This is how you should be filming your short documentary

Documentaries are hard to make and can be even harder if they have a short run time. You have to make the most of your time. Here’s how.

Having shot short documentaries himself, YouTuber Jesse Cervantes has uploaded a video covering the fundamental steps he feels are essential to making a great short documentary. His steps start from the very beginning of the process, when you’re coming up with ideas, and continue all the way through to the editing.

“I wanted to keep this short and stick with basics to keep this video from being 40 + minutes long, and no one wants to hear me rambling,” Cervantes says.

Let’s see what steps Cervantes has for us:

Find a worthwhile idea

Before you start shooting any kind of footage, you need to know what you want to document. Is there a topic out there that you’re very passionate about? Or is there a topic that you want to learn more about? Those are good questions to start asking yourself if you need help picking a topic.

Ultimately, ask yourself what inspired you to want to make a short documentary. That something could even be a person. “You just have to find somebody who does something interesting,” Cervantes says.


Once you have your topic picked out, you need to educate yourself on the topic. You can’t make a doc about a topic you know nothing about. It would also be good to research other documentaries to find filming styles and shots that you can draw inspiration from. Plus, make sure you do the research regarding the places you plan to film at and the people you are going to interview. Otherwise, you have nothing to document.

Story structure

Like every story, there needs to be a beginning, middle and end. Documentaries are no exception to that rule. You have to have a basic understanding of where you’re taking you short documentary.

“You must think about how you’re going to conduct an interview before you start filming,” says Cervantes. “Figure out what the beginning, middle and end looks like. This could be as simple as you want or as complicated as you want.”

You can choose to start your short documentary with the name of the person you’re interviewing and then get into what he or she does. Or you can opt for a more emotional dialogue from your source that can grabs the audience in the beginning.

Filming / A-roll

When you’re setting up for your main shots, pay attention to your composition. Make sure have the camera set up so it gets a good amount of the subject’s face into the frame. Also be sure to use the rule of thirds when crafting the composition. And finally, make sure the camera isn’t too far or to close from the subject’s face.

A-roll Lighting

Lighting is essential to giving your subject depth. There are numerous ways you can set up lighting: from a three-point lighting setup to just using the light of a window. Lighting is also important in setting the tone of a scene, so be sure to really nail the lighting. For instance, if your subjects is talking about a very dark event that happened in his or her past, you use more sharp shadows in the setup rather than soft lighting. Just be consistent with your setup.

B-roll Lighting

B-roll is the footage that is everything other than the interview. So you can get really creative. Film the environment that your subject lives in. Film what they do for a living. Get up really close to show the detail. B-roll is used as a way to visually tell the story and requires some creativity to get great shots.


It goes without saying that audio is important. There are different ways you can capture audio. For instance, you can use a lavalier mic, which can be tucked under the person’s shirt. BYou can also leave it out in the open if you so choose. Just know that if the mic is rubbing against someone’s clothing too much, you will have to reshoot or work around that audio.

Make your sources feel comfortable

Interview for a documentary
Always make the person you are interviewing comfortable to speak to you

Often times, the people you’re interviewing have never been interviewed before. They are also likely nervous. Try and have them relax by asking them some easy questions in the beginning before diving deep into it.

Also remind them that you will be editing the footage, so if they pause or have to restart a statement that’s fine.


Once you have everything shot, it’s time to edit. A few tips for editing your short film is to use your B-roll to cover up any A-roll cuts. Also, use the B-roll to further the story.

When it comes to audio, if you used an audio recorder other than your camera, you will have to sync the audio. However, that shouldn’t be too hard. Also be sure to match the music with your scenes and cuts so the flows naturally with the clips.

Short documentaries may be short, but they take a lot of time to make. We hope these steps will help you in your next short documentary journey.

Sean Berry
Sean Berry
Sean Berry is Videomaker's managing editor.

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