Documentary filmmaking: The Complete Guide

Documentary filmmaking has been a staple in filmmaking for the past couple of centuries and today we will explore Documentary filmmaking basics with the ins and outs of the full process and how you can develop your own documentary, from the initial concept to the final distribution.

Like most of us, you will have watched one documentary or another, ranging from recent classics like “The Tiger King” to the older classics like “Chronicle of a Summer” filmed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin.

Today we will look in-depth into documentary filmmaking and how you can research, produce and market your own documentary for the world to see.

What is a documentary?

Documentary Filmmaking Basics

Documentaries have been around since the start of filmmaking, and a real stripped-down basic way to define a documentary is: A documentary is a factual film that uses images and interviews to tell a factual story in a cinematic way.

There are many sub-genres in documentary filmmaking you can explore, these include:

  • Expository: This is usually presented in an objective way and mainly narrated through image and video.
  • Poetic: A documentary that relies on images and video with little or no narration.
  • Observational: This is usually filmed as a fly-on-the-wall style where it attempts to show raw and untouched footage, with little to no narration.
  • Performance: This is in reference to a recorded live performance of a concert or play.
  • Interview: This is an interview with the aim to discuss and debate topics and recorded to be watched by intrigued viewers.

Would you like to read more about the types of documentary genres? Click here to learn more.

How do you pick your documentary’s subject?

Documentary Filmmaking Basics

This is hugely important, this is a factor that can change your filmmaking career and elevate you to the next level – “but it’s only the subject, why’s it so important?”.

Choosing your documentaries subject is really important and you really need to look at a few factors to choose the right subject for you. Everyone is different and the more interest you have in the subject the better you stand in creating a memorable, powerful documentary.

A couple of things to consider when deciding on your documentary subject:

What is visually interesting?

This is when you have a look into the subject of your documentary, sit back and have a think if it will be visually appealing to the audience.

Will you be able to provide a visual performance that will capture the viewer’s attention and keep them hooked on your documentary’s subject?

What’s a keen interest of yours?

Look at what your interests are and subjects you are intrigued about, as the documentary process takes a long time, possibly years, you’ll want to be interested in the subject to help you get through and enjoy the process.

What’s accessible to you?

Accessibility is key, especially if you are a new filmmaker. You don’t want to be trying to spend hundreds of thousands on equipment and interviews, and money you don’t have.

Have a think of what materials, resources and personnel you have available and produce an outline that meets your needs as well as the resources available.

You may have to scale back on a few things and compromise but it will mean you’ll have a well-built plan and will be able to complete the documentary to the best of your ability and without huge debts accruing.

READ MORE: Four ways to take documentary filmmaking to the next level

How to develop your documentary

Once you’ve decided on the subject and have an outline of the resources needed, you are ready to move onto the next few steps to get your documentary planned out in detail.

Let’s have a look at the next steps before your documentary steps up into production. Documentaries generally don’t use large crews, the crews are usually quite small and the equipment used isn’t usually blockbuster level equipment, which is a benefit, as it means that documentary filmmaking has a lower barrier of entry.

Let’s check out some suggestions for equipment set up to help you get the most out of your shoot.

Camera setup

pexels-donald-tong-66134 (1)The camera setup is an integral piece to the documentary filmmaking puzzle, however, most DSLR’s will work perfectly for this. DSLR’s are perfect for documentary filmmaking as they work well at capturing crisp and clear footage when interviewing and provide the quality for the B-roll footage.

DSLR’s also link well to sound equipment and can sync audio with video really well, perfect for capturing fly on the wall audio and interviews.

Here’s a guide to help you understand which DSLR camera would suit you best, check it out here.

Lighting Setup

pexels-rodolfo-clix-1036936 (1) (1)Lighting… Now you have your camera of choice, you will want to ensure you light your interviews correctly capturing your interviewee in the correct way. This combined with the camera angles will help you tell the story of your documentary in the right way.

There are a plethora of options, but one that’s most commonly used is the LED lights setup. LED lights are a great option for documentary filmmakers as they don’t cost a huge amount, are far more energy-efficient and don’t produce huge amounts of heat.

For more information on how to get the best out of your lighting setup, feel free to check out our lighting guide.

Sound engineering setup

pexels-skitterphoto-33970 (1)Sound is the final part of the setup, now you have your lighting and camera’s set up, it’s now to focus on the audio – without audio, the documentary is a non-starter.

A shotgun mic setup is very popular with documentary filmmaking and you can buy a quality shotgun mic at a reasonable price that will capture extremely high-quality audio.

another audio setup to consider is using lav mics (lavalier microphones) that attach to the subject’s clothing, this works ideal for interviews and allows you to capture the sound at the highest level.

With this combination, the correct lighting and perfect camera setup, you will capture the raw emotion of the subject and pull through the narration that tells the documentaries story with the subjects emotional intensity.

Read more on setting up your audio and the different methods in our guide for audio setup and audio editing here.

How to film your documentary

There’s a lot to consider when filming your documentary, it’s not just interviewing, you have to consider cinematic b-roll and narrative shots just to name a few. They’re great for transitioning from an interview into another piece allowing the story to flow.

We will cover the different shots you’ll need to film a complete documentary:

Exposition shots

These are shots to establish the subject, to show you where it is, who it is and what it is. You’ll find these are similar to establishing shots in filmmaking, they’re usually of buildings, museums, parks etc to give you an idea of where it is and what it is.


pexels-yoss-cinematic-2611465 (1)B-roll is very important to your documentary, it’s great to have the B-roll to transition between takes but also to use when the interview is taking place as the interviewee’s answers can be used to narrate the B-roll that’s on screen.

It gives your documentary an extra dimension and keeps your audience hooked on the story, engaging them, leaving them wanting more.

Reverse exposition/Wrap up shots

Wrap up shots are similar to exposition shots, but give the viewer a much different perspective. They remove the viewer from the in-depth world you are creating and build more on the bigger picture.

This allows your audience to shape their own opinions and really build their own thoughts on what’s happening and establish their own opinions on the subject.

These are used to finalise the documentary, to transition into the credits and end the documentary.

READ MORE: Top 8 Transitions in Premiere Pro

How to film an interview for your documentary

Now you have all of your filming equipment set up, you’ve got all your shots set up, let’s now have a look at how to put together the different components of your documentary.

Prepare your questions, but still be flexible

Make sure you do your in-depth research before the interview and plan accordingly, obviously the discussion may take a natural twist and turns but having structure is always a plus.

You could even send over some pre-interview questions to understand more around your interviewee’s life and what they may or may not want to answer. This will allow you to keep a natural flow and pull out integral information from the interviewee that will propel your documentary.

Make sure the interviewee is relaxed

pexels-cowomen-2041396 (1)This is key to getting a great, full-flowing interview nailed, you MUST make sure the interviewee is comfortable and relaxed.

You can build this long before the interview by building a relationship and getting to know them as a person. You’ll start to understand what makes them tick, what interests them and conversation and trust will flow.

This is a great way to relax the subject and will provide a warmer interview with flowing answers to your questions, you’ll pull way more interesting information from them as well.

Ask open-ended questions

Asking open-ended questions is very important as it keeps the conversation flowing inviting your interviewee to talk about the area in more detail and relaxes them into it.

If you ask too many 50/50, “yes” or “no” questions, the interview will start to look quite awkward and will not grip your viewers.

How to gather audio correctly for a documentary

Audio is very important when it comes to your documentary – you will want to focus on ensuring you gather clear, crisp and clean audio. You don’t want to be picking up muffled audio with horrible distortions and background noise.

You can prepare for clearing up the sound before the shot, map out potential objects that may cause excess sound. Is the refrigerator on? A fan rumbling? Any humming noises created by the lights? Get it mapped out!

By reducing the noise beforehand, will give you much clearer footage, to begin with, and will make it a lot easier to reduce background noise within the shoot.

READ MORE: How to reduce background noise in premiere pro

Additional Documentary Filmmaking Basics to improve the sound and quality of your recordings:

  • Tape up you Lavalier microphones. It will make your shoot look far more professional and the quality of sound will be crisp as the microphone will not move.
  • Use a boom stand. Using a boom stand will keep the levels of audio consistent as holding a boom mic for a whole interview is a tough task for the strongest of people. Keeping it steady and still will allow the same level of audio to come through from the interviewee allowing for any correction in audio level and balance to be far easier in post-production.

Documentary post-production

Now you have all your footage, what’s next? Well, of course, it’s post-production, we will go through various tips and tricks for video editing and audio editing in this next section.


pexels-pixabay-257904 (1)Editing is such an important part of the filmmaking process, so you want to ensure you have the best set up possible.

  • Make sure you back up all of your files! This is so important, after every shoot, you must back your files up, this could be a catastrophe if you lose some of those magical interview moments, always back it up!
  • Sort your files out into folders. You’ll have so much footage you’ll need to ensure it’s all in the correct order, it will. do wonders for you in ost-production. There is nothing worse when you can’t find the clip you want to transition into, it becomes a very monotonous task.
  • Create sequences. Always create sequences within your main file for the interviews themselves, so you don’t interfere with the main edit but can drop specific parts of the interview audio over b-roll to keep it visually pleasing and engaging to your audience.

The Soundtrack

pexels-retha-ferguson-3618362 (1)I love this part, it’s right near the end and you look for incredible pieces of music to take your documentary up another production level. Yes, it can be frustrating at times, especially on a budget as you don’t have the money to hire Hanz Zimmerman to bash out a few notes.

Use the soundtrack to partner with the mood of the scene or the interview, this will help compliment the style of editing and bring the audience closer to the subject and become more engaged.

Use the sound to determine the pace of the interview, or scene.

Or, if you fancy it, leave it silent, don’t worry about silence, it can build tension and create a mysterious, poignant feel to the scene.

Play around with multiple options, but don’t disregard having some silence in there.

If you are on a budget, maybe check out some free background music from websites like BenSound. You may find something that fits directly into your documentary, just make sure to reference BenSound in the credits.

Post-production resources to help you: 



How to distribute your documentary

pexels-startup-stock-photos-7357 (1)Distributing your documentary is the final part to creating your own documentary, there are many forms of distribution which we will dig deeper into.

  1. Focus on the story, a lot of the time people will skimp on the story and go all out on the quality with a weak storyline. You want to have a narrative their that’s engaging, explored in detail and divides opinion – make sure you’re not biased and show all sides to the story. Although we said to focus on story over quality, but make sure you get good quality sound and imagery. We’re saying it doesn’t have to be Hollywood level, but enough to compliment your story.
  2. Draw out the concept, this will be integral to securing distribution. The distributors won’t just watch it, they’ll want to have a detailed breakdown that interesting enough to p[ersuade them to watch part of your documentary, it’s key to getting distribution.
  3. If you have a presenter, make sure they’re interesting and present in a clear manner. They can be likeable, but they don’t have to be, they just need to be an interesting character that draws out the key information in interviews, and presents well in front of the camera.

We hope this article on documentary filmmaking was helpful, please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more information on filmmaking, and please send us some of your documentaries for us to watch here at iFilmThings!

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