All good documentaries require research. It’s a form of filmmaking that often seeks the truth of an event based on factual evidence. As a documentarian, it is your job to gather that evidence and to inform and educate your audience.

Research is essential to every documentary. It’s what will connect all the raw video footage you shoot or gather into a coherent story. It will help you organize and plan out your documentary so you have an idea where you want to take your project. In this article, we will walk you through the research process. That way you’ll have a starting point when you dive into researching for your documentary.

First, form questions you want to answer

Often times, documentaries center around one main question. The question can be simple: who is this person? Likely, this is a starting point for many biographical documentaries. You then can branch out. Start asking deeper questions: What did this person do in his or her life? What was his or her crowning achievement? What were some of his or her biggest struggles? Was this person tied to any major historical events? As you ask questions, more will arise. It is important to keep asking questions because it’s likely someone else will ask them when watching.

Ask questions that might not have an answer

Sometimes, you don’t even have to answer the questions you ask, leaving it up for interpretation. In the documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car?, the central question of the entire documentary is in the title. Viewers watch the documentary wanting to know the answer: who actually killed the electric car. While watching, they are presented with the facts and different viewpoints. In the end, however, it is up to the viewer to answer the ultimate question of the film.

Who Killed the Electric Car?
Image courtesy: Electric Entertainment

Balance the well-known information with the newly discovered

When asking questions, you’ll want to revisit some of the common knowledge around the subject to build a strong foundation for the film. However, be sure to dig deeper so that you can include new information that people don’t know. The point of a documentary is to inform the audience and uncover new perspectives. Everyone will have different varying levels of knowledge on the topic. That’s why it’s important to put the time and effort into finding information that isn’t as readily available — especially information that runs counter to commonly helped beliefs about the issue. In many ways, documentarians are detectives. They investigate and discover the unknown.

Find sources to answer the questions you have

After you have articulated a few questions about your topic, it’s time to get to work. There are many different ways you can acquire sources and information. Most of the time, they fall into these three categories: written, visual or interpersonal.

Written

Written sources are the traditional way to acquire a lot of information fast. You can find many scholarly articles on Google Scholar or your local library. When reading articles, be sure to look at all the sources they’re referencing. Check the citations provided by each of your sources to verify information and dig deeper into the subject matter. Even the references at the end of a Wikipedia article can be provide guidance.

As you spend more time researching, you will likely find new information you never considered. 5-time Emmy Award winner Ken Burns says when it comes to archival research, more is more. It’s typical to collect up to 40 times the amount of material you plan to use in your film. You will only be able to find your documentary’s story if you have sufficient information to sift through and piece together.

Go to the library and do some research
You can gather a lot of sources when reading online articles and books

Visual

Depending on your topic of choice, there could be tons of archival footage you can dig up. For instance, if you’re documentary is following a political controversy, there’s bound to be loads of videos of interviews, news reports and public reaction to the event. Thanks to the internet, it is easy to find past footage of events. Use archival video for research as well as potential footage you can use in your documentary.

Interpersonal

Talk to as many people as possible. This is where a lot of interesting, unknown information might come out. You can try identifying key people and reaching out to them or you can attend rallies, meetups or conferences pertaining to your topic. There you can meet people important to your research and hear them speak.

Never stop researching

It’s wrong to think that the researching process stops once you start filming. It is essential you continue to look for information during and after production. Oftentimes, while you’re in the middle of the production, new information will surface. The creation of documentaries is full of discoveries. You have to be open to these discoveries and explore them even when you think you have all that you need to make your film.

The key to making a great documentary film is research. In this genre, accuracy is as important as aesthetics. To acquire the truth, you need to put in the work and find sources that contribute to a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. Any tips on legal liabilities regarding your research information, etc.? Specifically, protecting yourself from lawsuits.

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