10 Easy Steps To Making An Amazing Documentary Film

Tressa Sanders @ Travel Star Magazine

In 2007 I flew to Florida from New York for some documentary filmmaking. I filmed my last two documentaries, Our Side of Joy and Charise: A Portrait of an African American with Albinism.  I'd filmed my first documentary back in 2002 but I was very new to documentary filmmaking at the time. That doc turned out pretty good but there were certain key elements missing. So when I decided to film another documentary (or two) I made sure I didn't make the same mistakes again. So I purchased books on documentary filmmaking and studied films like Bus 174, When The Levees Broke, White Light/Black Rain, North Korea: Crossing The Line, and 4 Little Girls to name a few.

Quite frankly, all of the documentary filmmaking books were a waste of money. When I buy a "How-to" book I want to know how-to and why in concise steps. A lot of "How-to" books fail at this. If you can find a seasoned filmmaker to learn from or attend a workshop, then do so. Nothing can replace the value of apprenticeship.

The filming of both documentaries went so smoothly, I knew I had to share my process with other documentary filmmakers. It isn't that one should expect a film project to not go smoothly, it's just that there are many areas where your film can fall apart if you don't have a plan. So, I'm sharing with you my plan.

*Note: My plan is designed for the self-financed filmmaker. There is no fundraising step. All of my films are self-financed from a regular 9-5 job.

1. Find yourself a worthwhile story: May I suggest that you first look to yourself, your family, and your friends for a good story. Then perhaps consider filming a documentary about people you knew in school, growing up or at work. If this is your first or second documentary, try to avoid elaborate subjects (those that will require archival footage, searching for people, extensive research, etc.) unless you are fully prepared and/or fully funded.

2. Make a list of potential participants: Choose the best and most accessible people to tell your story. Once you have decided who you would like to invite to be in the film, ask each of them if they would like to participate. Explain to them what your film is about and what you hope to accomplish with the film (i.e. to educate the public, etc.) Give them some time to consider your invitation. Check back with them in a reasonable amount of time; a couple of weeks, to see if they have come to a decision. Never try to hound a person or make them feel guilty if they choose not to participate.

It is also considered unethical to offer compensation for participating in documentary films (this doesn't usually include expert information (i.e. doctors about a specific medical issue, lawyer about specific laws, etc.). Some may require compensation for their time). I completely agree with this. If you are going to ask people to be in your film, be sure to let them know up front that there will be no compensation for their participation. So far this seems to be widely accepted and I've had no real problems with this.

3. Gather your crew if any: Once you have your story and your list of confirmed participants it is time to gather your crew if you choose to. I shot both recent documentaries alone so a crew is not entirely necessary. However, I will say that I would have liked to have had one other person with me to set up the lights while I readied the camera and audio. That is about it. It is up to you to decide how many crew members you will need. Keep in mind you are filming a documentary, so you don't need the hordes of crew you might find in fictional feature films.

This is also a good time to find a photographer(s) for your film's promotional material. I used two photographers for my current films. This is essential for having professional photos to use in your press kit and other promotional material. You can schedule photoshoots or have the photographer on set to take pictures while you are shooting. Be sure to ask photographers if they will do Time for Prints/CD if you are on a limited budget. Also be sure to obtain the rights to the images from the photographer. You only need a few photos for your promotion so you should be able to work something out at reasonable rate or at no cost.

4. Make your:
___ Story outline
___ List of Interview Questions
___ List of B-Roll footage you need to get
___ List of Equipment
___ List of Shooting Locations
___ List of Forms: Talent, Location, Photographer
___ Shooting Schedule

For your equipment, if you don't own it already, this is the time to call around for rental prices and add to your shooting schedule when you will need to pick up and return equipment. I used an income tax return to purchase my equipment. I did this because I currently do not live in an area where one can rent film equipment and I also film quite often, even if it isn't available for public viewing (i.e. filming my travels, experimental shorts, etc.). Choose the best option for you and your budget when considering equipment.

I also want to add that your shooting schedule is what makes your film actually happen. It should be tight and accurate. Stick to it! Your shooting schedule should reflect the availability of your subjects and thus there should be no issues other than possible emergencies. Skip anyone who can not consistently stick to the schedule. You just may not have time for someone who keeps giving you the run around. If the schedule was mapped out months before hand and rechecked/confirmed a week or so before shooting, then all participants should be available for filming unless an emergency has arose. It may be worthwhile to interview more than one person or expert about the same subject/topic in case one changes their mind or otherwise can not stick to the schedule. Use your own judgment on your schedule but just keep in mind, your project does have to move on to the next stage at some point and shouldn't linger in one stage too long.

5. Create a shooting binder & make any travel or special arrangements if needed: A shooting binder is absolutely essential for a solo filmmaker or small crew. It is just a cheap 3 ring binder that has only the essentials for shooting your film from start to finish. It should include a contact list for your participants, your shooting schedule, interview questions, B-Roll footage list, equipment checklist, and all of your release forms. At this point you should also take a day or so to make any travel or special arrangements.

6. Shoot your film & obtain all:
___ Home videos
___ Archival videos
___ Photos
___ Other supporting documents and media
___ Signed releases for these items
___ Signed releases for your participants

Make sure you view the footage you shoot every day on the day you shoot it. This will give you a chance to find problems with your footage early enough to re-shoot if needed. Doing this allowed me to schedule a re-shoot of bad footage from my first day of filming on one of my recent films.

Carry a high capacity USB drive or portable hard drive in case you need to scan photos or transfer video footage from various sources. For instance, I had a portable hard drive to which I scanned all of the family photos to be used in both films. If you are going to obtain home videos in particular, make copies or if you have to use the originals, transfer them to your hard drive or DVD immediately and return the originals. Also as a courtesy to the participants allowing you to use personal videos, do create a DVD of this footage for them if the originals are on any media other than DVD.

7. When you are done shooting go home and:
___ Cut your film
___ Create your film website
___ Create the Previews
___ Start your press kit

This is an important documentary filmmaking step. Working on these items before delving into your film will help you process your footage (This works well for me but may not for you. Give it a try). You will find yourself more in tuned with what you actually filmed. I shot a lot of footage for both of my documentaries. The first thing I did was cut it when I returned home. In doing so, it left me with over 8 hours of footage for each documentary. That is a lot of information!

It wasn't until I finished all of the previews that the best story for each film became clear. By the time I started the press kit, I knew exactly what each film will focus on. This is also when you want to start promoting your film. Release your previews on every relevant internet outlet you can find (i.e. YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, etc.).

Be sure to promote your film's website every chance you get. Create and distribute a press release. Get familiar with print media outlets. Don't depend solely on the internet for promotion. Get in contact with magazines that may be interested in the topic of your film and inquire about being interviewed for the magazine.

8. Edit your film from start to finish: Get to it! Be life-less for a little while. If you have a job, use your time wisely when you aren't working. I edit all of my films so I'm writing this under the assumption you will also edit your own film. If you will be using an editor, use one who has wonderful time management skills. This should be a rule of thumb for your entire production. Stay away from people who can not complete their portion of the project in a timely manner.

When editing, you want to create an interesting visual story, but at the same time remind yourself that you are editing a documentary. It doesn't have to be fancy; just effective. I watched films like Chernobyl Heart and Children Underground to remind me of how simple a doc can be and still be extremely captivating. It's up to you how you want to spice up your film while having the story progress in a straight forward manner.

9. Submit your film to festivals & say thank you: This is entirely up to you. In the end, why not? If you've worked hard on a film and you feel you have a good story that people will enjoy watching, then by all means submit your film to festivals. This is also a good way to promote your film and build a fan base. Not only will these fans buy your film but they will also support your future films. With this exposure, you may also find yourself with invitations to participate in other film projects. This has happened to me and I haven't even submitted my films to festivals yet.

Do not forget to say a special thank you to all who participated in your film. Invite them to EVERY festival where the film will be screened. Make sure all of your credits for the film are correct. Give credit where credit is due. This is also true for promotional material.

10. Show your film at festivals, promote and sell your film: This is the grind. Have FUN showing your film at festivals. Be relaxed on this journey into filmmaking. This is supposed to be creative fun. When it becomes anything other than that, it's time to evaluate your life goals. With this in mind, let the kinks along the road roll off and keep moving. Show your film at festivals and enjoy yourself. This attitude will in turn help sell your film. Talk to viewers and be positive, even if they aren't. Keep in mind that it really doesn't matter what they say about the film, it's already been made. It's not going to change. *Smile* So with that in mind, take it easy.

*Another Note: I must add that above all else you must believe in yourself and your film. Even the participants in your film may not even care about it or may not care about it until it's complete. So have this understanding before you get started. If you hear other filmmakers say "no one cares about your film but you." for the most part this is correct. This seems to be directly related to "The Making Of" because of course people care about the film once it's complete. This is important to understand beforehand because it is easy to get discouraged if you feel like no one cares about what you are doing. They don't. They just care about the end result of what you are doing that will educate, entertain or make them money.

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