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5 tips for making documentaries

5 tips for making documentaries


Do you want to bring a specific issue to the attention of the people around you? Have you always wanted to make a documentary but aren’t sure how? I’m going to tackle this problem with 5 tips on how to make a documentary. Please don’t let tips confuse you even if it seems like they apply to feature films too. Over time the ways of making documentaries more interesting for viewers have changed.

#1 Thorough research

Before shooting can begin it is important to properly research the areas you’re dealing with, after all you are the one planning and shooting the documentary so you should be relatively well versed in the subject. Doing online research and going to your local library are good ways of getting information, however contacting a expert might also prove a helpful tactic. No doubt you’ll have stumbled across some names when doing research. It’s a good idea to keep a contact list to stay organized. The people you contact may provide you with insider information, what’s more they might be willing to be interviewed. Another thing you need to think about is where you are going to be filming. Not only is it important to think about where you are going to film, but it’s also important to think about where you’re allowed to film. Applying for official permission to film is a must in most cases, except of course if you are going to film in your own garden for example. Bit by bit the information you gather, the potential filming locations, and the contacts you made will provide a common thread for your documentary.

#2 Tell a story

What comes next is unbelievably important. You need to create a story that grabs the viewer’s attention, something that will stick in their mind after they’ve watched your documentary. Sticking to your common theme is vital but to get the most out of your documentary it is essential to create a story arc. A story arc has a beginning, middle, and an end; The beginning is used to introduce the subject and people in the documentary. The middle section is where the characters struggle with their problems, and consequently leads to a dramatic climax which shows whether they are successful or not. In the third act, the end, we see how much the characters have developed and changed, or not as the case may be. Once you’ve decided on a story it can be useful to write down all the details in a rough script. You can find out more about this step at the end of the article. However, it is important to bear in my mind that not everything can be planned. Unplanned situations are bound to occur and when they do the camera should be rolling. If you manage to get one of these moments on camera it will make your film seem all the more authentic.

#3 Rule of thirds

Interviews are the foundations of documentaries. The rule of thirds deals with the position of your interview partner on the screen: Split the screen using 3 horizontal lines and 3 vertical lines (most cameras have a setting that does this for you). Ideally the camera should be positioned so that the interviewee’s eye is in line with one of the meeting points on the top line. In my example it didn’t quite work out but the further away the person is from the camera the less difference it makes.


#4 Record lots of b-roll

If the interview is made up of “A-material” then any shots of the surrounding area count as B-material, aka b-roll. You should record as much of this as possible because it comes in handy when you want to fill in gaps during the editing process. B-roll is the glue that holds your film together. It gives you the chance to build up the atmosphere for your viewers. Try to film b-roll footage on a range of lenses; wide, medium, and close up. They can be used frequently, although try to keep the subjects different.

#5 Use NAT sound breaks

NAT sounds are natural background noises that are recorded when filming. If the b-roll footage features quiet background noise it’ll play when there is no interview or voiceover to be heard. This NAT sound break sets the tone and adds to the atmosphere you want to convey.

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