Are You New to Documentary Filmmaking? Step up Your Productions in Just Four Simple Steps

Have you ever wanted to make a documentary film, but didn't know where to start? In this video, find out four simples ways you can improve your documentary films and take your work to the next level. 

Ever since I started making films eight years ago, the films I gravitated to the most were documentaries. My favorite thing about watching or making documentaries was that there is a sense of realism and an honest representation of reality. I love being able to walk away from documentaries with a greater understanding of a topic or person that I knew nothing about before I watched it. As my filmmaking career developed and I began wanting to make documentaries, I always thought to myself: what does it take to make a successful documentary? 

In this quick and jam-packed informative video from one of the top filmmaking YouTube channels, Indy Mogul, host Griffin Hammond breaks down how you can make a successful short documentary in just four simple steps. 

Hammond categorizes his four tips into two main categories: the visual components and the audio components. In the visual category, there is the interview or soundbite and the B-roll. In the audio section, there is the voiceover and the implementation of a natural sound break. In the video, Hammond goes into depth and explains the benefits of using each element to further enhance your story.  

Out of the four tips he brings up, there was one thing that really hit home. That is, in order to create a successful film, all of the elements must work in unison to create one cohesive piece. It all has to be balanced. When working on any documentary, it's so easy to get caught up in the intricate details, but it's important to remember to step back and look at the project holistically. This way, it is easier to identify the loose ends, which helps give you a clear path to fix them. 

If you want to see more in-depth videos on all things fil making, be sure to check out the Indy Mogul YouTube channel for inspiring and informative videos every week.

Are there any other tips you have to making better documentaries? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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Rod Kestel's picture

Thanks for that, good tips.

Esp the one about jump cuts. I've just done a vid interview with lots of jump cuts and no b-roll. It's a fairly crappy product but it's a huge amount of work and unpaid so I thought hang it, good enough.

My #1 tip: tell a story!! A person(s) in a situation facing a challenge, what they did next, why. Change my life, cutting blocks of ice. That's what draws the viewer in. They can forgive poor technical quality if the story engages.

We put a lot more work into our motorbike trip across the Tanami desert. Not professional but it works.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Hi Rod,

The best way by far to cover up jump cuts in an interview is by using b-roll. I also found that varying angles more than 30 degrees will make it seem less choppy and can cut around.

Without story though, you're right. You got nothing without story.

Mark Holtze's picture

Biggest tip about a documentary is give people a reason to care about the subject. You have to assume that nobody knows or cares and the challenge is to help MAKE them care. Then they're invested...that's a story telling nuance, but it can give some direction on where to start or at least give it some structure.

I cut documentary films/scripted films/tv shows etc...documentaries are BY FAR the hardest. Everything is done in the edit, the thesis will shift around MANY times the deeper you go into it, it can be VERY overwhelming but you just have to keep at it.

Eventually the best story will reveal itself. Most doc's...a year at least to produce.

Rod Kestel's picture

Absakenlutely, you nailed it.

Same goes for writing books. My collection of biographies is out next year and I'm acutely conscious that you must give the characters motivation, WHY. People don't just do do stuff randomly, they do it for a reason. And if your viewer/reader has empathy with that, they'll stay with you.

I totally agree, this makes doco/biography really difficult because you can't just invent this.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

For sure! You must feel invested into the character as an audience member. As an editor, my favorite way to do this is by using SOTS (interviews) and showing the subject face as they are talking instead of cutting away to broll every five seconds. This draws the audience in, and lets them connect to the subject through their emotions. If I use broll, I try to make it observational so that you can feel what the character is going through not just see it.

Rod Kestel's picture

Okay, I like that but how do you mask jump cuts? Very few interviewees can talk for too long and be engaging; plus you need to ask them questions - in my vid I editted those out.

One trick I'm told, is to insert vid of their hands during the cuts.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Yes. You are correct. These are called cut aways and are very commonly used in documentaries. They are a perfect transitional cut to hide jump cuts or pauses in the dialogue. They could be of anything in the room, a clock, the subjects watch, a closeup of their eyes etc but just be sure its intentional and makes sense with the story they're telling. So yes, always run a second camera that can be moved around and one static.

Rod Kestel's picture

So how do you sync audio in this situation? We've been getting our talent to click their fingers but they can't keep doing that.

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Simply say rolling camera on both cameras and walk into frame and make a big clap (or have the subject do this). The clap must be seen in the frame. Then after that you start the take by counting down 3-2-1 acfjon. In editing later, you just look for the spike of audio in the beginning from the clap and line both shots up. It's that easy.

Mark Holtze's picture

Absolutely! The face is the human connection to the story teller. You NEED to be up on them, especially for those hit home moments. A big way I've been successful in doing this is letting the clips lead the visuals. Don't just SHOW what the person is saying as they say it, let them say it, THEN show it. It's a balance for sure, but you don't need to be so "on the nose" with b-roll as well.

I'm working on a series now that's very similar to HBO's JINX, true crime doc series. The investigators are looking down the barrel of the lens middle of the frame, they are telling us their story, we use specifically setup shots (no humans in the shots) to help illustrate visually what the detectives are describing.

It's VERY impressionistic, and VERY easy for it not to work. When you do get it working, it's magical. It's so much more impactful and IMHO it's 1000% more cinematic. The story tellers, the impressionistic visuals and the audience are all working together to tell and interpret the story.

Very cool. Very challenging but cool

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Yep! I cringe when I see a documentary where its just a voiceover and broll. Very boring and I walk away with no connection to the story. Another thing you need to think about is just letting things breathe without music. Just let the natural sounds come through.

Mark Holtze's picture

wall to wall music is SO NOT HOT right now lol. It's true, I get network notes all the time to fill some holes with music, but it's like, have you guys not watched the best documentaries these days? It's not 2005 anymore, when it's appropriate just let it breath.

I usually find some VERY quiet undertone to drop in here to satisfy the note, but it gets totally buried in the mix anyway. Dead air I get, but it's never just dead air, there's always a sound associated with a moment.

Have confidence in your story tellers (the subjects of the doc) and the audience ability to have their attention retained.

This fear of losing audience these days is so crippling, I guess it's part of the nature of advertisers needing people in their seats until the next commercial break. One nice thing about Netflix stuff has been the goal is to make it COOL, DRAMATIC, not about losing audiences attention.