The advantages of keeping your next doc short

Online distribution has breathed new life into the production of short form documentaries, which the South by Southwest festival calls the “leading genre for indie creators and professionals.” Today, short-form video is king on the world-wide web, where a variety of shorts from animated explainer films to micro-docs of a minute or less have changed the way we consume non-fiction content.

The Academy Awards first opened the ‘documentary short subject’ category in 1941 for docs up to 40 minutes long. The first recipient was the National Film Board of Canada for ‘Churchill’s Island,’ a 20 minute WWII propaganda film about the Battle of Britain. The 2018 Oscar winner ‘Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405’ (40 min.) is an intimate portrait of a tormented 56-year-old artist who deals with her depression through her art.

For at least a decade online platforms have provided documentary filmmakers with gateways to the global marketplace of festivals and downloads. Many film festivals are running programs dedicated exclusively to short subject non-fiction work.

Why shorter can be better

But why would a filmmaker choose to make a short doc when she could be exploring  the subject matter in more depth with a longer film?

If you’re an inexperienced filmmaker it’s a no-brainer that your early films will be short and manageable – typically mini docs of events or performances, artist profiles or coverage of local affairs and issues.

A funding trailer could be a seven-minute teaser — essentially a miniature sample of what a filmmaker imagines a feature-length version might look like. And a 40 minute doc for television with fewer characters and locations and a sharp story focus is cheaper to make, easier to manage and more likely to go to air than a 90-minute essay film.

However, the most memorable docs in the short subject category are satisfying because they are exactly as long as they need to be to tell a particular story.

No more than what’s needed

Mark Twain has been credited with this pretext, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”  Whether Twain actually said this is not as important as the implication, that it takes time, effort and craft to produce a short work.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Shorter in documentary obviously means the filmmaker doesn’t include as much material in her doc. A common entry-level error is to include too much. In a short, there is less time to develop full-blown narrative and character arcs, and depending on its length, there’s not much room to include historical background information or the time to develop the premise or argument of the film.

But in the hands of an imaginative director, restricted running time need not be an impediment to telling memorable stories. So, how do you go about making a short subject documentary that holds together as well as longer more fully developed output?

The building blocks for launching a short subject doc project should not be much different from making an hour-long or feature-length documentary: It begins with the filmmaker’s passion for the subject matter, followed by research to find out more, then the story focus and finally a decision on how to tell the story.

The decision to make a short rather than a long form doc is like wanting to look through one or two windows rather than all the windows of a house to see what’s going on inside. What audiences typically see watching a short doc is a corner of a bigger picture and what they experience is storytelling that is often more intimate, more personal than that of watching a sweeping historical documentary or one with an editorial point of view.

But making a short documentary doesn’t mean the filmmaker has to abandon life’s big themes.

Contemporary Examples

The shorts program at this year’s Hot Docs festival in Toronto, the largest documentary marketplace on the continent, featured a very personal seven-minute short, Grandmother and Me. Director Kathryn Cole briskly weaves together actuality, nostalgic photographs and the re-enactments of an engaging storyteller to produce an experimental doc about ‘hidden family secrets and the complexity of familial love’.

A 40–minute IMAX doc, The Trolley, directed by Stephen Low combines stunning visuals with the filmmaker’s strong environmental point of view. Low, whose father Colin Low invented the format, has been in the business of designing giant screen experiences for decades with an impressive list of IMAX credits.

In Trolley Low assembles live action, archival materials and computer-generated recreations using maps and aerial footage to construct a film about the “changing fortunes of trolleys around the world.” Low shows the history and technology of public transit through the eyes of his main character, the street-car. Dazzling live trolley journeys through urban landscapes are reminiscent of the city symphonies documentaries of the 1920s.

In the 40–minute IMAX doc, “The Trolley,” directed by Stephen Low, short form documentary storytelling is leveraged to provoke a discussion about the advantages of public transit in the face of climate change.
In the 40–minute IMAX doc, “The Trolley,” directed by Stephen Low, short form documentary storytelling is leveraged to provoke a discussion about the advantages of public transit in the face of climate change.

But Trolley is more than a spectacular giant screen experience. Low’s film is a personal delivery system for the director’s politics expressed throughout in the solemn narration, the trolley is “one device perfectly suited to save the world.” In a press release Low writes that his film “Stares down the automobile. In climate change, humanity faces a global crisis unlike anything we have encountered before, yet we already have the solutions. And one of them is staring us in the face.”

There are no rules in short non-fiction production, from animated docs to experimental the genre is wide open. If you’re considering making a short form documentary, immerse yourself in the form. Watch as many short docs as you can and think about what worked in the films you liked. Here’s a short playlist to get you started:

  • Edith + Eddie (2017) Dir. Laura Checkoway
  • Peter and Ben (2007) Dir. Pinny Grylls
  • The Black Hole (2008) Dir. Phil Sansom and Olly Williams
  • Grandmother and Me (2017)  Dir. Kathryn Cole
  • The Trolley (2017) Dir. Stephen Low

Traditional broadcasters and news agencies are offering short visual journalism for online distribution that’s worth watching. The crisp storytelling and visual variety produced for the web by seasoned video journalists can be most instructive. The New York Times Op-Docs platform and The Intercept’s Field of Vision are worth a look, as is AJ+, Al Jazeera’s web doc and current affairs stream.

To learn how, keep watching

Enter ‘short form documentary’ into your favorite search engine and a compendium of reviews, analysis and instruction will tumble on to your desktop. One of our favorite sources: doc educator and blogger David Tamés who brands himself as “a documentary maker with new media tendencies.”  Tamés says “we live an age of media snacking.” On his blog,, he gives a snappy summary of micro-doc creation, a savvy how-to on creating works from two to nine minutes long.

And don’t forget to attend festivals where short form docs are featured; go to the Q & As with the directors and soak up life in the short lane.

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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