Does the thought of taping yet another family birthday party bore you? Tired of weddings for your friends? Looking for a project that will appeal to a larger audience?

Why not produce your own documentary? There are at least a dozen good ideas right outside your front door-from local landmarks to controversial issues.

Documentaries let you express yourself through the lens of your camcorder. They don’t cost much to produce, and you don’t need much equipment, either. What you’ve got now is probably more than enough.

So seize the day and become a documentary videomaker; this guide can help get you started.


8 Tips for Making a Stellar First Video

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8 Tips for Making a Stellar First Video

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Documentary Defined

A documentary is a series of undirected, unrehearsed moments organized into a study of human behavior. The goal; to inform and move an audience about a subject.

Documentaries often celebrate individual achievement, whether posifive or negative. They highlight the unusual and rely on the unique. At the same time, they reveal the common threads that link us all.

There are two basic styles: direct cinema and cinema veriti.

In direct cinema the videomaker intrudes as little as possible with the equipment, to record genuine expressions and events. In essence, direct cinema aims to capture reality without affecting or directing it. This style requires rolling miles of tape and editing for hours to select the most revealing moments.

Cinema verite takes the opposite approach. Here the documentarian intentionally gets involved with the subjects. Some even have staged events for the camera that would not have taken place otherwise. The cinema verztdocumentarian creates or provokes situations hoping to expose truths that ordinarily lie hidden. When it works, this style requires less tape.

Both styles aim at the same objective. Direct cinema waits patiently for the golden moments to appear while cinema verite goes mining for them. Rarely will you find pure examples of either technique. Most documentaries combine elements of raw truth with directed moments.

For example, many of the action sequences and environmental scenes in documentaries are shot without preparation or rehearsal as direct cinema would require.

However, you will often find the interview in many of the same documentaries, and that is a cinema revile technique. An interview allows your subjects to communicate their ideas, beliefs and emotions in their own words.

Either way, a documentary seeks to provide its audience with the truth about a subject. Thanks to advances in video technology and declines in the cost of tape, more and more videomakers can afford to tell the truth. And thanks to the hundreds of cable access channels and low-power UHF stations across the country, you can tell the truth to more and more people.

Getting Started

The documentary process begins with a subject or an idea.

More than just a program rattling off fact after fact, or showing pretty scene after scene, a documentary is about values, ideals and emotions. It’s a story with a message; it has a beginning, middle and end.

The best documentaries not only teach the audience, they teach the videomaker as well. What you choose as a topic for your documentary should interest you.

Choose one you feel concerned about, and you will find the work easier and more rewarding.

There are plenty of stories in every community.

Check out current events and issues, both local and national, for ideas. Look at your own interests and hobbies.

Look at what is happening around you and search for a story idea. Here are some areas to explore:

Anything of historical significance. Whether it’s a person, event, building or landmark, stories about the past are always popular among audiences, especially when they hold local interest. For example, you might trace the history of the oldest operating railroad in your state.

You’ll find as many as a dozen people to interview: conductors and other rail employees, both past and present; passengers; historical society members; community members and more.

They’ve all got stories and anecdotes you could combine into a clever retrospective about the railroad. Look for pictures and perhaps old film footage of the trains at the rail station, transportation office or local museum. You might even be able to sell the finished tape to folks who ride the train!

Restoration or renovation projects. Once splendid old buildings and landmarks-like movie theaters-have fallen victim to decay and vandalism in recent years.

A little detective work can unearth pictures of these places in their glory days, as well as their present gloomy ones. You can finish the story by showing how renovations compare with original features, and how the new owners plan to use the restored building.

University histories. College students often trace the history of professors and deans in their departments or degree programs. Others recap the history of the entire university.

School libraries and alumni centers are full of photos and memorabilia you can use.

Educational storytelling. Try telling stories of interest to teachers and young students in your community.

For example, a local school district might welcome a documentary about people with unusual careers as part of a career education course.

The local phone book will reveal a wealth of interview opportunities, from chimney sweeps to piano tuners.

Likewise, schools might enjoy a video about a typical work day for a banker, store manager or bee keeper.

Current events and issues. Choose a current topic and you might be able to distribute the program to a national audience.

When choosing the topic, remember that what matters the most is people. Construct your story around the people concerned with the topic, not just around the topic itself.

When people watch a documentary, they learn about themselves as well as the topic. They compare their own lives to those documented on your video.

The similarities and differences between them act as a window through which the audience can learn about the people in the story and about themselves.

Fail to explore the ideas and emotions coming from the people in your story, and your audience won’t benefit as much as they could from viewing your program.

Be Prepared

It’s crucial to define the scope of your project as early as possible in your production. Decide what you will and won’t cover.

Everything from the shots you take on location to the edit points in the final program will be much easier if you define the boundaries of your project early on.

It’s also crucial to research your documentary well before you begin shooting.

Research involves reading as much material as possible.

A local library is a good place to start, along with the local chamber of commerce and historical society. All will have records of people and places from the past.

Research also involves finding the people you’d like to interview for the program. The best way to do this is to screen as many people as you can. Ask them a few of the questions you would ask on camera, to get a feel for how they’ll respond and what stories they might be able to tell.

Use your own judgment as a guide for selecting the ones who’ll appear in your video. Obviously, you want people who feel comfortable talking about themselves on camera.

Select only a handful of people for on-camera interviews-no more than six for a half-hour program.

Include more and you risk confusing the audience.

Complete these preparations and you can begin production. For documentary work, this means putting together interviews, action footage, still pictures and narration.


The most important tool for a documentary videomaker is the interview.

The interview segments or sound bites connect the audience to your program. For this reason, you must polish your skill as an interviewer.

First, learn to make your subjects comfortable. There’s no foolproof way to calm their nerves, but there are a few tricks you can use.

The first few questions you ask should be about the interviewees, not necessarily about the documentary’s topic. Once people begin to talk about themselves they naturally relax, so save the critical questions until the end and you’ll get better answers.

Instruct the subject to talk to you, not the camera lens. It’s much easier for people to relax talking to another person than to a lens. They’re more likely to use facial expressions as well when they direct answers to you and not the camera.

Avoid questions easily answered with yes or no. These don’t promote the discussion and emotion you need.

Since interviews are so vital, it’s vital not only to conduct them properly, but also to shoot them properly. Again, there are no rules, but here are some tips:

1) Sit down with your subject, as though you were having a normal conversation without the camera in the room.

2) Position the camera a comfortable distance from the person you’re interviewing, slightly off to one side. Don’t put the camera directly in front of the subject; instead, put your chair there. Position the camera just to the left or the right of your chair. Put the lens at eye level with the subject.

3) When you frame subjects in the viewfinder, avoid placing them in the exact center of the screen. It’s awkward. Position them on either the left or right two-thirds of the screen. Be sure to leave enough lead room.

4) Change the framing of your shots during the interview. Ideally, you should change shots between questions.

For solo videomakers who conduct the interview and run the camera at the same time, this can be tough. Let the subject know you’ll fiddle with the camera between questions, and try to limit your shot changes to once every two or three questions so you don’t disrupt the flow of the conversation.

The reason for changing shots: to give you the freedom to intercut between answers during the final edit sessions.

Typical shot changes in an interview include zooming in from a wide shot to a close up and zooming out from a close-up to a medium shot. You can reframe the shot as long as your subject remains on the same side of the screen.

Some documentary iubjects require interviews with people in public places, like along streets or in shopping malls. Obviously, you can’t prepare these locations ahead of time, and you have to limit the number of questions you ask.

In these situations, do your best to get concise answers from those you interview. A good way to insure a concise response is to ask very specific questions.

Keep it Moving

Vital to any documentary is footage of activities and environments that surround the people in your story. The action sequences and settings are essential for holding your audience’s attention. Without them, a documentary quickly becomes a program of talking heads and narration.

Camcorder technology has made the process of capturing these scenes unobtrusively much easier. Videotape is inexpensive; the cameras are small and don’t weigh much. Provided you have the time, waiting for the perfect moments no longer presents a problem. The direct cinema technique has become possible for many.

After some time in front of a camera, most people tend to ignore that it’s there. It’s almost as if they forget you’re recording them. That’s when you’ll capture the best direct cinema footage. So be patient.

Still Photographs

You’ll find still photographs, art and film footage in almost every documentary. Library or local historical societies are good sources for photos and old film or video clips.

You might even get a few nostalgic gems from the people you interview for the program.

Still photographs in particular provide an excellent way to illustrate a historic subject. Although the action in these pictures is frozen, you can create a sense of motion when you record these images with your camcorder.

Slow zooms, tilts and pans across an old photo will create a sense of motion and engage the audience’s imagination. Moves like these mimic the way people often examine old photographs: a careful, close-up study of details like clothing, jewelry and facial expressions.

Underscore still photographs with period music or a sound bite from an interview to add drama, and help them blend in well with the rest of the program.

Old film footage or videotape might be available as well. You may have to transfer them from their current format to the one you’re using.

Time can render some of these formats very fragile or brittle, so exercise care during the transfer. Older film footage is especially susceptible to breaking and cracking if not treated properly.

It also might be difficult to find a machine to play back these clips. You can rent regular 8mm and Super 8mm film projectors at audio-visual houses, or you can try buying them at flea markets.

Transfer older video formats, such as early half-inch, one-inch and two- inch tapes, at a professional production house.

Prices for these services will vary, depending on length and original format. Typically, the older the format the more expensive the transfer.


The final element common to most documentaries is narration.

You add these voice-overs between sound bites to help tell your story.

How narration fits into your documenta ly is a matter of personal preference. Many videomakers choose not to include narration at all. Instead, they let the words of their subjects tell the story. This is probably the purest way to organize the material into a finished documentary form.

Unfortunately, it’s also the most difficult. It usually requires transcribing each interview, and then selecting appropriate portions for the final program. Of course you must have enough interview material to tell story effectively.

If you have the material, as well as the time and patience to complete such a project, using this no-narration technique can result in a stronger documentary.

If you decide to bridge the gaps between sound bites with narration, keep the language simple and direct. You want the audience to remember the people you interview, not your narrator.

Don’t try to embellish or dramatize the narrator’s part. The narrator really isjust a storyteller, so keep narration clean and simple. Let your subjects add the color and emotion to your story.


Documentary vidcomakers don’t need much equipment. A minimal set up is all you need to produce programs good enough to air on cable access or UHF networks.

For field production, the rig is very basic: a camcorder, tripod and two microphones. If your budget is tight, the shotgun can double as a handheld mike for interviews, and triple as a directional mike for recording natural sound.

If your project requires travel, you’ll need something in which to carry accessories. Consider a good piece of video luggage. Budget-conscious videomakers can probably use a sturdy day pack as an accessory case.

For editing, you’ll need two decks. For most videomakers, the camera itself serves as the playback machine; all you need is a VCR for recording the edited master version.

You can add a second VCR, switcher, audio mixer, edit controller and other equipment to your editing studio, but the basic requirement is just this one VCR.

It’s a good idea to have a master VCR capable of audio and video insert editing; this will give you the most flexibility when you put the program together.

It’s Your Turn

Until recently, only a privileged few could afford to produce documentaries. Now you cao express your ideas, opinions and emotions to large audiences through this form, even on a limited budget.

So go ahead and give the documentary a try. You’ll be glad you did.

Michael Loehr is a producer and editor for a broadcast production company.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.