Whether it’s a short or feature-length video for YouTube, or for theaters across the country: the time is now for you to tell a personal story that only you can tell. Most filmmakers get into this business to make narrative pieces. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but let me pose a question. Do you think it’s more important to provide a momentary distraction from the world’s problems? Or, is it more important to provide possible answers for how to fix them?

By shining an unflinching light on a topic that you understand intimately (or are at least passionate about learning more about) you will be able to bring awareness to a hidden facet of life that many other people can relate to. As a woman, minority, or someone else who hasn’t traditionally made the movies in Hollywood, you may have an alternative and vital viewpoint. So how do you get started?

You can do this

One great thing about documentary filmmaking is that the technical bar is, let’s say, a little lower. Truth be told, if you’re just starting out, an excellent subject may more than make up for your lack of experience behind the camera. Plus, you can still yield a compelling piece. It’s necessary to learn the basics, but it’s not like you need to have a film school diploma. Another great aspect of doc shooting and producing is that you don’t need to recruit and pay for a big crew. Sometimes you can even do it solo and still get all that you need. This style of production can be both freeing and a little scary, but that’s what makes it fun!


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Let the story unfold

Another fantastic part of doc making is that you don’t have to have it all figured out before you start. By no means should you begin without a plan, but you do not need to have a completed 100-page script that has seen five revised drafts like you would for a narrative feature. No, the beauty of a great documentary is that the story will usually work itself out over time. You’ll have to be nimble and imaginative to keep up with the plot as it emerges, but that will only increase your enjoyment of the process.

Travel may be built in

Did I mention travel? Exotic locations? Once-in-a-lifetime events? The stellar thing about making a documentary is that the film you choose to make can be a reflection of your spirit and take you as far as you need to go. Finding the funds to get a crew to shoot a narrative in Alaska, Thailand or the Serengeti can be darn near impossible. However, getting a plane ticket there for you and a sound mixer may be very doable. If the story is there, you can find it and make it your own.

Opportunity around every corner

A word of warning — and this is the part that is sometimes hard to deal with. Every once in a while, your documentary subject, setting, or story may just sort of evaporate. This is not to mention that you may have something break or stop working. If you don’t have backups for your gear, this can stop you dead in your tracks. Unfortunately, just because you started doesn’t mean you’ll be able to finish.

This is a tough pill to swallow sometimes, but if you stay diligent and approach every twist in the production like an opportunity, then you’ll be in good shape. This often leads to telling an even more unique story or being able to learn your craft better.

This is a BTS still from the feature documentary “BETTER” that we shot in Harvard, Seattle, and Fresno, CA.

Be ready to improvise

Failing forward is the name of the game when it comes to documentaries. A great example of this in my own work was during the making of the feature doc “Better.” The subject, Jonathan Bailor, had flown to my studio to capture the bulk of the project and then on day 4, record a four-hour talk in front of a live audience. The only problem was that about two days in, his voice went out completely. We ended up shooting a variety of B-roll and studio footage that we never would’ve gotten if he’d been able to talk, though. It made the end project infinitely more dynamic and is remembered as a very happy accident.

I hope you can see why making a documentary can be every bit as thrilling as a narrative and offer you some advantages that a narrative never will.

Justin McAleece is a socially conscious director of narrative and documentary projects both personal and commercial. He has been dedicated to filmmaking since 1999 and has won dozens of awards and directed 100s of hours of content and lensed even more. With the birth of the Better feature and its continuing platform, Justin has redoubled his efforts into fostering transformative personal growth through storytelling. He aims to couple science and emotion to change lives all over the world.


  1. Documentary subjects are all around you, if you are open to them. In the past few years I have done short docs on a flag that may have been the reason for Lincoln’s assassination, a hydrogen bomb that fell out of bomber and became armed on impact web it struck the ground, and perhaps the most famous filming location you’ve never heard of but you’ve seen this four-block stretch in over 30 movies. Guess what? They are all within 1 1/2 hours of where I live in southeastern North Carolina. All my docs have been screened at film festivals and some won awards. My total team is me and my editor.

  2. Hey Patrick! Thanks for commenting. Just to be clear, the correct usage is ‘a unique’ Cheers!

  3. Justin – and Nicole — Thanks for the response – I embarrassedly have a correction — I meant to say ‘an’ – not ‘a’ — Believe you both got that . . . we all make mistrakes, huh? HOWever — correct English dictates ‘an’ in front of such words as ‘historic’ – which is usually missed by most; I’ve always liked it before ‘unique.’ There are those who would beg to differ, as the ‘u’ in this word has a ‘y’ sound [noting the ‘an’ in front of vowels rule]. But this one is divided among those who choose to spend time in discourse about such things…
    I just like the way it rolls off the tongue – much better than trying to say ‘an unit,’ e.g. —
    You probably guessed I’m old school, and that serves as a basis for my thinking. In researching, it seems Justin has correctly applied the ‘a’ before ‘unique’ due to the ‘y’ or ‘you’ sound of the word.
    Merriam-Webster says “You choose the article that best suits your own pronunciation.” Anyone’s game, I guess – so I’m stickin’ with mine.
    Thanks for the discourse!


  4. Documentary subjects are all around, it just a matter of looking. What drew me to my first documentary subject was the happy atmosphere and smiles, a mile wide, on the faces of the ladies when dancing. I ended up making a one hour documentary on “50’s Rock n Roll dancing in the 21st century” and it was a real learning curve, in one interview a lady told me “Rock n Roll dancing was better than sex” I pretended to stay cool, paused slightly and went to the next question. The age range of the dancers was from six to seventy six and that afforded a great variety of interviews.

    I had reasoned the beat of the music, speed of the dance and colour of the dress would help drive the pace, that proved right. With thirty five hours of original DV tapes I did the first edit and I was happy with the result. A short time later I met a professional TV video editor, Mike, who had a life time interested in Rock n Roll music, I asked him to re-edit as he seen fit. Mike’s edit was a winner he used clips I had overlooked. Mike’s edit demonstrated what a great storyteller he was and I ended up with a professional one hour video.

    Making this documentary was a great experience, I think if a subject appeals to you and you think you can exploit that subject visually for all its worth, go for it. It also taught me how important editing is, using continuity storytelling, how to properly use foreground and background music. Making the documentary introduced me to other video work.

    Most important is the self satisfaction of creating a documentary that others get enjoyment from. Don’t think about it do it!

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