Loring Weisenberger
March 1, 2022

How to Make a Documentary: A Guide to the Key Stages of Documentary Production

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If you’re wondering how to make a documentary, you’ve come to the right place.

In this post, we walk you through the basic stages of making a documentary film step by step, providing real-life examples, insightful interviews, and useful links along the way. 

While we primarily focus on feature documentaries in this post, we’ve provided useful tips that are inherent to both documentary films and documentary series. 

Let’s get into it.

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How to make a documentary: an introduction

Before we zoom in on the nitty-gritty of documentary production, we need to take a brief moment to dispel a myth. Let me put it simply:

There is no single, solitary method for creating a documentary. 

That’s right. There is no official rulebook for how to make a documentary, no industry-standard documentary making app that you have to download, and no rigid instructions for how to film a documentary that you have to follow.

Different docs call for different measures.

Making a documentary like My Octopus Teacher, for example, requires a very different process compared to making a documentary like The Thin Blue Line. Likewise, both of those films followed completely different methods of documentary production than those followed by Senna, The Missing Picture, or Dark Days.

Director Pippa Ehrlich discuss the unique process behind “My Octopus Teacher.”

And these award-winning films are just a small sample of the wide variety of docs found around the world. 

Making a documentary film step by step is a fluid, open-ended process. The question is not necessarily “What makes a good documentary?” so much as it is “What makes a good documentary to you?”

To properly understand how to make a documentary, the most important task is to figure out how to make a documentary that first satisfies your creative needs, and those of the story you’re trying to tell.

However, as with any creative endeavor, there is an element of common craft involved when deciding how to make a documentary.

While the characteristics of a good documentary are subjective and the methods of making a documentary are ultimately malleable, there are a few basic stages of documentary production that every documentary film will navigate in some form or another.

To make your own documentary, you’ll have to discover your process. And as you create more docs, you’ll likely personalize that process, but familiarizing yourself with the basic stages of documentary production first, will create an ideal foundation for that journey.

Let’s dive into the first section of our guide to making a documentary film step by step.

The stages of documentary production

The basic stages of documentary production mirror the basic stages of any kind of film production.

But the process of making a documentary film step by step has its own norms, best practices, and typical quirks. And these quirks also exist when making a documentary series. 

A quick note on documentary features vs documentary series

*While there are differences between making a documentary feature vs documentary series, these stages are general enough and focus on the foundational steps that are inherent to both types. 

In the following sections, we’ll explore the basic requirements of how to create a documentary and highlight a few unusual challenges you might come up against in figuring out how to make your own documentary. But again, these aren’t golden rules. 

We’ll start at the beginning.

How to make a documentary: pre-production

As with any feature film or show, making a documentary begins with a single idea.

However, while a feature film traditionally begins with developing that idea into a screenplay and flows naturally into physical pre-production, the first stage of figuring out how to make a documentary might be just a tad more open-ended. *Though, don’t kid yourself, many docs are heavily produced just like films or television shows.

You can divide the pre-production processes of making a documentary film into two broad categories: research and planning.

1. Research

Making a documentary film step by step nearly always requires multiple waves of research, and quality research is one of the most important characteristics of a good documentary.

In many ways, you could say that research fuels the earliest phases of documentary production entirely.

Research is essential to developing the core concepts of your film or series. It serves to focus your ideas, broaden your understanding of your topic as a filmmaker, and even unearth new characters and storylines.

If you’re wondering how to make a documentary that’s well-researched, the key is to be thorough.

With an open mind, seek out as many reputable sources as possible, and if you’re having trouble getting started, try looking into any of the following:

  • Archival Footage
  • Public Records
  • Newspaper Archives
  • Academic Research Papers
  • Published Literature
  • Interviews (or other firsthand accounts)

When creating a documentary, your body of research will come together like a spider web of ideas. If you’re persistent, one source will lead you to another source, which will lead to a third source, a fourth source, and so on, until you have the knowledge you need to get your story off the ground.

And there are other times when you’ll discover such rich and fascinating details about a subject’s life or about a particular situation that will make it difficult to know which direction you should take your film. Such was the case for filmmakers David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg when working on their feature documentary, We Are As Gods, a film that dives deep into the life of Stewart Brand ---the environmental tech wizard that so few people seem to know about. Alvarado spoke to Wrapbook about their process and how hard it was to choose just one aspect of Brand’s life.

But as you make your own documentary, the beginning of your research will likely require a wide-open sensibility. As the project develops, however, you’ll find a point of view beginning to form.

That point of view will be an important consideration as you begin to plan your documentary production in detail.

2. Plan

In contrast with pre-production on feature films or television shows, there often isn’t a screenplay to guide a filmmaker through the basic question of how to make a documentary’s story come to life.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a plan.

Documentary stories often do evolve with time, but the filmmaker’s approach needs to be thought-out in advance if the film is going to be cohesive in its final form. Therefore, making a documentary requires a great deal of preparation. As mentioned previously, documentaries are often still heavily produced projects just because the people and situations are real.

Traditionally, this first involves creating some version of an outline.

It may be an outline of the story itself or it may be an outline of your planned approach to telling that story. The best choice of the two depends on the circumstances surrounding both yourself as a filmmaker and the subjects of your story as they exist in the real world.

In either case, the goal is to combine your point of view with the research you’ve conducted in a way that clarifies your documentary’s core ideas and provides structure to your upcoming documentary production phase. *Note this is not the same thing as being biased. Staying unbiased and letting the research guide you in a structured way is still a point of view. 

That structure will then guide you in mapping out your production both logistically and aesthetically. At this stage, you’ll find it helpful to generate other organizational documents, potentially but not necessarily including:

  • Schedules
  • Budgets
  • Shot Lists
  • Storyboards
  • Beat Sheets
  • Look-books
  • Interview Outlines  
  • Etc.

Any organizational documents you generate should serve to keep your documentary production moving forward. They can be anything that helps you and your collaborators better communicate how to film a documentary that best tells the truth of your story.

Errol Morris discusses truth in documentary films.

However, before we move on, there is an important caveat we should point out about how to make a documentary.

When it comes to creating a documentary, as with mice and men, the best laid plans often go awry.

Plan but allow for surprises

Documentary production is about following the story, even if it leads you hard and far away from your initial outline in the process. It’s best to accept upfront that no matter how much conceptualizing or planning you do as you make your own documentary, the story will almost certainly force you to take it in surprising directions along the way.

And that’s a good thing.

Reaction, insight, and patience are some of the most important traits that a filmmaker can develop while figuring out how to make a documentary. What makes a good documentary is largely determined by the filmmaker’s dedication to their subject.

When Barbara Kopple began production on Harlan County, USA, she was planning to make a film about a simple union election. However, when a group of miners went on strike against a major corporation, the director switched her film’s focus and spent the next four years observing the situation and crafting one of the most unforgettable documentaries in American cinema.

Barbara Kopple talks about her film “Harlan County, U.S.A.”

The unpredictability of documentary filmmaking is arguably its greatest strength. Of course, as it relates to how to film a documentary, that same unpredictability naturally brings up a few critical questions.

3. Budget

If you’re going to make your own documentary, you’re going to need money. The mechanisms of film financing play a major role in figuring out how to create a documentary, just as they do in making any other kind of feature film or television show.

However, the strange reality of documentary filmmaking is that its exact costs are often hard to pin down in advance.

How much does it cost to make a documentary?

As mentioned above, stories tend to unfold in unexpected ways. One major consequence of this is that budgets too tend to unfold in unexpected ways.

Extra shoot days are added. The post period extends beyond your initial expectations. New evidence comes to light that forces you to re-shoot crucial interviews. 

When you make your own documentary, any shift in circumstance could carry a shift in cost.

No spoilers, but let’s just say the filmmakers behind “The Jinx” know a thing or two about shifting evidence.

But when you’re figuring out how to film a documentary, it’s important to remember that there is an upside to the financial variability of documentary production.

With modern technology, the variety of physical methods for how to make a documentary on a professional level has broadened considerably. There may not be a magic documentary making app quite yet, but cameras, editing software, and other filmmaking tools are more accessible than ever before.

That doesn’t mean that making a documentary is easy, of course, but it does mean that documentary filmmakers now have more options.

And what exactly does that mean for a documentary’s cost?

It means that a filmmaker’s plan for how to create a documentary can be more easily scaled to the size of their budget. A filmmaker can adjust their physical means of production to meet the financial means of their production’s bank account.

Many documentary films are financed by private means, whether personal or through a production company. However, public funds in the forms of grants, fellowships, and other resources are available. Crowdfunding sites are common. 

Looking at the content of your doc is also a smart way to find interested investors. For We Are As Gods, filmmakers Alvarado and Sussberg knew those in Silicon Valley would likely be interested in their documentary about Stewart Brand, the man who started the first ever Hackers conference in 1984. And sure enough a reputable fin-tech company, Stripe, got on board and funded the film.

If you’re interested in learning more about documentary funding, check out this list of financial resources for documentary filmmaking provided by the AmDoc organization.

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4. Get Permission

When you’re trying to figure out how to film a documentary on a budget, the question of permissions inevitably pops up.

Do you need permission to make a documentary?

And the short answer to the above question is that it all depends.

Documentaries are technically bound by the same intellectual property laws as any other film.

Fortunately, that also includes the principles of free use and fair use.

In determining whether or not you need permission in making a documentary, the key question is whether or not you’re legally protected. To that end, the best advice is always to see what an entertainment lawyer or other appropriate legal professional thinks.

But there are also standard production procedures that you’ll likely want to follow.

In a documentary, you may not have to jump through all of the contractual hoops of working with one of the major talent agencies, but you should absolutely create and collect appropriate types of model release forms. Without them, you may not have permission to use many of the images you’ve recorded.

5. Get Insurance

Similarly, the fact that you’re making a documentary does not necessarily mean you’re exempt from production insurance or permit requirements.

If you’re searching for production insurance and are unsure what you need, give the intuitive quote builder a try to see exactly how Wrapbook can service your insurance needs.

How to Make a Documentary - Get Insurance - Quote Builder - Wrapbook
Get an insurance quote from Wrapbook to help budget your doc.

Ensuring your specific needs vary with each project but obtaining a certificate of insurance is critical before filming. If you have any questions, reach out to one of Wrapbook’s insurance experts. 

6. Obtain Permits

And as far as permits go, we’ve got you covered there too.

In addition to our in-depth handbook on Los Angeles permits, and our New York Film Permits ebook, you can find essential guides to the permitting process in most major U.S. production hubs on the Wrapbook blog.  Check out our current selection of permit guides below:

For any type of production, obtaining a permit is usually a huge part of the planning process.

Next up, what about the production stage?

The production phase of documentary filmmaking is part traditional storytelling and part investigative journalism.

On the one hand, you’re trying to figure out how to create a documentary that speaks to an audience that is probably new to your subject matter. It needs to clearly communicate characters, ideas, and events.

But on the other hand, you’re also trying to figure out how to create a documentary from materials that are evolving all the time. The documentary form requires that you, as a filmmaker, be present and engaged with the pursuit of your subject matter.

These two concerns may seem divided, but they’re actually joined by one very straightforward goal.

Under any circumstance, the goal of your documentary’s production phase is to gather any footage you might need to tell your story.

However, though the goal may be simple, deciding on the exact method by which you achieve it might not be. Figuring how to film a documentary requires more creative thinking than a first-timer might expect.

7. Listen to the pros

In his keynote address at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, celebrated filmmaker Michael Moore outlined his 13 Rules for Making a Documentary Film. On the topic of how to film a documentary, an excerpt from his first rule cuts straight to the heart of the matter:

“The first rule of documentaries is: Don’t make a documentary — make a MOVIE. Stop making documentaries. Start making movies.”

Moore’s thoughts on how to film a documentary suggest that there should be no rigid aesthetic framework for documentary production. He’s implying that decisions on how to film a documentary are constrained only by the limits of cinema itself as an art form.

And he’s not alone. Just look at a few examples.

How to film a documentary

Documentarian duo Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, for instance, worked almost exclusively in a direct cinema style of documentary filmmaking. Foregoing narration and “talking head” interviews, Hegedus and Pennebaker relied on their cameras’ power of raw observation to make films like Town Bloody Hall, The War Room, and Startup.com.

Meanwhile, brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross combine raw observation with situations that have been carefully crafted by their own hands. As a result, films like Western, 45365, and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets transform traditional documentary aesthetics into a strange theater of real human behaviors.

Finally, Errol Morris combines direct-to-camera interviews, found footage, and re-enactments made with professional actors into cinematic investigations of real life human beings.

The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, and The Fog of War all explore their subjects with a depth and intensity that few artists have ever achieved, regardless of whether they’re working in a fictional or documentary form.

And that really is just the tip of the iceberg.

Shirley Clarke blurred the line between documentary and avant-garde cinema with Skyscraper. Julien Faraut turned found sports footage into tongue-in-cheek poetry with John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection. And Werner Herzog used ominous voiceover and lingering cameras to turn one individual’s tragic tale into a long, hard look into the existential void with Grizzly Man.

Werner Herzog talks about critical decisions in the making of Grizzly Man.

Seriously, the list goes on and on.  

In deciding how to film a documentary, the right decision is always the one that best supports the story that you want to tell, whether that means talking heads or animated infographics or just audio played over a pitch-black screen.

Next time you’re trying to figure out how to make a documentary, our best advice is to take Michael Moore’s advice:

Stop making documentaries. Start making movies.

How to film a documentary interview

Just as there are many methods for filming a documentary, there are many methods of filming a documentary interview. You may want to use any one of them or even several within a single film.

In his six-part investigative documentary Q: Into the Storm, for instance, director Cullen Hoback mixes heavily formalized interviews with informal conversations and even off-the-cuff phone call recordings to capture his subjects and the varying facades they present in different circumstances.

Check out this DIY build for Errol Morris’ famous “Interrotron” interview set-up.

When you’re deciding how to create a documentary interview set-up for your own film, consider first asking yourself fundamental questions about your movie, your story, and your interview subject.

Here are just a few examples to get you started:

  • Who is my interview subject?
  • Why am I interviewing this particular subject?
  • Who is my interview subject as a character in my film?
  • How do I want my interview subject to feel?
  • How do I want my audience to feel?
  • Who am I in relation to my interview subject?
  • Who do I want to be in relation to my interview subject?
  • What kind of information do I want from my interview subject?
  • What is my story?
  • What is my story missing?

Once you understand the goals of an interview or set of interviews, you can then craft an aesthetic that supports those goals.  At that point, the decisions for how to make a documentary that best suits your needs are entirely up to you and your own creativity as a filmmaker.

How to make a documentary: post-production

Post-production in documentary filmmaking follows a similar post-production workflow as that of any other feature film, but with one major twist.

With documentaries, post-production and production are often happening at the exact same time. 

While this is also likely true with shows (sending dailies), or big features where certain crew members stay in contact with the editor throughout filming, they generally are only preparing for post-production, and post doesn’t start until principal is wrapped. Though of course, every project will differ. But with documentary filmmaking, getting footage and shaping it in the editing room, is much more simultaneous. And a lot of this is because of logistical reasons. 

8. Stay organized

Organization is the key documentary post-production.

Documentaries are typically not shot within a traditional period of principal photography. Instead, footage comes in across multiple dates as the story allows.

As a result, the key to documentary post-production is often organization.

Footage and other materials need to be catalogued, organized, and noted in ways that make them readily accessible as the film begins to take shape. You don’t want to wind up searching for hours for a single clip that might be perfect or might be irrelevant for your next cut.

9. Map or remap your story outline

Additionally, during post-production, filmmakers should revisit their story outline or consider crafting a brand new one. Once the amount of footage you have in your possession has reached critical mass, it will be helpful to map out your story before diving into it.

And if you were wondering how to make a documentary with photos (like Ken Burns) post-production is the time when it will all come together.

Ken Burns on the infamous “Ken Burns Effect” in video editing.

10. Find a great editor

Post-production software like AVID Media Composer, Adobe Premiere, Adobe After Effects, and many others are used to stitch footage, photos, sound and any other materials your story needs together into a finished form.

Then, once your documentary is ready to be seen, it’s time to move on to the final stage of documentary filmmaking.

The last stage when making a documentary? Distribution

The final stage of documentary filmmaking is getting your film seen by an audience.

Documentary film distribution has often proved challenging in the past, but the advent of the internet and shifts in audience taste has led to a renaissance in the availability of documentaries of all types.

11. Go the festival route

Traditionally, independent documentaries begin their journey towards distribution on the festival circuit. Filmmakers will screen their projects at festivals around the world in hopes that a distributor or similar entity will take notice and get the film in front of our collective eyeballs.

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12. Get it on a streaming service

But while festival strategies and documentaries made directly for television are still common occurrences, the proliferation of streaming video services has added a few new twists to the old system.

How do you get a documentary on Netflix (or any other streaming platform)?

To get a film on Netflix, you have to start by attracting the attention of their content programmers.

But that’s easier said than done.

There are several strategies you might follow to grab a streaming service’s attention, and all of them are valid.

You might try to establish contact with a content programmer directly, for example, or you might try to establish contact indirectly by getting your film featured in a major publication. You might still choose to tour your film on the festival circuit, or you could build buzz online through social media.

With enough creativity, the options are seemingly endless, but there are no guarantees with any one method. It’s best to choose a combination of approaches that appeals to both your film’s characteristics and your team’s skill sets.

In any case, the goal is to make your project appear as attractive as possible in order to appeal to those who have decision-making power at your streaming service of choice.

And the bottom line is that if a strategy works, it works.

BONUS: How to make a documentary short

Short-form documentary filmmaking follows the exact same process as its long-form counterpart, but everything happens on a much smaller scale.

Therefore, the key to making a short documentary is to focus, simplify, and sharpen your story as much as is possible.

A short documentary’s runtime holds little room for meandering tales. Each second is crucial, and smaller moments are amplified because of their relative size.

And that’s exciting.

Internet encounters with short documentaries are increasingly common, and the form is consequently reaching levels of quality and prestige that would have been impossible only a few decades ago.

It could be that documentary shorts are now receiving more attention than ever before in the history of filmmaking.

Wrapping Up

If you’re thinking of making a documentary, now is the perfect time to get started.

And if you’re gearing up for a shoot right now, be sure to check our breakdown of the best filmmaking tools and software of 2021.

Disclaimer

At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

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About the Author

Loring Weisenberger

Loring is a Los Angeles-based writer, director, and creative producer. His work has been commissioned by a diverse range of clients- from Havas Worldwide to Wisecrack, inc.- and has been screened around the world. Through a background that blends project development with physical production across multiple formats, Loring has developed a uniquely eclectic skillset as a visual storyteller.

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