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How To

How To Make A Documentary For Beginners

Photograph of the blog post author, Jodie Francis

Jodie Francis


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Creating a documentary can be a challenge, but it’s certainly a worthwhile one! Are you an aspiring documentary filmmaker? If so, then you’re in the right place! Consider this article your ultimate guide on how to make a documentary. 

how to make a documentary

There are many things to consider before you begin the filming, such as selecting your theme, target audience, and storyboard, and setting your budget. Never fear, we will go through all of these topics. Such as how to make a storyboard for a documentary, as well as some simple documentary ideas for inspiration!

As you are probably well aware by now, documentaries are one of the most popular types of films. I think plenty of you will have spent many hours glued to the latest serial killer documentary on Netflix – I certainly have!

Documentaries are powerful tools – so let’s find out how to make a Netflix-style documentary for yourself. Let’s get started!

What Is A Documentary?


So, what is a documentary? Well, the term ‘documentary’ is a broad term that is widely used to describe a non-fiction film or TV program. 

A particular topic will be the focus of the documentary. They can be used to entertain, educate, or inform (or all three!). They can be fantastic educational tools. As they are often shown in schools, colleges, and universities as an alternative form of learning. 

Typically, in a documentary film, people will be interviewed and there will be photographs and video clips that appear on the screen that help to tell the story.

Documentaries can range from half an hour to 2 hours for a film. And there are also documentary series that can run for many hours as they will be broken up into different episodes. 

Interestingly, earlier documentary films were called ‘actuality films’ and would only last one minute – or even less! As time progressed, filmmakers realized the value of a longer documentary film, especially as there is an audience for them. 

With the advent of social media platforms, (like Facebook Live, and YouTube) the genre has been allowed to change and adapt. Documentaries have become much more accessible. As well as mini-documentaries, which can range from 2 to 25 minutes. 

How Do You Make A Documentary?

how to make a documentary

Now for the good bit, as in this section, we will explain how to make a documentary!

Including how to discover your topic, how to make a storyboard for a documentary, how to make a short documentary script, and finally, how to edit your documentary.

Let’s dive in!

How To Find A Topic


This may sound obvious, but you can’t begin your filmmaking journey before you have decided upon a focus for your documentary. 

Once you have decided on a topic it’s time to push up your sleeves and do some research. 

A great place to begin is at the beginning. For example, if you wish to make a family documentary, then simply type “how to make a family documentary” into Google to get the ball rolling. 

Once you feel completely confident and informed, you can create a story and a controlling idea. 

Following this, it’s time to talk to potential crew members and set a budget. 

How To Make A Storyboard For A Documentary 

how to make a documentary

Ensuring that you have a clear storyboard is a vital part of making a documentary. This is particularly relevant if you are working off a script for your documentary. 

A storyboard for a documentary will visually tell the story of your script. 

Every image that you include will need to be able to convey enough information without a member of the crew needing to re-read the script. 

Try and create a storyboard that effectively explains what’s going on to someone who hasn’t even read the script.

Each section of your storyboard should represent a different camera angle or a key point in the film. This will help ensure that your story moves along. Additionally, it will enable you to pinpoint the times of high excitement in your film and make editing it far easier. 

What’s more, an effective storyboard can help you to budget for what you need, whether this be a particular piece of equipment or any special effects you wish to use. 

Here are some tips for how to make a storyboard for a documentary: 

Shot List

Our first tip would be to make a shot list as you can make sketches from this. 

A shot list is a list of all the camera shots that will be needed for a scene. 

This can allow you to consider how particular angles of people will make the audience feel, and to make a moment stand out.

You could make use of software like StudioBinder, to make the process easier for you. Check out our StudioBinder Production Software Review & Guide for more information!

Sketch Out Your Ideas

It’s a good idea to sketch out your ideas from the shots you have planned and draw them out in a comic book strip style. 

This is a simple way of visualizing your ideas. You don’t need to be an artist to do this, you could simply use stick figures at this stage. 

When you are ready to add details to your storyboard it’s important that you don’t forget to add symbols of motion into the images, and you can do this using arrow signs. 

Here you can also add any props that you wish to include in the scene

Finally, when you’ve finalized your images, you can add words underneath them. 

You don’t have to do this. However, it could help add extra context or include a voice-over you wish to include. 

How To Make A Documentary Script

script for documentary

People often wonder “how to make a good documentary,” and writing a great documentary script is extremely beneficial to the documentary-making process. 

Here are the three different types of documentary scripts:

  • Treatment Script
  • Split Script
  • Paper Edit

Below is some information on each one!

A Treatment is a narrative document describing what will occur in the film from the beginning to the end. This is typically written before filming begins. 

A Split Script is a script that’s set out in two columns side by side. One column will detail what the audience will see and the other what they will hear. 

Finally, a Paper Edit includes the visuals alongside the soundbites that will be used from the pre-recorded interviews. 

One top tip for beginners is to work backward. This way you will already have all of the information you need, and this can make writing the script far easier. 

Would you like to discover more about scriptwriting? Then check out our helpful article on How To Write A Script

How To Edit Your Documentary 

editing documentary

Finally, the time has come to edit all of your hard work! So, where do you start? 

Well, you could begin by inspecting the footage that you have shot. You can then decide to log the clips that are the most relevant to your story, and that push your idea forward. 

A great tool to use is Adobe Prelude, as you can include useful comments on your clips. After you have written your script and viewed your footage it’s time to decide if anything is missing. 

You may wish to head out and get some last-minute shots. Then it’s all about bringing everything together. 

You can ask the opinion of your crew and colleagues to help ensure that everything is clear, as they may have some useful feedback for you to build on. 

You should also ensure that your documentary running time fits with the visuals, interviews, and research that you have. 

Check out our video editing software recommendations in these articles – The 8 Best Video Editing Software Programs For 2020 and The Best Free Video Editing Software.

How Much Does It Cost To Make A Documentary Film?

documentary price

In this section, we aim to answer all of your burning questions about documentary film budgets, for instance, how much does it cost to make a documentary film?

Well, the truth is there’s no one set number, as everyone will have different budgets. The best thing to do is to have a clear plan. 

One question that’s often asked is “How to make a mini-documentary film budget,” and this is worth going over! Here are some top tips: 

Create A Timeline

documentary timeline

This pertains to pre and post-production of your film. 

This will allow you to accurately budget for all of the sections of your film, for example, are you filming at different locations? 

Having to edit a specific script, or do you have more freedom? Answering these types of questions will keep your budgets (and your goals) clear.

Liaise With Your Crew


When you know who you wish to work with it’s time to set up a meeting with your film crew

It’s here that they will communicate their rates and the equipment they will need according to the plans you have laid out for them. 

Clear communication is key here, as this will help set up your working relationship with your team. 

What’s more, this is the time for any negotiations on price. So make sure that everyone is happy with the agreed prices and budgets. 

Consider Contingencies

planning a documentary

Sometimes not everything goes to plan, and the same can be said for filmmaking

Therefore, it’s always a sensible idea to plan for this. 

More experienced filmmakers may budget less for this, but it’s generally advised that beginners budget an additional 10%. 

This way you can be more relaxed if things do go awry. Plus, if you don’t end up using it, you can put the money toward your next project!

Talk To An Expert


If you know someone who has made a documentary before (or even better, many successful documentaries) then kindly ask them to look over your budget plans. 

This way, they can let you know if you’ve overlooked anything, or miscalculated. 

You never know, they could end up saving your project a lot of time and money!

Simple Documentary Ideas


Now that you know how to make a documentary, it’s time to begin brainstorming some ideas! 

For some filmmakers, this can be the most challenging part of the documentary-making process. While for others it’s easy as they have a clear idea of where they want to take their film. 

If you’re stuck, then here are some simple documentary ideas that may help you to get things moving! 

You could make a nature documentary, especially if this is an area that interests you. Why don’t you try typing “how to make a nature documentary” into Google as your first port of call? 

If your topic is humorous then type inhow to make a funny documentary,” to try and gain some insights into how comedic documentaries are made, and filmed, who is interviewed, and what kind of clips they play. This can help to inspire you! 

Finally, why not consider making a travel documentary? More and more people are choosing to focus their attention on travel documentaries. Searching for tips by typing “how to make a travel documentary” into internet search engines. 

Social media stars often document their holidays to tropical locations, as people are curious as to what their favorite influencer is getting up to. 

Maybe you have a favorite place to visit? Does it have an interesting, overlooked history? Then maybe this would be a good place to begin your research! 

Sometimes the most simple documentary ideas are the best ones, so don’t over complicate things for yourself. 

That Was Our Guide On How To Make A Documentary 

man with camera

So, there we have it – our comprehensive guide on how to make a documentary! 

We hope that this article was helpful to all of you aspiring filmmakers out there and that you now have the confidence to get out there and begin your journey! 

Remember to pick a topic that interests you, as otherwise, you could lose interest and enthusiasm for the project. 

What’s more, choose a topic that allows you to obtain original interviews. 

Also, it’s vital that you plan out your budget so that you are not caught out. Hence ensuring that you keep 10% of your budget back to help you resolve any setbacks. 

If you have any tips that we may have missed, leave them in the comment section below! Also, be sure to share this article on your socials and tag us @musicgateway!


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