How to not screw up your first documentary

If you’re about to make your first documentary, chances are you’ll be screwing a few things up. But that’s okay; how else are you going to learn? And making mistakes doesn’t mean your film will be unwatchable. Here are some pitfalls you can avoid before, during and after launching into your inaugural doc project.

The idea

It all begins with the story idea. Deciding what story to tell is the most important decision you will make on your doc adventure.  One of the universal hazards for fledgling filmmakers right at the outset is to entertain story ideas that are too big to handle. For example, “I want to make a film about climate change” is not a manageable story idea.

Most docs get made because the filmmaker wants to shine a light on an issue he or she feels passionate about. You can’t argue against passion for an issue as a reason for making a film, but where doc makers often run into trouble is that their films attempt to cover all aspects of a topic. Frequently the result is a documentary that depends on stock visuals and mostly talking heads and narration to explain the issue.

Whether it’s climate change, social inequality or some other urgent issue of our time, you’ll never be able to do the topic justice unless you’re Ken Burns with access to the kinds of resources it takes to produce a sweeping documentary series like Baseball or The War.

 Make your film about people and what they do, rather than about issues.

You’re much more likely to make a thoughtful film if you narrow its scope and focus before you shoot a frame. Show what you want to say about climate change, for example, through the eyes and experiences of people directly involved or affected. Make your film about people and what they do, rather than about issues. Consider training your camera on a climate scientist doing her work. Or, follow an environmental activist as he takes action to create climate awareness. Or, why not both?

Unless you have first-hand experience with the subject matter, research will be your first layer of discovery as documentary storyteller.  But research can be just as overwhelming as a story idea that’s too broad to manage unless you know what you want from your fact-finding: facts and figures, yes, context and background information, yes, but most importantly what you want from research is a shot list. Making a documentary without a shot list is like driving to an unknown destination without a road map. Many have tried and many have gotten lost. Don’t even think about shooting a frame without a shot list or shooting plan.

Research includes finding out from your participants what they do in their day to day, where they do it and when they’re available to be filmed doing it. Shot lists include interviews, actuality or action and visuals.

The climate scientist tells you that she teaches, does research in the lab and collects samples in the field when she’s not busy marking papers and producing reports. There’s your shot list. For the activist, be a fly on the wall and shoot him in all the situations to which you’re permitted access, organizing meetings, making protest signs, putting up posters, rallying at demonstrations and interacting with his kids at home. There you go, that’s shot list number two, typically gleaned from talking to sources, reading the papers and scouring social media.

At the end of your research you will have a solid idea about how you’ll want all the elements to unfold, interviews, background information, visuals and the actuality scenes. Write an outline, a paper version of your story the way you imagine it up on the screen. This outline can serve as a shooting plan to guide you during production. Spoiler alert: not everything you plan to shoot will turn out the way you imagined it and some of it might not even materialize. But at least you have a plan.

The shoot

Now that you’re ready to shoot, make every shot cinematic and record the best possible sound. There’s nothing like bad audio and poorly shot visuals to stop your audience from paying attention to the messages, stories and themes in your film. Common beginner screw-ups during shooting include leaving the tripod at home to shoot hand-held ‘wobbly-scope’, recording sound with the camera mic and forgetting to shoot sequences, capturing an action from a variety of angles and with plenty of close-ups for editing. If you’re not a seasoned shooter or sound recordist, hire or enlist somebody who is.

A shoot can fall apart if you and your crew become too intrusive trying to capture the action in the world of your characters

A shoot can fall apart if you and your crew become too intrusive trying to capture the action in the world of your characters. A seasoned shooter will quietly capture the footage you need for editing without you having to shout out directions or constantly pushing your cameraman into position.  When shooting in a classroom, or in an office setting where people are interacting with your subjects will be distracted by the crew’s presence if director and shooter haven’t mastered the skill of blending in. If you want to come back with authentic footage, don’t interfere with the natural action unfolding in front of you by asking participants to act for the camera.

On location, know what you can and can’t point your camera at. Company logos and even some public monuments might require permissions to use in your film. Familiarize yourself with fair use and copyright laws to avoid having your project come to a screeching halt because of a legal challenge to the use of incidental footage and music. Talent releases for your participants and location releases for buildings, venues and establishments are imperative if you want your doc broadcast on TV.

The edit

Video editing is the art of what to leave out. One of the common errors made by first-time directors who have fallen in love with their footage, is to leave very little of it out, and to try and shoehorn all the precious bits into their film. But stringing favorite scenes together does not make for the best storytelling.

Because documentaries are unscripted, you’ll have to find the story in the shot material. Know that not everything in your outline or shooting plan will turn out the way you wanted or expected it to. It could be that a participant dropped out, an actuality shoot had to be cancelled or perhaps an interview didn’t go as planned. Or, on the plus side, you crossed paths with an unexpected character who has a riveting story you want to include in your doc. The best way to deal with these unforeseen turns is to think of post-production as your second shot at storytelling. To help you tease the story out of the material and design a structure for editing here’s what you do: screen all your footage several times, shot list it and make copious notes; transcribe all your interviews.

From your notes and selected clips in the transcripts, craft an edit script or a paper edit. A paper edit is like your initial outline except now you’re working with material that you’ve actually shot. What you’re trying to achieve is to create on paper a structure that will work, a logical structure that unfolds in a way that audiences will understand the issue and the individual stories of your participants. Like the initial outline, the edit script indicates the different segments or chapters in your story, where new characters are introduced and generally what audiences will see on the screen, beginning, middle and end.

These are some of the strategies that should get you through the production phases of your first documentary. It’s not a bad idea to seek out hands-on video production workshops or documentary courses in your community before you go out and start shooting. And of course, the amount of information about documentary theory and production available online is staggering. The most instructive experience of all is to watch as many documentaries as you possibly can.

A seasoned script-to-screen television and video producer and trainer, Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.

Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeld
Peter Biesterfeld is a non-fiction storyteller specializing in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.

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