How to develop an idea into a finished documentary

Have you ever heard of Robert J. Flaherty?  He’s known as the “father” of documentary filmmaking (“Nanook of the North,” 1922). However, documentaries didn’t truly capture the attention of mainstream audiences until Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” in 1989. Moore proved that you could make social change while making a living. So, now you’d like to give it a go, right? The management of a documentary timeline begins when you answer a few questions for yourself.

What is your documentary about?

Clearly, the best documentaries reflect the creator’s selfless passion. What is the topic?  What do you want the viewer to learn? Is your topic narrowed down enough for a 30, 45 or 60-minute video? Or, do you need to create a mini-series, a la Ken Burns who covered multiple series including “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “The National Parks” and “Jazz,” among others?

If you are a beginner documentarian, it’s best to address a more manageable topic.  Instead of a documentary called “California,” you would concentrate on one historical figure in one location. Or, you’d focus your efforts on how members of a particular community solved a single issue. Have you narrowed down your topic as much as possible? Remember, it’s people who make the story.

Why do you want to make this documentary?

Ask yourself, are you doing it for the money or the applause? You’ll be footing a lot of bills just to see your vision through. In fact, you’ll be competing with thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of aspiring filmmakers all vying for eyeballs. There’s no guarantee your movie will ever make a cent. In our case, we garnered a lot of press and many international awards but very little money with our 1994 documentary “Full Cycle: A World Odyssey.”

Do you still want to do it?

What impact do you want to make with your documentary?

Furthermore, it’s important to consider the long hours it takes to bring a documentary to fruition. Similarly, think about the time it will take to market your video, shopping it around at film festivals, etc. What is it that you are trying to say?

First item to tackle on your documentary timeline: Come up with your concept

If after all the soul searching, you want to move ahead, here are some things you’ll need to know.


Seasoned video pros know Pre-Production sometimes takes up most of your time. First item to tackle on your documentary timeline: Come up with your concept. Then, write an outline that represents the skeleton of your documentary. The treatment, a one-page explanation of the doc, adds some meat. But where you’ll add most of the flesh, the passion, the attitude and the meaning, is the script. Once that’s done, you’ll need to figure out locations and talent, as well as what they’ll need to say and do. You’ll need a shot list so you can take it with you and cross out everything as you shoot it.

Writing a film treatment helps you get your story worked out before writing the script.

First item to tackle on your documentary timeline: Come up with your concept

Most documentaries — unless you are focused on a time before the 1900’s — are interview-driven. Everyone you interview will need to contribute something to your storyline. The questions you prepare must guide them into that story. Thus, it’s important to study how to obtain good interviews.

Additionally, a documentarian needs to have integrity. Trust is important and you must keep any promises you make. If and when you find people willing to tell their story, respect their time and give them credit in your doc.

On the creative side, think of what you want in the background for your interviews, and what sort of B-Roll you’ll need to collect. Consistency is key. Our San Diego video production company (Crystal Pyramid Productions) has shot interviews for several documentaries over the years. For the History Channel’s “Dogfights,”  for example, the producers put a bomber jacket and aviator helmet behind each interviewee, with a black duvet in the background.

In-Home Studio Shoot for History Channel’s “Dogfights” with Brigadier General Steve Ritchie (Flying Ace from Vietnam War) and Sound Tech Patty Mooney

As you plan your shots and the overall look, figure out what equipment you need to shoot your documentary. At the moment, 4K format is not only popular but required by distributors like Netflix and Amazon Prime. To that end, whoever edits the doc needs a robust computer system and editing software.


When you begin rolling the camera, save time by jotting down on your script the reel number and time-code numbers for best takes. These numbers and adjoining notes will be invaluable for your editor. It’s been said that “tape is cheap” and that’s been proven on multi-camera reality shoots. So, get lots of “B-roll” to help with your show, especially if interview-driven. That said, try not to overwhelm your editor with too much media. You’ll understand the reason for that when you begin post-production.


So you have finally reached the point when you have gathered all the assets – interviews, B-Roll, digitized photos, graphics and other assorted clips and even stock footage – that will make their way into your doc. Now, organization is key. There is no way around the fact that you are going to have to transcribe the interview footage or have it done, and make sure to include time codes. Highlight the sound bites that you like.

When you pull your assets into your hard drive, organize the folders so you know exactly where everything is. A simple hierarchy works well; for instance, “Video Clips-Cam A,” “Video Clips-Cam B,” “Music,” “Voice Over,” “Photos,” “Graphics,” etc. Replicate these folders as bins in your video editing software.

Make sure you have your assets and timeline backed up in at least three places.  If it’s not backed up in three different places, it’s not backed up. Hard drives can and will fail. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when”, and you do not want to be months-deep into your edit when it happens.

Make sure you have your assets and timeline backed up in at least three places.

The beauty of editing is that you can place chunks of video on a timeline and keep rearranging them until you have a flow that you like. Also, stick to your script as much as possible. No script is completely set in concrete until your show is finished. Make sure you get feedback from other producers, trusted friends and even family members throughout the editing process.

When it’s done, have a private showing with your collaborators and crack open a bottle of champagne. Enjoy the celebration. Tomorrow you can hunker down and begin the work of marketing your “baby.”

Patty Mooney
Patty Mooney
Patty Mooney is a partner at Crystal Pyramid Productions and has over 40 years of experience in various roles: producer, editor, teleprompter operator, sound mixer, boom pole operator, voice-over artist and camera operator.

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