Need Guidance on How To Create A Documentary Film? Read These12 Points
Updated: Aug 23
Are you looking to make a documentary film? Documentary films have different vibes, which makes them different from typical Bollywood masala films. Making an impactful documentary film can be a highly challenging task for a new filmmaker, yet very rewarding & full of learning. It involves a lot of brainstorming apart from the tedious filmmaking process. If you are new to the journey of filmmaking and looking for steps to make a breathtaking documentary, then don't worry; we have got you covered. In this article, we have covered everything from pre-production to post-production activities involved in filmmaking. We hope to add value and make your journey a bit easier.
Before we jump into the steps, let's briefly understand what documentary films are.
What are documentary films?
Documentaries are non-fiction movies that involve capturing reality. The term documentary means documenting someone's life or a moment. It unleashes unusual and interesting angles about a person or an incident. Documentaries bring viewers a new side of an actual incident or person often left unsaid by mainstream media. Documentaries can be funny, ironic, inspirational, shocking, or a combination. It is that genre of movie that employs real people, scenes, and interviews in a narrative format. Usually, documentaries can range from 5 minutes to two hours in length.
How are documentaries different from other films?
Documentary is all about shooting the reality. It is the representation of real events, situations, emotions, and people. The purpose of the documentary is to inform and educate the audience while feature films are made to entertain the audience.
Steps to making documentary Films-
All filmmaking, whether documentary or Bollywood, involves three basic stages- Pre-production, Production, and Post-production.
The pre-production stage involves all activities that happen before shooting the of the film. It includes Concept and Idea, Research, script writing, planning, Budgeting, scheduling, securing legal rights and copyright permits, selecting equipment, finalizing the location, recruiting staff, finding actors, and interviewing relevant people.
The production stage involves shooting the film on location.
The post-production stage involves all those activities which are performed after shooting is done. It includes: Editing the shots voice overs, adding background music and sound effects, graphic designing, screening, and marketing the film.
Let's now delve into some details:
1. Concept and Idea: A documentary is irrelevant without a purpose or a subject. So before making a documentary movie, you should think about a topic you care about or something that excites you. Don't pick topics that are mundane and well-known. Choose topics that are controversial or not known by people. It doesn't mean you have to think of something big; even a tiny concept can make a huge difference if the story presented is entrancing. You can watch some popular documentaries to figure out the ideas.
2. Research: Once you have a subject in your mind, the next step is to research it thoroughly. A documentary film involves multiple waves of quality research. Always remember research adds character to your film, making it different from typical Bollywood films. Research helps you develop a core concept for your film and even discover new characters and a previously hidden storyline. You can seek out various sources for research, such as books, research papers, newspaper and magazine archives, archival footage, public records, published literature, and interviews.
3. Plan, plan, plan: Planning is very important in making a documentary film. You need to create a plan on how you are going to present your story to the audience. It involves everything from figuring out the structure, style, and narrative, who will be the primary character, what will be the core story point, elements of the story, intro, and ending. If your film involves shooting at a particular location, you must check it beforehand. Plan but make space for surprises because making documentaries can often lead you in a different direction.
4. Budget: Budgeting may seem a small step, yet very crucial for the smooth flow of the production process. In documentary making, sometimes stories tend to unfold most unexpectedly; thus, having a pre-planned budget can save you from going overboard. Whether you are a one-person company or a crew of people, you need to have budget planning done in advance for everything. While a small group of friends can work together to produce an excellent documentary, if you have some money to spare or a producer backing your project you can go on to produce a documentary of high caliber, here is a list of things that you should consider while budgeting:
a. Equipment and location cost
b. Liability insurance
c. Production crew salary (light men, videographer, spot boys, hair & makeup artists, etc)
g. Copyright fees
h. Marketing expenses
i. Distribution cost
5. Scriptwriting and shot list: Script are the heart of the film. It can have a significant impact on the audience. If you are into writing, you can write a script on your own or hire a scriptwriter. Make sure your ideas and research are well elaborated in the script. Your script will involve everything from storyboarding to steps you can follow while shooting. Also create a list of all the footage and interviews you want to include in your film in chronological order. Your shot list will be the ingredients of your film.
6. Securing Legal Rights and permission: Documentaries are short films, yet the same intellectual property law binds them as any other film. You have to follow legal guidelines that are set for documentary filmmaking. It involves obtaining the right to use archive videos, footage, music, and other materials. If you don't know about it, you can contact an entertainment lawyer or other legal professionals to help you get things done.
7. Recruitment of staff: It is not possible for a single person to do everything from research to editing; thus, you might need supporting hands. You can hire people depending on the area you need help with. Make sure to hire people with experience or a portfolio of previous work. Now the question that comes is where to find people. You can contact talent agencies, private media houses, or hire freelancers from freelancing websites or Facebook groups.
Here is a list of professionals you can hire:
a. Cameramen, focus pullers
b. Script Writers
e. Film Director
g. Voice over artists
h. Video and audio editors
i. Technical consultants
j. Makeup Artists
k. Light men and gaffer
l. Spot boys
8. Selection of camera and other equipment: You will need good quality equipment to capture and edit the scenes. Involvement of equipment will depend on the type of film you are making; however, here is a list of essential equipment involved in any production:
a. Camera- DSLR, mirrorless cameras, camcorders, and action cameras can be used to record footage. For the best output, pick a camera that allows you to change lenses. If you are short on a budget, you can even use your phone to make your dream documentary.
b. Microphone- You will need a microphone or a collar mic to record the sound during dialogue delivery.
c. Lights- Lights are a part of the basic equipment list. However, their use depends on the location and time of the day.
Good news is that you dont have to make an upfront investment into buying a camera equipment. There are numerous film equipment rental companies you can rent the necessary equipment from.
9. Schedule the shoot: Filmmaking is a long and tedious process; thus, having a set schedule helps you eliminate unexpected problems and delays. Here are a few things that you should consider while scheduling the shoot:
a. Arrangement of travel plans for on-location shoots
b. Call time for crew members
c. Backup plans
d. Shooting and editing timeline
10. Shoot: Now, it is time to start shooting the scenes. While shooting, involve a higher resolution camera if you need detailed footage. Use different camera lenses and lights for varying shots. Don't forget to conduct interviews with relevant people to add credibility to your film. Try capturing everything you want for your film, including real-world footage and live interviews.
11. Editing the shots: Once you have collected all the necessary audio, videos, and other materials for your documentary, it's time to start editing. Editing will include sound effects, background music, voiceovers, and graphics. If you are using a computer, you can use video editing software like adobe premiere pro for windows or Final cut pro for Mac. But if you are on a budget, you can use inexpensive but powerful tools like Filmora.
The steps of editing are:
a. The first step in editing is arranging all the gathered videos and pictures chronologically in a proper timeline that makes sense. You can involve your editing creativity by mixing fast and slow parts to make things look exciting.
b. The next step is to eliminate all the unnecessary footage and images.
c. The last step is to polish the final output and add transition effects to make it look dynamic.
12. Marketing: Once your film is ready, it's time to show it to the world. Nowadays, social media offers the best platform where you can showcase your work without spending a penny. You can upload your film on a free video streaming platform like You tube to attract a maximum audience. Further, you can promote your film by sharing the link on your social media handles like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you think your documentary is top-notch, you can take it to theatrical release. But for that, you need to contact media houses. The best option is to screen your film at film festivals that take place every year. Film festivals allow you to talk about your film and gain visibility as a director.
But if you are a complete beginner, it would be great to learn a little bit of storytelling through video.
If you are a film enthusiast and want to learn every bit of the filmmaking process, then-
You can take admission to media universities or join online courses offered by platforms like Udemy, Skillshare, and Coursera. They have both free and paid courses. More than 1000 different courses are available on these platforms at affordable prices.
Here is the list of a few popular online courses-
a. Filmmaking: Write, Direct and Distribute Your Feature Film by Paul Bright
b. Complete Filmmaker Guide: Become an Incredible Video Creator by Julian Melanson
c. Learn everything about Filmmaking using an affordable DSLR by Rudra Prasad
The bottom line is that there is no such hard and fast rule to making a documentary film; it's malleable and an open-ended process. As a director, you can play with ideas and mix and match the steps. You can devise your process for making a documentary; however, you need a basic idea about the production process to create an ideal foundation for that journey.
No matter what steps you follow while making your documentary, the final output should satisfy your creative needs and target audience. It's your call on how you decide to make a documentary until you keep the essence of a good documentary intact.
Also- wouldn’t it be great to watch a few awesome documentary films before you start your own? The list of incredible documentaries is never-ending. However, we have listed a few popular ones here.
a. Jai Bhim comrade: Watch it here on YouTube
b. Beyond all boundaries: Watch it here on YouTube
c. Insignificant man: Watch it here on YouTube
Written by- Anukriti Srivastava