Documentary Guidelines

Guidelines for making a documentary


1.    Subject Choice – Find a subject some one would have interest in.  Always think of a TV viewer, with remote control in hand, watching TV.  The moment the show is!'ve lost your audience.  Try to think, “Who is my target audience.  Who would want to watch my documentary?”


2.    Documentaries are stories - All stories have a beginning, middle, and end.  In the beginning we are introduced to the subject, the characters, we are told what we are to see.  We are given the reason to keep watching.  A question to be answered or conflict to be solved is set up, as in “UFO's: do they exist?”  In the middle, the subject is explored, the question is answered, and the conflict is resolved.  The end summarizes the conclusion, or leads the viewer to further exploration.  When planning your documentary, keep this structure in mind.


3.    Research – Know your subject BEFORE going out into the field to shoot.  Talk to the subject, research online and in the library.  DO NOT discover all the facts while you are shooting.  If you do, it always comes through in the doc that you didn't really know the subject, you weren't an expert, and the viewer begins to want to change the channel.  Viewers want to watch programs made by subject experts, not amateurs.  Not knowing your subject, or discovering details while shooting is always obvious.


4.    Take an angle (point of view) on the story – My example is the Humane Society.  Approach the story from the perspective of a little girl who wants a dog.  What must she prepare for?   Can she qualify to be a pet owner?  Can she meet the responsibility?  What does she learn at the Humane Society?  What does the Humane Society offer and how do they help?  Does she successfully obtain a dog?  How does it turn out?  Or, approach it from the perspective of an animal that ends up in the Humane Society. Where did it come from?  How was it found?  What does it go through at the Humane Society?  What potential owners does it meet?  How does it interact with the people and animals at the Humane Society?  How is it cared for?  Does it get an owner?  What happens to pets that don't find owners?


Researching your topic will give you the answers BEFORE shooting.  This allows you to make sure you get certain shots, sound bites, and interviews that you will need to successfully tell the story and make it interesting.


5.    Shoot interviews first, if possible – You may learn new things your research didn't reveal, or even discover a new story angle.  Have questions prepared that probe the subject of the documentary.  Put yourself in the viewers' shoes.  What do they want to know about the topic?  What will be interesting to learn?  Try to ask open-ended questions and encourage your subjects to give expanded answers.  Encourage them to “be the expert” on the topic and to use this as an opportunity to tell viewers what they want them to know.  Most importantly, you can now generate a list of B-roll shots that cover what the person interviewed spoke about.


Some Basics for Production Aesthetics


  1. Don't always shoot interview subjects in their office or home with their back against a wall, window, or bookcase.  If possible, get them out and around, doing what they do, unless, of course, all they do is work from their office.  Remember, talking heads are boring (click!).  People doing things are much more interesting.  At a minimum, plan extensive B-roll over any talking heads you shoot.  If you must shoot them in a confined space, try to get them far off the back wall to create depth in the shot, and/or consider using a green or blue background that can later be keyed out to provide and interesting background.  A blue or green screen can be easily created with an old sheet and Rit dye available at Publix.  Make sure to iron and fold the dyed sheet for storage and travel. Chroma keys don’t like wrinkles. Study techniques for properly lighting chroma key:  Here is one example:


  1. Get good audio – use a lav or shotgun on a boom.  Interview subjects with a hand held mic in their hand is a dead giveaway to an amateur production.  Minimize use of the camera mounted shotgun.  The camera mic is good for “natural sound” during B-roll, and not much else.  Be aware of potential background noise, cars, and planes nearby.  Don't be afraid to shoot “take 2” or ask your subject to repeat something if the sound was unusable. Don't forget to get at least 30 seconds of area tone (natural sound of the room and/or environment) at every location you shoot.  Trust me; it may be critical during editing.  ALWAYS USE HEADPHONES TO MONITOR AUDIO WHEN RECORDING!



  1. Use a tripod whenever possible – camera shake only worked on one project in the history of production (Blair Witch) and none of those guys are still making movies (true story).


  1. Pan, tilt, and zoom slowly and smoothly (see above) – give your viewers a chance to see what's on screen.  Remember, not every one has a big screen TV.  Let the camera roll a few seconds prior to making a zoom pan or tilt, and after the move, let the camera settle at the end of a move and roll a few seconds more.  This also helps tremendously during the edit.


  1. Lighting – don't be afraid to put up a light or bounce card to make your scene look better.  Poorly lit video is another dead giveaway to an amateur production.  IF POSSIBLE, ALWAYS SHOOT A WHITE CARD UNDER THE SAME LIGHTING CONDITIONS AS YOUR SUBJECT AT EVERY LOCATION.  RECORD THIS ON TAPE.  The cameras you are using have both auto and manual white balance.  I'm not telling you to turn off the auto white balance, but having a true white source on tape for reference will help you if you need to color correct later.


  1. Use the rule of thirds (look it up: when framing your shots and be aware of the background – if everything is always in the center of your composed shot, it begins to look boring (click!).  If your background is distracting, your viewer may lose interest in your production (click!).  Watch out for shadows (especially those caused by your own lighting).  They are EXTREMELY distracting.


  1. Use depth of field (Understand how to create it. Look it up: – Look at films.  Often the subject is in focus and the background is slightly out of focus.  This “focuses” the viewers’ attention on the subject and in general gives your production a more professional look.  I suggest researching depth of field (DOF), but in general, move the camera farther away from subjects and zoom in (use a tripod).  Long focal length (zoomed in) lenses have less depth of field (less DOF is what you want).  Use low f-stops, lower lighting.  Use the camera's ND filter.  It's like sunglasses for your camera and will allow you to open the f-stop on the lens.  Lower f-stops create less depth of field.  Explore using diffusion and other picture enhancing filters in front of the lens while shooting.  As you can see, this is somewhat technical. Read up on it.  Learn it, know it, live it.


  1. Use a video monitor in the field if possible.  You always want to see what you're shooting is going to look like.  Consider investing in one of your own.  Learn how to calibrate it so you are seeing the actual picture you are shooting. Here is a how to calibrate link, but you can Google others:


  1. Use music to set the tone of your production – music is a strong motivator and can increase emotional response to your production when properly used.  Try to make creative choices with music and don’t feel forced to use it in every instance, or even in every scene of your production.  Use it when and where it will make a positive difference.  Don’t violate copyright!  Try:


  1. Sound tells the story - When editing, put your story together using audio first.  Here’s how:  After researching and shooting your material, make an outline structure of your doc.  Write notes regarding sound bites and interesting footage you’d like to include in your production (note tape names and timecodes from interviews and footage shot in the field).  Write the voice over narration script that will explain and tie together the elements of your documentary story.  Don’t feel compelled to use every word an interviewee says.  Summarize much of the information from interviews into your voice over and only use important or poignant sound bites to emphasize, or give color and personality to your project.  Be a strict content editor.  If it’s not pertinent to the story or doesn’t move the story forward, cut it out! Record your scripted voice over segments, using your own voice as a scratch track and do a rough edit to the timeline of your voice (audio only) and your various subjects voices (with audio and video) to form the story.  When you play this back, you should be able to close your eyes and listen to it as if it were a radio documentary on  This is called a “radio edit.” Then, go back and add in your B-roll video shots to highlight what is being talked about and to make the story flow, covering up any jump cuts and unwanted talking head video along the way. Add music, natural sound (from B-roll), and sound effects (if necessary).  Not every video shot needs a voice over.  Some shots can have natural sound, or nat sound and music, or just music.  If you like, you can have a more professional voice over talent re-record your voice over narration script and edit that over your voice scratch track.  You’re ready for PBS, Discovery Channel, and the Sundance Film Festival!