There weren’t relatively nearly as many documentaries before 1980, but over the last 4 decades the “genre” has rapidly risen to become one of the most popular forms of filmmaking. The criteria for a good documentary film is subject, just as it is for any other art form, however that doesn’t mean you should just charge head-first into it, following these key documentary filmmaking techniques will greatly benefit your film and yourself – regardless of your unique vision for the film.
6 universal tips for great documentary filmmaking:
- Choose an interesting subject:
This should be the first and most important thing you do, as you don’t want a 2 month filming process to conclude with the realisation that the finished documentary will be boring (even to you!). This is difficult; as of course everyone will find different things interesting. So the best way of approaching will be to strip all façade from the subject matter and consider whether there is a genuine and compelling human story to be told. If so then regardless of the eventual subject matter your documentary will most crucially tell a compelling story.
- Get the right crew:
Documentary filming schedules can be unstructured, so get a crew that is flexible, open to work in a moments notice, and passionate – you don’t want someone complaining and asking when lunch will be.
- Go to documentary film festivals!
This can be before filming, during, or in post-production. You can meet some of the best, most well respected documentary filmmakers currently working. In doing so, you can learn about their filmmaking process and get first-hand tips from them. Admission is normally fairly affordable (students can usually get discounts), and it is certainly worthwhile to be inspired if you’re interested in documentary filmmaking.
- Get the right support around you and have patience:
Documentary is a long-form process; meaning you will end up reels and reels (or hard drives and hard drives) of footage, which you will need to whittle down in the editing stage. This can be very hard at points, ending a day and realising none of the footage from that day is useful – you need perseverance and the right support around you to keep filming usually on a hectic, ever-changing schedule.
- Consider your equipment:
Not everyone will have access to huge, professional cameras that probably cost more than most people’s car, but that doesn’t matter, if your subject matter requires a fast moving crew and lots of travel, you don’t want to be carrying round heavy equipment with you, in fact that’ll make your footage worse as you can’t capture quick authentic moments. You can even shoot on a smart-phone now, most have a great camera set up and with the right app you tailor it to you (companies like Olloclip and iOgrapher even produce equipment just for this). If something between the two extremes sounds better, then a quality DSLR, a few lenses, a tripod and an audio set up will also need to be very adaptable to the variety of footage you’ll end up shooting.
- Watch the right kinds of documentaries:
Depending on the style of documentary you want to emulate, you will want to educate and inspire yourself with those films; whether that be crime re-enactment documentaries like The Thin Blue Line, long-form character pieces like Hoop Dreams, or more grounded investigative pieces like many of Louis Theroux’s documentaries. Watch the best films there are to watch, get ideas from them, and hope some of the greatness rubs off on you!
Documentary filmmaking is a tough passion to pursue; however it is also very rewarding. We hope these tips for documentary filmmaking help minimise the toughness and maximise the rewards – now get out there and shoot!