Breaking Down The Process

Unlike traditional narrative filmmaking where you have a fairly distinct path to help you through the creative process, documentary filmmaking is in many ways like shooting from the hip and in most instances, the true form of the documentary does not take shape until you bring back all of the pieces, write the script and then begin the long assembly process in the editing room when everything comes together to form the final story.

The process of creating a documentary still is much the same as creating a short or feature film only some of the steps may be a bit out of order.


Where normally a narrative film is written and developed, many documentaries begin their life as an idea that requires a great deal of research prior to being able to write a script.  You can’t begin writing without knowing the story and what media might be available to you for editing.

First, have a concept… and idea… anything that you want to make a documentary about but make sure you’re passionate about it cause you’re gonna be working on it for a while and you don’t want to bore of the subject before completing your documentary.  Please ensure that your concept is engaging.  This is some of the best advice we can offer you.  If you’d like to make your film about the mating habits of the North American black beatle, be ready for your documentary to bore audiences into a coma.  Choose a topic that is interesting on a broad scale and has international interest.

After you have your concept and you’ve done some preliminary research into what you might be able to capture on film, it’s time to begin an outline.  This is not your script but rather a loose string of ideas that you believe will make your documentary different than those that came before it but also what you believe will be compelling to the audience.

The internet is a wonderful tool that we’ve been given.  Use it to find out more about your topic and what, if any, films have already been made on the subject.  You need to become an expert in the topic you’ve chosen

WRITINGbe prepared for a change of direction
Take your time during this process and it will pay off BIG!  Don’t rush through writing your film just so you can get to the filming and editing.  I know you’re excited to move past this whole “writing” thing but this is very important and will set the tone and direction for everything that follows.  This first draft is really just to get you moving in the right direction.  Once you start filming and editing you’ll find that your film will take on a life of it’s own and it will tell you where you should take the story.  There will be much more writing as you continue through the process… so be prepared.

Now it’s time to break out the camera and put your cinematic skills to work.  You may choose to do nicely lit interviews with experts on your topic.  You may want to do reenactments of historical events.  You may decide to shoot with undercover cameras and take your audience along for a ride or you may just decide to use still images as your main focus.  There is a great deal of technical knowhow that will be applied here.

You’ll want to look at your original script and make changes before actually starting to edit.  By now you’ve been places, met people and experienced things that need to be reflected in your script.  Once that is done you can start the assembly of your content and adding narration or voice over.

After shooting and gathering all the required media, you now need to ingest it into your computer and begin the editing process.  Using your script as a blue print, begin assembling your content.

Sound is thankless job in filmmaking, both documentary and narrative, due to the fact that you only notice it when it’s not there or it is out of place.  This is a step that far too many young filmmakers skip.  Trust us and take some time to add sound effects to your film.  They can be effects that you record on location or some that you find in the Sneak On the Lot Sound Effects Library.

It is likely that you’ve already started adding in some temp music into your edit.  It is now time to secure the rights to that music or dip into the Sneak On The Lot Music Library.  This should be really fun and it starts to breath a whole different life into your film.

Distribution can be daunting but with the advent of YouTube, Withoutabox and others, your film has a better chance of being seen than ever before.


Now that you know what’s coming up in the stages ahead, let’s get started!