How to make a documentary

Related posts:

  1. How to make a documentary
  2. Logging the documentary
  3. Editing the documentary
  4. All the posts about documentary making and the Colombian documentary

I am leaving tomorrow morning to Colombia to make my first documentary film ever. I always wanted to make a documentary.

I’ll be using a little consumer digital mini-DV camera (a Sony DCR-PC120BT, around $800). I bought it six months ago, and I’ve made a few small movies of friends and stuff to practice since.

Here’s an overview of what I’ve learnt so far:

  1. Image quality (lens, resolution) of a consumer camera is good enough for this documentary. It looks fine played back on a television.
  2. How I film it has a big impact on the perceived image quality. Use a tripod for many shots. Be aware of lightning.
  3. Showing the visual evidence is more important for a documentary than shooting pretty shots.
  4. Hold that shot! First lesson not to look like an amateur: hold that shot. Don’t start zooming, panning and so on if not absolutely necessary. This was a hard lesson but I think I’ve got it.
  5. Sound is the hardest thing to get right. As long as you point your camera in the right direction and your battery is ok and you have enough film, you’ll get decent visuals. But sound is very hard to get right, and if you get bad sound there is no way to get it good again. I bought a small $70 Sony shotgun mike that goes on the camera, but that didn’t really produce good sound either, so we borrowed a professional shotgun mike from a friend. The mike’s bigger than the camera. This may sound a bit exagerated, but it’s necessary. The mike in the camera (and even the outside mike I bought) just suck to the point of the sound being unusable.
  6. Editing on the computer is easy. I am using Vegas 4.0.
  7. When you’re finally doing the shoot, you don’t want technical problems. So I bought a backup battery and lots of tapes. I’ll start a new tape at every shoot, even if the previous tape was only half full.
  8. It’s nice to shoot little scenes that can complete other scenes (for example when you have a part that’s not usable because it’s out of focus).
  9. You can’t know exactly how the documentary will work out before doing it. (At least, I don’t).
  10. You should watch what you filmed every evening to get a feel for what you’ve got, and where the documentary is going.

Me and my girlfriend have found a way of working for interviews and such that seems to work: she asks the questions and points the mike, and I film and listen to the headphones to make sure the sound’s ok. We practices a little bit – I’ll report back on how it worked out.

We are going to film for about a week. Until then.

90 thoughts on “How to make a documentary

  1. Hi all,

    I think you are all on the right step… turning your visions to a reality. I just completed my second doc at the Grand Canyon and now in pre-production on my third, and it all started with the “what if” question.

    You are all there in there.. somewhere closer to shooting, others closer to completion. I congratulate everyone no matter the age or demographic. We are all story tellers and I can think of no better way to tell a story than a camera and mic.

    Good luck!


  2. I’m glad I came across this site!
    So many enthusiastic people out there. I hope they all make it!

    I have been searching so much for a good minidv camcorder. I’m about to go crazy!
    Can someone please give me some recommendations?

    I’m traveling to my home-country this summer and will stay for a while.
    I love filming but my old minidv just wont do anymore.
    I want to make nice movies with mostly landscape and nature, people and charming places.
    I want to sell dvd’s and I already know where to turn too and I’m sure it will work out great if I can only do it right….
    I’ve gotten a good respond about this.
    So I’ve been told a 3ccd would help me even in the $1000 budget. But I’m still confused!
    What would be the best to get in that price range? What do I need to think about to make it work on anybody’s dvd player?
    What about legal rights to do this?
    You’ve helped here with microphone, but I’m not sure about picking up good light for indoors.

    I want to practice before I leave so if I could get some hints and help soon I would really appreciate it!
    Like I said, it does not have to be super professional, but it needs to look good.
    I’ve read that a minidv can do a lot for professional looking documentaries, but in what price range are people talking about?
    How did the Sony DCR-PC120BT work?

    Hope to get some answers!
    Thank you for this site!

  3. Hi, I am tyring to make a documentary and use adobe premiere pro. I am trying to put background music for a historical documentary. any thoughts, guides about how to choose the documentary. We tried the county library but they have no suggestions and said that we could take some cds and try it out. does not seem very good. anyone ideas? would appreciate an early input bec this is due in a couple of days and I just found this site

  4. Camcorders: The bigger in physical size the CCD is, the better the quality of the picture captured. They range from 13 inch square to something like 3 inches square or so (I forget exactly). The 3 inchers are very costly.

    3CCD: If it has 3 CCDs in the camera it may or may not make a better picture. On some camcorders, 2 of the 3 CCDs are use to stabalize the picture and only one CCD records the light. Better picture quality comes in part from using all 3 CCDs to capture the image.

    With other 3CCD cameras all 3CCDs are used to capture an image and it is better than one CCD could capture. The light is split into 3 colours by a prism, into Red Green Blue, with each colour going to the respective CCD. This gives better picture quality, but no image stablization. There likely is a camera with 3CCDs that does image stablization and 3 colour RGB at the same time.

    Sony has a High Definition Camcorder on the market ($2,000 CDN) with a 30 gig hard drive or so. I am not sure if the HD is a play on words by Sony or not. By this I mean I am not sure if the camera actually records in High Definition format like you see with High Defintion tv these days … Sony may mean that the camera is High Definition compared to say, their other cameras. You’d have to look at the manuals and see if the specs are true High Defintion broadcast quality. Sony has a new technology in their HD camera (and high end non-HD cameras)that replaces the CCD. It is called “CMOS” or something like that. Sony says it gets as good picture quality as 3CCDs even though it is one chip. Time will tell.

    Camcoders have 20 to 30 gig hard drives now. The bad news is, if you drop it and wreck the drive, then you have lost all your information. With DV you would lose only 20 to 30 minutes (if any). The camera has electronics that detects if the camera is falling, and if so, it moves the hard drive head to a safe place before it hits the ground.

    I’m not sure if the hard drives are removable or not. It would be an advantage if they are.

    With a hard drive in a non HD camera, you can record about 7 hours of video with it set at the best picture quality or about 12 to 20 hours in the lower picture quality settings. The batteries last about 2 hours. One advantage with a hard drive is that it will take about 1 hour of download time to transfer 7 hours of video to your computer. With tapes and DV it would take 7 hours.

    FYI all CCDs capture the image in gray and black and white, not colour! The computer in the camera uses the shades of gray and black and white as a guide to make the image into colour. Go figure.

    This may not apply any more because the information is years old now, but I’ve heard of camcorders that take still pictures too (I know it is common now) but back then, with one model, if you were shooting a video, and you wanted to take a still shot while still shooting video, all you had to do was press a button and the still shot was captured while the video was being shot. There was a catch with some models though, the still shot would leave a blank spot in the video!! You might want to check this out if you buy a camcorder. It may or may not be able to take a still pic while shooting video.

    I don’t own a camera and have never shot video. I got all this from the net.

    If you shoot in High Definition, you will have to buy all new HD filters. Old filters will distort the image.

  5. i am starting a documentray on the youth of my area. im going to be a sophmore in high school next year and my mom, whose on the village board, said that if i new anyone who wanted to do anything the village just hired a man to do some work with the new professional video and audio equipment the village just bought. im excited about getting to use the brand new professional equipment to shoot my first documentary, but i have no idea what im doing or how anything works?

  6. Hi,

    I’m a beginner at this as well. I’m moving from Arizona to New York City. I’m a music teacher and I’m going to New York to teach, as well as take an acting class. I thought it would be interesting to document my move (since I’m driving across the country) and also my first year there. Any suggestions on doing a film on yourself? Is this too complicated of an idea? Should I try to find someone else to be a camera person, and if so, where do I look?

    Thanks for anyone’s input! You can e-mail me at

  7. Hello everyone I just need some tips, in how to make a documentary youreself, or even better If someone lives in the New York area could e-mail me and be and meybe even do it toghether, the documentary is about how people from Ecuador work hard every day to support there familys and how they go tru a lot of trouble to earn some money and like that help there folks back home, it also going to include how men do dangerous jobs like working in asbestos, and woman selling there body etc. etc. well if some one is interesting in the idea please weite I;ll be able to cover some expenses.. my email is

  8. Hey everybody,
    I am from Nepal and me along with a friend are planning to make a documentary.We are planning to make a documentary on people who have been abducted by the then “Royal Nepal Army”. There whereabouts are unknown and not a single case has been lodged.It’s a tough issue to be covered but our hearts in the rite place.We just need some advice on how to get it started.If you have any suggestions,we’d appreciate it.This is our maiden venture and yeah all the tips sent in have been helpful.

    We’d appreciate it if you guys could just mail us if you have anything to suggest .our email


  9. Hey… thanx for the tips and all the comments too. I have just taken my first Video shots. I am in West Africa in Nigeria… in the Niger delta and am doing a documentary on the history and culture of my people ( an aboriginal and indigenous group!). its just a personal venture.. i ve got a a vacation after leaving University..whatever.. I have had no previous experience whatsoever.. i use a SONY DV8 fdor my first shot.. the new yam celebrations… emmm i am beginning my major work in 2 week.. ( interviews and all) . Its daunting.
    But hey! thanx everyone for ur tips am learning.. and if u ve got anything to say.. pleae shot.. am here

  10. Hey! I’m also from west Africa (Nigeria) and it’s always been my dream to become a documentary film maker. I believe that there is so much going on in Africa and all over ther world that is not realy being talked about. I’m really more interested in Aids, poverty and culture. I have no experience whatsoever and film schools are so freaking expensive. I’m a fast learner and would learn fast if there is anyone willing to teach and guide me. Pls feel free to mail me at

  11. I hope you can help me.

    I am a student of anthropology at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. One year ago I set in motion a project that would finish my degree and open up a plethora of opportunities for the future of my academic career. For the past year I have been working to create a documentary film about a spiritual movement within global dance culture. My film will be the first of its kind to show this side of dance culture from an outside perspective. I feel that the film will not only create an awareness of the movement but also help to destroy a long-standing stigma against the community.

    For the month of August and September I had planned to travel up and down the western coast of the United States attending intentional dance events and conducting interviews with numerous members of the community as well as scholars also involved with this community. My funding for this project rested upon a student loan that I have just recently learned I cannot receive due to an administrative glitch in the paperwork. The loan that I applied for was for the Fall semester, though my project has been registered with the university a summer session therefore the loan which I applied is no longer available to me.

    I am currently in San Francisco and halfway through my film and research
    with only a month left to go before I return with all my collected documentation. Due to the problems I have had with the loan I am looking for donations to help me finish my film and research. Contributions
    will help to pay for equipment, gas, entrance fees to events, and basic
    living and traveling expenses. If you are interested in sponsoring
    my project with a small donation, your contribution will be greatly
    appreciated and acknowledged in the film as well as at all of its showings.
    Any donation will be honored.

    Please help me to continue this amazing opportunity to bring my story back to you. Thank you so much for your time and I look forward to seeing you all at the film presentation following completion of this project. I look forward to your support. Please send your contribution to Andrew Johner, P.O. Box 901 Decatur, IL 62525. Feel email me if you have any questions.

    With grateful appreciation,

  12. Hi there,
    I’m a senior in high school and in a few months I will be participating in an awesome program at my school called Senior Project, where I will actually have a little over a month to leave the traditional classroom and explore basically any area I choose. Considering I’ve always wanted to make a documentary, but have never had the time, I’ve decided this is the route I’d like to take. One of my greatest passions being Spanish, and living in Chicago where we have an incredible Latino population, I’ve also decided that I’d like to focus my documentary somehow on the Latino population, and more specifically immigrants (both documented and illegal.)

    This being a pretty hot topic in the current times, I’d like to delve into the issue of illegal immigration – where and why and how often it occurs – but considering my time and resource constraints, I’d like to try and steer clear of politics as much as I can.

    Does anyone have any suggestions for me regarding how to approach a topic such as this? Above all I’m afraid of exploiting people, which is the last thing I want to do. How have other documentary makers shed light on a delicate subject without offending the people they wish to portray?

    I’d greatly appreciate any advice you have!

  13. I am doing a documentary for a personal project for the International Bacclaureate program i am in.
    Thank you

  14. So you want to make a docco! (documentary) 13-10-06

    With all the free to air, cable, and satellite television programs, all the internet viewing, sites such as YouTube and the many various and diverse viewing topics, you have decided that you would like to add your own unique individual style to a bottomless pit of viewing information.
    And you want to know… do I this?

    Well you have taken one step in the right direction, of which there are ultimately hundreds of thousands. You have made the right step in the fact you are looking for information on how to make a docco.
    You ask yourself how, who, what , when, where do I start! Who do I speak to? What equipment do I use. How do you I convey my ideas, who do I see or talk to, what do I shoot? For every question you ask yourself at this early stage another ten appear in your mind. It all seems so daunting, yet there is still the desire to make a film.

    Try, firstly to put your idea on paper or PC, so that you can read and visualize what it is that you are actually trying to form in your mind.
    What is the ultimate goal? Is it to inform, is it to make some money, is it to challenge yourself, is it to develop a career, is it for a hobby?! The reasons for making a docco can be as many and as varied as the topics themselves. Your reasons may or may not change as you progress through your journey as a film maker.
    By placing your idea on paper you can begin to put some structure into your idea. It gives you a start, a reference point from which to begin your journey.
    Hollywood moviemakers use something called a storyboard. They often use pictures.

    I want to make a documentary to inform, if I’m successful I would like to make money. I would like to make the world a better place, to allow people to change their thinking on particular issues and possibly improve living conditions and standards in areas where there is much room for improvement and understanding.

    You may already have a topic in mind. You know you want to convey your story via a film.
    Do you have the equipment? You can use a hand held video recorder, you can even use an older eight millimeter. Ask yourself what is my budget?
    As with anything in life ‘you get what you pay for’. What I mean by ‘pay for’ I don’t just mean in monetary terms. By applying a good deal of thought you are ‘paying’ with your brain.
    The quality and impact of your film will be directly dependent on the time, effort, and finances you decide to allocate to the making of it. If you have a great idea and a unique way of conveying it to your audience then you may very well succeed with an 8mm camera.
    If you can afford better equipment then do so. Every element that you can reasonable improve on, will make the final product that much more viewable by your audience.

    …… be continued.

  15. Hey,
    Thanx for the great tips, I think they will be very useful. I am a post graduate student from jamaica, west indies. I’m about to embark on a documentary about Classism in Jamaica (1st one ever). If n e one knows some good sources for me to formulate ideas or get material please halla at me at I’m so lost and don’t know where to start. PLEASE HELP.
    p.s. ur family seems so nice Pete.

  16. its a gud web site and i wana know more about how to make documentry how to add its music what should be the opening and evry information related to documnetry send me on my adress plzzzzzzz

  17. Are you looking or have been looking for financial assistance,help or loan?here comes a great opportunity.i am a certified and licensed lender and i have some money to lend out to any serious and honest person[s] or firm[s] who need either long or stort term loans at 4% as the interest rate,if interested contact me via

  18. I’m filming a mockumentary about the misadventures of a group of snowboarders. My shotgun mic is just terrible. Does anyone know the best value shotgun mic for the most reasonable price?

  19. hey, this is great, really interesting, but im still a little lost! im only 17 so iv never done anything like this before, but i want to do a film and television degree and they place a mega amount of emphasis on having a SERIOUSLY good pportfolio. My aunt has just qualified for next year’s special special olympics word games, and i was thinking this could be a really interesting (and accessible!) thing for me to document, the team’s training, etc, and also the mental illness side of it?
    My only problem is, i have no idea how to go about even beginning this! i have a JVC miniDV camcorder and…well that’s about it! my bedget isn’t exactly sufficient to cover any other euipment either, but in some ways that is the least of my worries. i want this to be as best as i possibly i can, and was just looking for tips on ow to go about filming it as a documentary?????!!!!

  20. Hey,
    I’m in Toronto and I’m currently putting together a storyboard about HIV/AIDS in Canada – is there anyone who is interested? It is my first documentary. I worked at the 16th Int’l AIDS Conference and was really inspired. However, I could use some help.
    Please e-mail me at

  21. Peter!!!!SO I have created a document to hand out to youth interested to make a doco…As of now I have included your pointers pointers (changed them around a bit though) I was wondering if this would bee okay to hand out as a resource to youth at a media that matters film festival in new zealand and to have as a resource at the NGO i work a t (global education center) Ill site this page on it.. if not ill take the pointers out. let me know….

    Here it is:
    So you want to make a documentary… There are no rules on how to make a documentary, however here are some ideas that may make the process a little easier.
    Starting: How to pick a topic: A documentary can be about pretty much anything as long as it remains based on fact and non-fictional The most important thing is to be interested and passionate about the topic you choose.
    Before you can go out and start filming it helps to have a plan to go by. Start by thinking about what the ultimate goal of the documentary is. What do you want to get across to the viewers? By
    Think about how you want to get across your idea. The two typical styles of docos are observational (tells a story as it happens by following the action and events of a story as they take place), reconstruction (tell the story after it’s happened via interviews and other material and dramatic reconstructions.)
    So are you sharing a personal experience? Are you trying to get a belief across or portray a balanced two-sided story? Do you want to include history behind your film or just a specific story/moment in time? These are some good things to think about and by placing your idea on paper you can begin to put some structure into it and you’ll have a reference point from which to start your journey.

    When creating films many filmmakers create a storyboard to help structure their thoughts and create path for the film to follow. Essentially a storyboard is to a film as an outline is to an essay except a storyboard contains pictures to represent the different shots and segments. Its purpose is to give you a rough guide of which to follow, yet doesn’t contain overly specific details or creativity. Once you have your storyboard complete you have a guide of what is going to be in your film so you know what you should go out and film. Seems unimportant? The thing is is that if you don’t have an outline of what you are going to do you can end up creating a lot more work for yourself in the end…you can get some blank story boards to fill in @@@@

    Many emotions and feelings can be expresses just on the angle in which you shoot something, or the lighting in the room…so think about what you want each shot to express before you start filming.

    Watching other films and docos can help give you a better understanding about the different techniques as well as give you ideas about where to go from here.

    Shooting: 10 Basic Techniques and pointers:

    1. How I film it has a big impact on the perceived image quality. Using a tripod for many shots can help improve the quality.
    2. Be aware of lightning. It may seem bright to you in the room, however before shooting an entire hours worth of film be sure to check how it looks on the camera first.
    3. Showing the visual evidence is more important for a documentary than shooting pretty shots.
    4. Hold that shot! First lesson not to look like an amateur: hold that shot. Don’t start zooming, panning and so on if not absolutely necessary. It makes it a lot harder to edit later on and can ruin entire segments.
    5. Sound is the hardest thing to get right. Sound is the one factor that tends to get forgotten about while shooting, and the problem is that you can’t fix bad sound. So it is worth taking the time to record good sound right from the start.
    6. When you’re finally doing the shoot, you don’t want technical problems. So bring a backup battery and lots of tapes.
    7. It’s nice to shoot little scenes that can complete other scenes (for example when you have a part that’s not usable because it’s out of focus).
    8. You can’t know exactly how the documentary will work out before doing it.
    9. You helps to watch what you filmed every evening to get a feel for what you’ve got, and where the documentary is going.
    10. Remember that you as the filmmaker may know a lot more than the audience knows on the subject and can run into the danger of assuming that they know when they don’t. So be sure not to leave out important details and information that will help strengthen your doco.
    And most importantly have fun!!!
    Cameras: Camcorders: Normally the bigger in physical size the CCD is, the better the quality of the picture captured. Nowadays there are a whole range of options, but normally a cheap camcorder or digital camera is fine.
    Sound: Sound tends to be forgotten about, and once recorded there is nothing that can fix bad sound, so your best bet is to get it right the first time. One thing that can help is using extra mics to get the sound. The most common mics are:
    · Broom: A large microphone attached to a broom/pole that enables one to get better sound without the mic or person holding the mic getting in the shot.
    · On camera mic/top microphone: The microphone that comes in the camera.
    · Radio microphone: A small mic that can be clipped onto somebody. It has a transmitter that is plugged into the camera. These are mainly used for interviews.
    When filming try to get the mic as close as possible to the subject and minimize background noise. Also listening through headphones will let you know what it will sound like when playing back, so that way you can fix any problems during the shoot.
    Lighting: Lighting is important as it can affect the mood and how your film is perceived. The best bet is to use available light. Also be aware that when filming outdoors the unforeseen may happen and it may affect the shots you take.
    Legal Rights: Music, film clips, photography, and certain other material cannot be used in films without permission. If in doubt be on the safe side and contact the person who created/owns what you would like to use and get their permission, or you can check out material which is available for anybody to use under the creative commons licence at This is a collection of videos, audio, images, essays and text which anybody can use if they follow the proper guidelines and give credit to the creators and ‘enables legal sharing and reuse of cultural, educational and scientific works.â€? Or you can always create your own stuff! Also get the permission of people you’re filming that it is okay to do so.

    So what are you interested in? Whatever it is go out and start filming!!!

  22. or if anybody thinks that there is anything else that i should add to this or take off or anything, id love some input

  23. OMG! whoever that Marilu person is, I AM DOING THE SAME THING FOR MY PERSONAL PROJECT this year!!! lol!
    i am currently working on a documentary on my school, and it would be really helpful is someone could give me some tips. e.g. should there be a topic to it? like a specific theme? or can it be a random collection of things about my school? i m really confused. also, is there any good and easy software to use? someone suggested me to use Pinnacle but i m not sure if that’s really the choice. also, is there any good sites with tutorials on filming? (i am asking a lotta q’s!!)
    it would be really really healpful if someone could give me some suggestions on my documentary too!!
    my e-mail address:

  24. Do Mini DVD and DVD recorders produce quality just as good as Mini DV? Please email me. I want to enter a film festival next week and have some money to buy a camera now.
    Thank YOU!

  25. i am 14 and i want to make a documentary i just need a little guidance on what to do. i also need info on where i can get sponsors because i am kind of broke. please email me back

  26. Interesting. This is the post that led me to your blog. My name happens to be Peter also, hehe.

    I have some prior experience with video work (weddings, mock reality show) but I’m researching online because for whatever reason I’m stuck on planning out what the point of documenting these musicians I work with is.

    Where are we trying to go? What is going to be conveyed. What is the point of each video release and how is it going to attract viewers that enjoy the content… all that fun stuff :P

  27. Thanks for the awesome info.

    In July 2007, have there been any newer recomendations for camera or sound equipment?

  28. What about signed releases?

    When you interview somebody do you have to get written permission to use their image and words?

    I’ve been looking this up on the net and haven’t found an answer. I hope somebody here can help answer this.

    Thanks in advance.

  29. hi iam sheetal from nepal. i am alwaays like to make documentry film in nepal there are somany culture in nepal .i have some script that i want make documnetry init. i wnat taht somebody help me in finanacial support i want then we can together make good documentry film . thanks

  30. i am from nepal and have a subject to make a dacumentry about a human body organ traffiking.i am student of multimadia and visual i dont have financial support to make a film on this topic so if anybody wants to do so he/she national and international person or baner can contact me on this or phone me 9779841327423.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s