point is you could do it.
And that’s one of the most important lessons we have for you today: you should be making stuff whenever you can.
This isn’t the time to worry about whether your work will be good. It probably won’t be. That’s just how it works. You get better at something by putting the time in, even if you consider yourself some kind of documentary savant.
You’ve got to put the work in if you want to get better. And to get in some early experience, you can’t just sit around waiting for a professional production to ask for your help.
Remember, this is YOUR journey, and ultimately you get to decide how much work you put in and when.
Even if you only shoot a few minutes of video on your phone, you’ll already be familiarizing yourself with shot composition and how you present your subject, whatever or whoever that subject happens to be.
Again, your early work probably won’t be of professional quality, but making some early efforts is incredibly important.
Start Building Connections in the Community
Ok, now we need to talk about the professional side of things. Technically, you could make a whole career for yourself where you make every doc completely by yourself and distribute your work by yourself as well, but please don’t.
If you want to be a professional documentarian, you’ll need to know some other people working in the same area.
On the more expensive end, film school can be an excellent way to do some networking. You’ll meet plenty of other students just as passionate about films as you are, and some of your professors are bound to be working filmmakers themselves, who could potentially connect you with other industry pros.
But even outside of an educational setting, you can reach out to people on related forums, or even just try to get in touch with filmmakers who have self-released docs online.
Other filmmakers trying to get started in the industry will most likely be happy to talk to some like-minded folks who have seen their work.
Depending on locations, you might even be able to meet up with these other filmmakers in real life and get working on a new project.
Filmmaking is incredibly collaborative, and even if you’re not such a social person, you will need to do some networking. That’s just the way it is right now.
Explore Subjects You’re Interested In
Even in your earliest docs, you’ll be exploring which subjects interest you the most. It goes without saying that, in the beginning, you almost definitely won’t be able to secure face-to-face interviews with major politicians or artists.
But a documentary also doesn’t need to be about “important” subjects to be good.
Famously, a young Errol Morris was challenged by famed filmmaker Werner Herzog to actually make a movie instead of just talking about them all the time.
His first film, Gates of Heaven, was about pet cemeteries and their patrons. It was a very low-budget project, and the team was small, but the film was successful anyway, and it launched his entire career. Today, he’s one of the most famous documentarians working.
You also don’t have to focus on just one subject or kind of subject throughout your career. You could change directions at any time, but it’s definitely important that you’re interested in what you’re filming.
Without investment in the subject matter, the execution of the film will suffer, and that’s not really what you want when you’re trying to make a name for yourself.
Ok, Now Make Something!
That just about does it for this brief pep talk on how to get into documentary filmmaking, so stop wasting time and go make something!
Time is ticking and you really don’t have any excuse not to at least try. Maybe you’ll love this line of work and maybe you’ll hate it.
Either way, finding out is better than never knowing.