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What to Research In Order to Make a Great Documentary

Research is an integral part to making a story deep, credible, and accurate. As such, we will show you both how to form revealing questions and what sources you can use to answer them in an accurate way.

Video Transcript

Giving your documentary story credibility and well-roundedness all depends on quality research. Though accurate research takes time and money, the benefits it gives your story makes it essential for making your documentary both credible and engaging.

Researching documentaries doesn't have to be a painful process. Instead, understanding some simple steps on how to research efficiently can help you to make the process simple and easy. As such, it is important to first - form revealing questions, then find a variety of sources to answer those questions such as written sources, visual sources, and intrarpersonal sources.

A common mistake amateur documentarians make is adding too few details to what people already know or could guess about a topic. Instead, audiences want to learn something new and surprising about a subject or event. As such, the first step in finding good information is to form revealing questions. An example of this can be found in the documentary Surfwise which chronicles the life of one of Hawaii's first sufers, Dorian Pascowitz. The documentary begins with information that most people could easily know about the Pascowitz family such as their various travels around the country and achievements in surfing. The surprising twist comes when we find out that as happy as the family seemed to those on the outside, on the inside, they were falling apart. This was done by asking deeply personal questions to both the family members and those close to the family.

Besides asking others revealing questions, it can be a good idea to explore possible connections between two events. In doing so, you may be able to find some revealing information that gives a story an interesting new angle. A great example of this can be found in Morgan Spurlock's documentary Super Size Me. In this documentary, he explores the connection between the influence of the fast food industry and the public's health by subjecting himself to a diet of fast food for a month. By doing so, Spurlock proved how quickly the consequences of fast food diets take effect.

Lastly, it is also a good idea to present the audience with facts on both sides of the issue you are presenting. In Who Killed the Electric Car, director Chris Paine introduces multiple culprits in the mysterious recall of the Saturn EV-1. He shows condemning evidence for the government, the oil companies, the California Air Resource Board, and battery makers to allow the audience to choose who was responsible for the recall. In this way, you show trust in the ability of the viewer to choose the right answer.

The bulk of documentary research usually comes in finding the right kinds of sources for information. Thankfully, most sources fall into one of three categories: written, visual, and intrapersonal.

Written sources of information are both the most common and extensive way to find facts about any subject. This is mainly due to the proliferation of the internet which has hundreds of millions of web pages that are chock full of information. The best part is that it can be accessed from your home or workplace making it an incredibly fast information source. Even so, it is still beneficial to use libraries where you can find information in old books, newspapers, and magazines that have yet to be catalogued on the internet. They are also beneficial as the sources in libraries can generally be trusted unlike many online websites.

Another great area of information comes from visual sources such as photographs, videos, and films. There is nothing better than being able to see how people interacted in the time period you are researching. This can help make your story more real and as a bonus, can be used as archival footage in your documentary as well. Many of these sources can be found in video rental stores and magazines, but are becoming even more commonly found online through stock media websites.

If you can afford it, or find the time to do it, intrapersonal sources such as talking with people at conferences, rallies, and in interviews can be the most efficient and effective way to find information that will help your documentary. Going to conferences on a subject closely related to your documentary can help you quickly learn and meet people who could be good sources for interviews and information. If you are doing documentaries about different civil causes, attending a rally or event for that cause can help you determine what kind of stories are available to tell. Lastly, and most importantly, it is often most helpful to have a personal advisor or team of advisors that can help you to keep your facts straight in your film. In this way, you can save a lot of time that would have been spent on research and can also have another good option for someone to interview.

Research is one of the most important aspects of making a documentary. Because of this, having a knowledge of the right questions to ask as well as the resources that are available can help you make your documentary both truthful and gripping.