Let's Make a Short Social Documentary Film

Short documentary films have the power to reveal a unique story, inspire with insights and even motivate change in the brief duration. How easy or difficult it is to make one? In this post, we will discuss the steps involved in making a short social documentary film. 

In the world of commercial films and reality television, documentary films are coming in as a new wave of change. The lead video, for instance, is the story of an auto driver who has given two TEDx talks and is now a sought-after motivational speaker in many global firms. You have to watch the film to find out what makes him so popular. As someone who started a short documentary filmmaking brand and having done 17 short social documentary films in one year, I can vouch for the challenges involved the making of these films. But then, looking back, there appears a pattern which might work universally for anyone who wishes to make such short social documentary films. 

Scout for the Story

The story is everything. The very essence of documentary filmmaking is bringing out powerful stories to the limelight and impacting the world with knowledge and perspectives. Most of the stories we had shot came to us through word of mouth or we'd read about something or somebody in the news. NGOs, social enterprises, real-life heroes, change makers, innovative initiatives, women empowerment, education, social issues, and many more - the list of things to choose a story from is extensive. It is in the hands of the filmmaker to choose a strong story to be told to the world. Once you have found a compelling one, you then have to ask yourself a series of questions. Is it universally appealing? Is it a simple slice of life with a profound message or a vast pool of events waiting to be condensed into a precise form? How will it benefit the subject/institution/situation of the story? How will it impact the viewer? The research process before taking on a story is very important. And before anything else, it has to impact you personally. If you can come up with a way to convert your personal experience into a universally applicable or recognized experience, nothing like it. Right there you have a strong foundation for making a documentary film.

Earn the Trust of the Subject

The next thing to do is to reach out and make the documentary happen. It is not as easy as it sounds though. For instance, if you are shooting the story of a change making individual, you have to do a lot of research before meeting him or her in person. As in what is that you want to document, how you plan to do it and why you would want to do it. Earning the trust of the subject is very important. You have to understand that the individual's world is different than what you think it would be. The more informed, planned, and organized you are, the easier it is to explain the intent to the subject and convince him of the consent. Having the subject by your side lays the base for the rest of the story to take shape.  

Become a Part of the Story 

Once the subject has agreed to be documented, then begins the larger scheme of things. The first thing is how you approach the story. The same story will have many angles to it. What is that one strong core message or emotional center that you want to establish? This underlying message is the lasting impact that the viewers will have. To establish this, you have to submit yourself to the story. Spend time with the subject, understand what inspires him to do the act of goodness, and what drives him. These little details are everything and will make the story. To capture it all, you have to be on the ground without any camera or camcorders and live the subject's world. This act of submission goes a long way in the final output of the film. This will not only get you the authenticity, but it is a lot of fun too. 

Interview the Subject(s)

The first and foremost thing is interviewing the subject. From the interview is where we derive the script for the film. It is allowing the story to reach to you rather than you trying to reach to the story. It is always in the first interviews that the subjects are at their best natural self. The responses are candid and the reactions are spontaneous. In the films we have made, the most emotional rendition of the story is often from this period of conversation. So make sure you have the lighting, equipment, background, and the sound in the right mode when shooting the first interview.  


Find the Structure and Start to Shoot 

Once we have the interview ready, we come back to the studio and spend time in listening to it patiently. Like mentioned earlier, we coin that emotional center of the story and come up with a structure that ties the flow together. It might sound a little old fashioned but using index cards or any convenient aid to write down the flow of the story in pointers will help a lot. With a clear idea of how the story is going to flow, we then head to shoot the visuals in full swing. Have it all on paper, and make sure the transition is seamless. If there are any interview segments that need to be taken again, it is done during this time.  


Set the Right Tone and Treatment

Now, this is very important. By this time you'd have the raw material, shot and ready, for crafting your short documentary film. The next thing to do is decide how the story narration is going to be. Will the subject be the narrator voicing out the story in his or her own words? Or will you be the narrator? Or will it be a combination of both? You have to find out which mode of story narration will be the most engaging mode to connect with the audience. The other vital elements like the color tone, music, cuts, etc are all aligned to complement the mood of the story and a uniform language is maintained. This language need not be obvious but in the subtext, this will seed the story deep in the viewer's mind.

Final Touch

Once the story is set in the timeline with the color, sound, and music fixed appropriately, a master overview of the film is made internally and with a select set of the audience from the external world. This will enable mixed opinions to come to the table and the director can take a call on how to make the film sharper. See if that emotional center connects well when you watch the film as an audience. End of the day, that will resonate the core message far and deep.    

This is my two cents on what has worked for us at Big Short Films. Of course, the methods might according to the vision of every filmmaker. The short social documentary films hence made are not only quick ways to get the inspiring stories out to the world, but also serve as a proof of concept. It can be used to pitch for funding in the documentary film festivals across the world that invite films in ideation/production stage.  Watch the films we have made so far in Big Short Films YouTube channel. And let us know your thoughts in comments on how we can make this effort bigger and better.

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Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Very good job!

Elan Govan's picture

Hi Amar, thanks for the article. Is there any future plans to explore the issues covering Padmavati: The stories from the press is Congress has demand a ban if history is distorted. This reminds me of the issues surrounding the Monty Python film "Life of Brian".

As a short film maker, do you have any views regarding the potential interpretation of a story that took place many years ago or do you thinks local views are so entranced that it is too early to say.

Elan Govan's picture

Hi Amar, News report from the BBC: Padmavati: Controversial film 'cleared by Indian censor board