Quick, Practical Tips for Successful Documentary Filmmaking

Quick, Practical Tips for Successful Documentary Filmmaking

Though the processes of documentary and fiction filmmaking share many similarities, there are a few crucial mindset shifts you'll want to make in order to be successful in the world of documentaries.

Our friend Evan Kidd, who has written a couple of excellent guest posts for this site, recently put out a video on his YouTube channel that explores these documentary filmmaking mindsets.

Check it out:

Here's a quick recap of the tips that Evan lays out in the video.

First up, don't skimp on your crew. This doesn't necessarily refer to the size of your crew, but rather the quality of your crew.

When you're working on a documentary, your production days will usually lack the rigid structure of a traditionally-run film set because of the unpredictability of working on real life stories.

For that reason, flexibility and adaptability are key traits that both you and the people you're working with will need in order to capture the story successfully. Make sure you're working with people who exhibit those qualities. Otherwise, your crew might end up holding you back instead of pushing you forward.

Secondly, make a point of attending documentary film festivals (or regular film festivals that feature documentaries). Here, you'll be able to watch great docs, learn from them and about them, and then mingle and connect with the people who crafted them. 

By attending festivals, you'll not only see incredible documentaries that are likely pushing the form into new creative territory, but you'll get to listen to the folks who made these documentaries talk about their work. You'll also have chances to mingle with them personally, ask questions, and make contacts in the documentary field.

Admission isn't expensive, but the potential upside in terms of what you can take away is incredible.

Thirdly, you have to shift your mindset towards playing the long game. 

Many great documentary films take years upon years of both shooting and editing before they are finished. Depending on the scope of the story you're trying to tell, you might be in for the same.

Chances are, your final story will consist of many small pieces gathered over a long period of time, especially if you're documenting current events. Once you realize this, you can prepare your mindset so that you don't become burned out or discouraged during the process.

Also of note here, you will likely end up with vastly more footage than actually gets used in the film. That's ok. Just make sure you're documenting anything and everything that could possibly be useful in the edit. Your future self (or your editor) will thank you.

Fourthly, choose a compelling subject. This one seems like a no-brainer. The more interesting your topic and your characters are, the more interesting your finished film will be.

This is why many corporate films, even though they might have slick production value, are often boring as hell. So choose a compelling subject, then use the elements of documentary film language to enhance and clarify the subject, rather than trying to use the form to rescue something inherently boring.

Lastly, be honest and objective. You're not making chintzy reality TV shows (which are actually scripted and completely artificial, just in case you're wondering). You're exploring a real world topic, and you're presenting it to an audience that is hungry for genuinely useful knowledge about that topic.

So in production, honestly document what is occurring in front of the lens. You may already have a story in mind (and that's fine), but be open and willing to capture the changes in the story as it shifts and morphs into something totally different.

Then approach your edit with a sense of clarity about how each editing decision affects the overall story that you're telling. It's fairly easy to manipulate footage into something it isn't. It's much harder to be honest and objective, and present the story as it actually occurred.

If you enjoyed this article, you'll love Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. Each week, I share my latest writing, curated stories from around the web, a short film that I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.

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