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Making a Documentary: Where to Start?

Documentary film and video production is my personal favorite type. For me, there is nothing more fun in this whole world than producing a documentary on any subject that contains enough depth to warrant detailed coverage.
Lots of you reading this blog have ambitions to be documentary filmmakers and I want to do everything in my power to encourage you. I think the world needs as many documentaries as it can get. Forget American Idol, give me a documentary to watch any day! Yup, I am a hopeless dweeb in this department. I just love documentaries!

I am lucky enough to have worked on more docs and news series than I can count. The video above is the first portion of a short documentary I worked on covering the topic of professional liability insurance. There had been a recent surge in liability insurance premiums for business and this video was an evaluation of that trend.

So what does video of an old choo-choo train have to do with the gloriously dull topic of liability insurance? Read on to find out. In short, it is an attempt to help the topic not be so dull!

Although documentary films usually do not have the world’s largest audience compared to other genres, they are vitally important because they are the only way to cover a subject in-depth. Most subjects are too complex for the basic 1:30 time allotted in a generic television newscast.

For this post, I am going to call a documentary anything over 5 minutes on one subject. Granted that’s on the short side, but you can pack a lot into a well constructed five minute video. Longer videos still needs to be concise. Length is not an excuse to ramble.

I get lots of questions asking where to start when making a documentary-style video. Here’s the answer!

WHAT IS A DOCUMENTARY STYLE VIDEO?

Let’s start by defining “documentary style” beyond the length of the finished piece.

Documentaries by definition are fact based, information driven videos. They usually rely heavily on interviews with people affected by the topic or an expert on the topic. These interviews are known as talking head videos. Short, individual portions of the interview are called sound bites.

Typical documentaries also include video taken in a run-and-gun, fast paced style. Documentary films are low budget, usually have a small crew and do not normally stage anything. Theoretically, they are documenting reality. They often rely on natural light or a simple 1-3 light set-up. A good documentary crew ALWAYS has a shot gun microphone running to pick up whatever sound might happen. This is called natural sound, or ambient sound and it is an important storytelling element.

Video Camera
The microphone directly above the lens is on all the time capturing whatever sound is occurring. (Known as natural sound or ambient sound) For interviews, plug in a lapel microphone to get the best sound.

QUICKLY NOW!

Documentary style is quite different from high end Hollywood style production where the tiniest details are controlled and they might take a week to set up one shot.

“Documentary style” has evolved beyond “real” documentaries that are a work of journalism. It’s known as a production method that might be incorporated into a music video or fictional work. The “style” of the newsy, run-and-gun production method shows up everywhere. Since I myself worked in journalism, this post is going to assume journalism is at the heart of what you are doing.

PICK A SUBJECT AND LET’S GO!

Any subject with some depth will do in my opinion. The more people affected by the topic, the larger your potential audience. There are no set rules on how broad the topic can be. You can cover the world in an hour show. You can cover something quite well in a 5-10 minute show.

Once you have a basic subject matter, do a bit of research to get a decent grasp of the big picture. Figure out who the experts, movers and shakers are on this particular topic. Then, call them up. Talk to as many people as possible. You are NOT trying to set up video interviews at this point. You want to talk by phone to everyone you have time to speak with. Interview them casually as you speak to them on the phone and take copious notes. It helps to have a headset so you have two hands to type. Write down who you are speaking with, when you speak with them, the number where you reached them and as well as the gist of what they say. Use the conversation to get a good feel for their opinions and how well they present themselves.

ALWAYS ASK WHO ELSE THEY KNOW THAT YOU SHOULD TALK TO.

One expert leads you to another, then to another and so forth. Also ask your experts for “regular” people they know who have been affected by the subject matter. Ask them for real world examples and make notes of it all. You will end up hanging your story on the “real” people you find. Experts are usually your best source to finding the “real” people. In the final video, the real people might be more prominent, but in the pre-production phase, you usually begin by locating experts.

Have the experts written articles or books on the subject? Find out, get a copy and read it.

After you have done all this research, you are ready to outline what seems to be a practical finished version of your show. Decide who and what you want to actually videotape. Call them up and get it scheduled. You are done with the pre-production phase.

Video camera ikegami
The professional Ikegami HDN-X10 video Camera for high end documentary style video production.

WHAT DO YOU USE FOR VIDEO, AKA B-ROLL?

One of the most frequent questions I get is where do you get ideas for video shots? The answer to that is a lot easier than you might think. (This type of video is referred to as B-roll. Your interviews, or talking heads, are called the A-roll although that term is not as common.)

Start by taking some b-roll video of every single person you interview. Take video of them doing whatever it is they do. Hopefully, it will relate directly to your story but if not, you can still make it work by tailoring your narration so the video seems logical. The example video on liability insurance I have with this post is a good example of matching the narration with the video we ended up getting.

If you are interviewing a scientist, get video of them working in the lab. If you are videotaping a boxing expert, get video of them working out and practicing their moves in the ring. If you are videotaping a truck driver, get video of them driving the truck plus video of them washing or maintaining the truck. As a last resort, get video of them walking down the sidewalk or hallway. I often asked people, “What would you be doing right now if I were NOT here?” Then I would take video of them doing that.

In addition to getting video of them working, get video of them relaxing. What do they like to do? Read? Watch TV? Cook? Play with the kids? Take video of them doing whatever they like to do and you can make it work by writing your narration properly.

As an example to illustrate this for you, I dug up this old story I worked on about liability insurance. The actual subject matter was about how the gigantic rise in liability insurance premiums was strangling businesses. Sounds boring, right? How in the world would you visualize a story about something as bland as liability insurance? Well, we found experts who told us about real people and real businesses who were feeling the strain. One of those businesses happened to be a historic railway museum that ran an old coal-fired steam locomotive. So we went for a ride and I took video of everything that moved. Workers stoking the fire. Shoveling coal. Ringing the bell. Visually exciting stuff for a boring subject.

Now if you had asked me in the very beginning how I was going to visualize liability insurance I never would have said by taking shots of a guy shoveling coal. That never would have entered my mind. But by following the basic procedures I have outlined here, it became the logical video to use.

This clip is only the first minute or so of what was actually a 10-12 minute story but it will demonstrate exactly what I mean when it comes to creative but easy ways to visualize your documentary topic. As I watched this video while posting, it struck me how slow the pacing seemed to the way I would edit it today. Like I always say, video production is fluid and there is never just one right way to do things.

If you enjoyed this topic, please let me know. I can write forever on documentary making if you so desire but this is enough for one post.

Thanks for reading Video Production Tips.

Lorraine Grula

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Lorraine Grula


Lorraine Grula enjoyed a fast-paced, multifaceted career in the television and video business, producing, shooting, writing, and editing documentary-style videos in both news and corporate settings. Later, she got to teach media and video production in two high schools, which then morphed into instructional design and corporate training. Lorraine is now dedicated to sharing her vast knowledge with others who wish to learn the art of video making, with an emphasis on storytelling and creating professional-quality videos for the internet as simply, yet creatively as possible.

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  1. Thanks Lorraine. Here are some things I wonder about:

    Do you think voiceovers generally strengthen a piece, or should you strive to tell the story visually as much as possible?

    Unrelated, but why does soap opera video look so bad? Is it just me or does the lighting look harsh and unappealing?

  2. Hi Audie
    First, soap opera light IS harsh an unappealing. It is not just you! Soap operas are done SO FAST. Good grief, those folks crank out 5 hours (or 2.5) of finished video a week! That is lightening speed. So all the production values of soap operas reflect that. They shoot everything in a studio with old fashioned, harsh, direct lighting coming dozens of light fixtures on a ceiling grid. They have shadows everywhere. It is very unnatural looking. They could do it differently but are probably stuck in a rut.

    I think voice over narration is a relatively essential ingredient to a documentary. You can get by without it and sometimes do great things without it, but generally, a voice over works well. I like relying heavily on soundbites in a doc. The more you can let your people speak to tell the story the better in my opinion. But voice over narration is a good vehicle for summarizing your facts. It also acts like the glue for all your other storytelling elements. You can use narration to transition the story or guide it along. Now having said that, i still think you should strive to tell the story visually as much as possible. Some stories are more visual than others. Other stories, like the one on liability insurance that I show in this post, have great video but it is actually UNRELATED to the facts of the story so you have to make it work.
    There is no one perfect way to do a video. Which is one reason why I like video!
    Thanks
    Lorraine

  3. You are so welcome. You asked a great question. I could go on forever about storytelling techniques with documentaries. The best way to learn is to watch as many documentaries as possible and evaluate them. What did you like or not like? No one will ever agree 100%, so what is good or bad is always debatable.
    Lorraine

  4. Hello there
    please which program or i can use to make a documentary ?
    thanks so much

  5. Hi Lorraine,

    I just posted on another site of yours. My goal is to get about 100 inspiring stories from people around the washington, DC area and put them on video. I would love to get any suggestions you may have for me as to how to do it. Btw – this isn’t my job – it’s just for fun – but who knows – maybe it could become my job one day.

    Matt

  6. Hi Matt.
    Oh what a great project! Sounds fun. First, think about getting less than 100 stories, or else making sure that each story is pretty short. Honestly, I’d go for maybe 10 stories. How long do you want your finished video to be? With 100 stories, it would be over an hour and a half even if each story was only given one minute. To REALLY tell a complex story well, you need AT LEAST 3-4 minutes on video.
    The first thing you need to do is find your stories. Get on the phone. Call places where awesome things can happen, like medical wards, drug rehab, other types of rehab like physical therapy, call places that help the poor or homeless. Call places that help people, sick children, counseling places, charitable organizations, church groups, etc. Tell them what you are looking for and ask if they know any. Call local newspapers or any radio stations that might do reporting and ask to speak to some of the reporters about stories they have done in the past or places where you might find good stories. Advertise in the classifieds. If you do all of this, you will havelots of stories to choose from. Choose the most compelling and then do your video!
    Thanks
    Lorraine

  7. I’ve been looking for information on documentary film making. Thanks for this post.

    For months I’ve been stuck on where I needed to start and how to go about they whole thing. I’ve searched online and read plenty articles on making a documentary style video. But none really helped that much. Most of them were vague.

    I think what makes this article much better than any material I’ve read on documentary film making is that you gave a very detailed description of what exactly goes into doing good preproduction. Most of the posts I’ve read online on the subject simple just mentioned ‘research’ and rarely go into any detail or depth as you have here. Thanks again for the post.

  8. Hi Henry.
    I am so glad this post helped you out. I really appreciate your taking the time to leave me such a nice comment. Documentary film making is SO MUCH FUN and I encourage everybody to do it. If you ever need more help, please do not hesitate to drop me a line. I could give you advice and experiences of documentary making all day long and never get bored. Planning is certainly important but in documentary making, being flexible and going with the flow is essential. If you have any questions, or want me to write other articles, please just let me know what you want covered and I will see what I can do! Good luck Henry. Keep in touch.
    Lorraine

  9. Thank you son much Lorraine. I’ve signed up to your free home study course as well.

    regards,

    Henry.

  10. Great, Henry. Thanks. I hope you enjoy it. I do not talk a lot about making documentaries in the home study course but all video production is related really even if it seems totally different! Good luck. keep in touch.
    Thanks Lorraine

  11. please i love you guys to help me cause this is the first project i will be handelling.I don’t really know how to start so i need the tips from you guys,thanks a million.

  12. Hi Sambek

    You are welcome. If you are making a doc, then the ideas in this article can get your started. If you need more help, please contact me personally thru the contact us button.
    Thanks,
    Lorraine

  13. Hi Lorraine

    I have just stumbled across yur website and think t’s great!. I am starting a video training course over here in the UK and hope to get enough coaching to get my first documentary completed. Have you thought of doing a home study course just on documenatry making? Judging by the responses I’ve seen here there would be many people who would be interested. Having made a documentary I’m assuming You Tube is the best place to show it off. Are there any other specialist sites that cater just for documenatry shows – I fear mine would get lost in the millions of video clips on You Tube, Plus I will be filming in HD and I don’t want to down grade it all to a hazy mush that I tend to view on You Tube. Please keep writing more articles on documenatries, it will keep me inspired to do my bit to record humanity in its many varied forms!

    Regards
    Simon Bradford, UK

  14. Hi Simon.
    I am so glad you found my site! I am working on a home study course on generalized video making but perhaps I should do one on documentary making. Actually, what I need to do is go make a doc myself! I was itching to cover the health care debate here in the US because the media did it so POORLY but that is another subject.
    You tube is one place online to show your work but it is not the only by any stretch of the imagination.
    I would be happy to write more articles on this subject. Do you have any specific questions or issues?
    Good luck. Documentary making is the greatest if you ask me.
    Lorraine

  15. hi Lorraine, i’m working on a biographical documentary and i have some challenges drawing up questions. can you help with these, please…

  16. Hi Ronke,
    Interviewing someone is like having a conversation with them but you make sure to let them do the vast majority of talking! Ask them broad based, open ended questions like, “Tell me all about your experience.” Listen carefully to what they say. Keep saying things like, “Tell more more,” or, “How did you feel about that?” or, “Why do you think that happened?” or, “What happened next?”
    Questions like that lead them to talk. Learn as much as you can about the person beforehand. I often knew all the answers to the questions I was asking but I asked them anyway because that told the story.
    I hope this helps. Happy video making!
    Lorraine

  17. Hi Lorraine

    Thanks for this informative article and great answers to questions asked. I’m an artist, a painter, and am in the beginning stages of making my first documentary. Would you provide the names of some documentaries that you consider must see’s for the education process?

    Thanks
    Sara

  18. Hi Sara.
    Congratulations on making a documentary! As an artist and painter, you should do well.
    Honestly, I do not have a list of “must-sees” although perhaps I should come up with one. I am a big fan of analyzing and evaluating every single piece of video you see. So even if it is just a simple story on the 6 o’clock news, watch it with a critical eye. I suggest you go get several documentaries, and watch them all with the mind set of “what did it take to put this together?” See how the storyline is woven in. Pay attention to the music they use and where they edit it in. Michael Moore is truly a master storyteller although some people do not like his politics. I hope this helps.
    Lorraine

  19. I am planning a Biographical Documentary of a good friend who just passed away. He was a writer, photographer and all-around entertaining guy who, despite a variety of chronic health conditions, always managed to deliver the funniest line of the day…
    I would appreciate any guidance in the best way to go about this. Thanks.

  20. Hi Postal Productions.
    What a fantastic and beautiful project. I am happy to help. First, get as many visuals of your friend as you can. Get still pictures, shots of his house, workplace, possessions, anything you can get that you think represents a piece of him. You say he was a writer. Can you videotape any of his work? Get shots of his books lying open on a table. Get shots of the old dusty typewriter he used. Get as much variety as possible.

    Travel around to some of the places where he hung out and take shots of the place. Then in your sound track, describe it as one of the places he liked and speak of the attributes that made him enjoy such a place. In other words, you could have shots of an empty forest and say, “Joe loved the solitude found in the stillness of a quiet walk in the woods.”

    Of course get any video or film clips of him that you can. Sound clips too if they are available. Interview his friends and family if possible. You could get tons of material by interviewing people who knew him.

    Then, you weave all of this together. You can add narration and music.

    Even if you do not have much opportunity for visuals, you can do a lot with just a few still pictures and words on the screen.

    Good luck with your project. I hope this helps you.
    Lorraine

  21. Thanks, Lorraine; is there some kind of outline or standard set of questions I should be asking interviewees? I have lots of experience with lighting, camera operation, audio, etc., but the producer/writer end of filmmaking is alien territory. By the time I get called in on a project, all of that is usually already taken care of, and its just a matter of mechanics on my part to get it on the screen.
    I’ve tried writing in the past, but even short film scripting eludes me. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the thoroughness of the directors I’ve worked with in the past. Any help would be appreciated. We have a memorial for my friend planned on Sept 1, and I would like to take advantage of the opportunity to interview the various people who will be in attendance, ranging from artists to performers to business people to God-knows-who…

    Thanks

  22. Certainly you should think of questions before you do the interview but then again, the queastins can be very easy and just think of it as a conversation. The trick really is just to lead people in a direction and then make THEM feel comfortable enough to just start talking freely. The question itself is just a jumping off place for conversation. Use open ended questions, like this, “Tell me about John.” “What are some of your favorite memories of John?” “What are some of the fun things you remember doing with John?” If you ask a question like that, then, they will probably take off talking and just go, giving you all kinds of great stuff to work with.
    I hope this helps.
    Lorraine

  23. Great post. I am trying to start work on a documentary and I found this very helpful. I just finished up my degree in print journalism so the interview stuff I find easy but this is particularly helpful. I will be looking back at this as I progress through the process. Hopefully, I can make something that is thought-provoking and impactful

  24. Hi Ryan,
    I am glad to hear this post helped you out! Do you have any other questions? As you do your research you will have more and more ideas come to you. Good luck! I wish you well and would welcome you to keep in touch throughout the process.
    Lorraine

  25. i am very interested in film making.i wish ther c0uld be s0me sp0ns0rs that would spons0r me because i need the equipment the sh00t thd documentary that i wrote and i want to enter it on the encounters south african documantary festival that will 0n june but the documentaries enteries closes 0n the 20th of may please help

  26. Hi Sibusiso,
    I wish I had equipment to give you but alas I do not. You need to go to some large organizations that you think will help you promote your ideas. Maybe they could give you money. Documentary producers are constantly looking for funding. Good luck.
    Lorraine

  27. Hi Lorraine,
    I’m in Yr10 about to start making a doco on the history of my school.
    Just wanted to know if you had any further tips on how I should go about doing it.
    The school has a HD camera, but I don’t have access to lighting or a microphone. How can I make sure the quality is still good?
    What are some interesting shots I could use to on my B-roll?

  28. Hi Henry.
    If you do not have portable supplemental lighting, then you need to make the best use of available light. That means you videotape in places that are naturally bright. Open curtains and blinds in places where that will help. Most cameras today do well without a lot of light. When you say you do not have a microphone, I am going to assume you mean that you do not have a supplemental microphone to plug in for interviews. That means you have to use the mic on-board the camera. You can get decent audio if you have the camera real close to people when you interview them. Make sure the room you are in is very quiet and ask them to speak loudly. If you do those 3 things it ought to be OK. In order to get interesting b-roll shots, look for unusual angles and perspective. Get up high or down low. Get real close up to small things.
    I am real proud of you for doing a documentary when you are just ten! Bravo for you!
    I hope this helps you. Good luck dear.
    Lorraine

  29. love your site am from jamaica jus making my first documentry,like how u give a lot of info(the more you give is the more you recieve,, thanks alot. i edit weddings for a living.that i learn on the job, but i only have a camara for my documentry.. any advice

  30. Hi Jason.
    Great to get your comment. I am so glad if the information on this blog can help you. Weddings are a good entry point and you can learn a lot from doing weddings. There are several posts here on the blog about documentary making, plus you should read all the generalized posts on lighting, editing and so forth. I wish you much success!
    Lorraine

  31. THANKS FOR YOUR RESPOND. AM DOING A DOCUMENTRY ON RASTAFARIANS(GROUP OF PPL).. DONT KNOW IF U KNOW bob marly?. HE’S A RASTA. AM DOIN IT ON THERE STYLE OF COOKING, THEY TRY 2 BE CLOSE 2 NATURE HAS POSIBLE, THE DONT SHAVE,THRER HAIR IS DREAD LOCKS,THEY DONT USED MICOWAVE,N THEY DONT EAT MEAT. BUT THEE FOOD OR DELIOIUS.AND ITS NOT POPULA HERE ( JAMAICA) SO I WANT 2 MAKE MORE PEOPLE A WARE OF ITS BENIFITS.. ANY SPECIFIC TIPS.. 2 MAKE LOOK PROFESSIONAL

  32. Hi Jason.
    I am very familiar with Bob Marley, so I am a bit familiar with that group. Make sure and take lots of close-ups of the food! Interview many different people, not just one or two. Get good sound and good lighting. Use a tripod if you can not handhold the camera steady. If you do all that, your documentary should look professional. Let me know when you have it done!
    Lorraine

  33. Lorraine,
    I’m soooo thankful i found this website. Reading through all these helpful tips have been a blessing. I’m doing my first documentary with no prior experience on the lives of glbt young adults. Mostly friends of mine. I myself have a child from a donor and a close friend is currently trying to get pregnant by one. I’m having a slightly hard time with one focused topic. I want to talk about the lives and stereotypes we face being homosexuals in 2011. Another friend is a 17yr old male who dresses very feminine and he has an amazing story to tell as well. I basically want to inform the general public, including my family, about our lives, so they cant say they “don’t understand it” enough to support it. Although we are quite an interesting group of people, I’d like to do my best to break the stereotypes to show we are no different. I don’t want to go as far as the whole gay marriage angle, I feel its been done many times before. I’m surrounded by a lot of inspiring interesting people and I want the world to seem them through my eyes, not the clouded stereotypes from the media and past history. There aren’t nearly enough documentaries on this topic out there. Also, I read about posting the videos on Youtube. Are there any copyright laws I need to be concerned with when posting my documentary on a blog or social network? Any advice is helpful. Sorry if I wasn’t very clear. Thanks!

  34. Hi Lyriq.
    I am thankful you found this website too and I support you in your documentary making efforts! Most docs are done in a play-it-by-ear fashion. You know the basics of what you want to cover, then you go shoot, shoot, shoot and then shoot some more. The docs I did in the past had a shooting ratio of about 60 to one. In other words, 60 hours of video shot to make a one-hour show. When you shoot that much, you have lots of choices and the story flows together. When it comes to copyright laws, I am certainly not the world’s leading expert, but I do know that many websites like facebook want to own your stuff if you post it on there so you have to be careful. Just post snippets. Then, have your main work on your site where it is clear you made it and not someone else. Most of the time though, you do not have much to worry about. Stealing video work is not a real common thing. I hope this helps you! Good luck.
    Lorraine

  35. Hello Lorrriene,cool piece u gat here,and very concise.PErmit to air my fears,i m a nigerian currntly working with a major logistics company in oil rich niger delta.I m planing to resign my joy and go into full time docu video making.The topic is oil spills and the effects in Ogoniland.Pls any tips to get me stared will be appreciated.I would luv it if u reply me directly to my box.Dat is [email protected]

  36. Hi Emmanuel.

    Doing a documentary on oil spills in your area is a great plan! To get started, do research! Read as much as you can on the subject and speak to people personally. Ask everybody to help you dig deeper. Then, keep digging! What else can you read and who else can you talk to? Consider it a journey that begins with one step. Do lots of research before you start videotaping. Videotape the best stuff out of what you start finding.

    The best documentaries present a wide variety of opinions and experiences. Show every side of the issue. Discuss the pros and cons of all viewpoints.

    Once you get started, it will all snowball and you will have tons of information. It is critical that you remain ORGANIZED or you will be sorry! Keep great notes, keep everything written down and organized. Transcribe all your interviews word for word. To make a documentary, you need to gather as much information as is humanly possible and then distill it down to the essence. You have to have EVERYTHING on paper right in front of you to be able to do that.

    I hope this helps you. Good luck.
    Lorraine

  37. Dear Lorraine,

    I am currently working on a 2 hour, 2 part documentary about the extremely harsh realities of drug/alcohol addiction. I could use alot of your expertise. If you have any spare time at all to e-mail me personally or call me personally (which I will give to you through e-mail) I would absolutely love your help and share my current undertakings and plans for this film. I would love to show you in-depth what I plan to do. Your information and experience could be of extreme help. It’s going to be an amazing thing as addiction has affected my life in an astonishing way. Please contact my personal e-mail if you have any spare time, I would be willing to compensate for your help.

    In much of your need,

    Caitlin Binnie

  38. Hi Caitlin
    I would enjoy helping you with your documentary. Drug addiction is a great topic that you can really go in-depth with and of course there is a lot of emotion within the stories. I guess with your personal experience you already know that. email me at [email protected] and we can exchange personal contact info.
    Lorraine

  39. Outstanding site, thank you for sharing your knowledge! I am currently working on my first documentary and did not think about transcribing all of the interviews. Great tip but can you please clarify the benefit to doing this?
    We share he same passion for documentary style story telling and I love to hear others out there are doing this and recently I have discovered a channel on Direct TV that is specifically for documentaries which is where I do all of my “research” on what works and what does not.

  40. Hi Sofia.
    I applaud you for getting into documentary video making. I am so glad to hear that you find the info here at VPT useful! Transcribing interviews word-for-word is an incredibly important step that can not be overlooked. The benefit of transcribing the interviews is enormous. To put the final script together, you have to know precisely what you have on tape (or memory card or hard drive or whatever it would be today) and precisely where you can find it. (i.e. on Tape #39 at time code 23:53:12). When you put the final script together, you will refer back to the transcripts a million times in order to find the exact portions of the interviews you want to use. If you don’t transcribe, you will NEVER remember well enough what people actually said. You can not spend the time to actually sift through all your video over and over to refresh your memory about what is there. You have to have it all on paper for quick, easy reference. Plus, videomaking is usually a team effort and the interview transcripts are one more tool you have to share with others who are working with you. Transcripts help keep everybody on the same page, knowing what has already been shot. Honestly, transcribing is a pain in the butt to say the least. It is tedious and boring. BUT YOU HAVE TO DO IT. I think it is universally loathed by all who have done it, but if you don’t do it, you’ll be lost. Now if you are doing a real short video, with only one interview, you could get away with not transcribing. But a good documentary might interview 20 different people. You have to have a quick, easy reference to all that material. You should also transcribe all your b-roll too and make what’s known as a shot sheet. If you have good natural sound, write that down on your transcripts too. In short, any documentary is basically edited on paper before the actual video is edited. Transcripts are an integral part of the process. I hope this answer helps you. Good luck with your project.
    Lorraine

  41. I thank god for coming across a wonderful site like this,guy u are just too much for d good job u are doing.am from nigeria.i am about to shoot a documentary on mambilla plateau which happened to be the highest hill in nigeria and d coldest region in the state.its uniqueness make it a tourist site that evrybody like to visit.but my problem is marketing,how to market a documentary so as to be a rewarding adventure expecially in tourism sector.pls put me through.

  42. Hi Ezekiel.
    Thanks for your compliments. I am glad if the info on this blog can help you! First, I must say that I am more experienced at making documentaries than marketing them. All the documentaries I made were done at a TV station, so I was not an independent producer then. In that scenario, you are not really marketing in the same way an independent producer would be. But I can still give you some tips. I just do not want to mislead anyone about where my real expertise lies. What you need to do is network and ask around. Call the tourism board, if there is one, in Nigeria. Call other government or private sector agencies that might be interested. Contact anyone you might think would be interested in your project and ask for the help you need. Thanks for your comment and good luck with your project.
    Lorraine.

  43. Hi Lorraine,
    I’m in total agreement with Lyirq, she said it best. “I’m soooo thankful I found this website. Reading through all these helpful tips have been a blessing” – You really are a blessing to everyone here. I was thinking about finding someone to do a documentary on you! . . . Then the whole world could see what tremendous value you have to offer. So I searched the entire Internet for the very best documentary video production person I could find, but all paths led right back to you. Now what? -))

  44. Hi Tony!
    Bless you Tony, I appreciate you wonderful comments. I see a show in my future called Scrap Jewelry Road Show, or something like that! LOL!
    Lorraine

  45. Lorraine!
    Suddenly,
    I have a third eye and can see clearly where I am going. All because of you!

    My father is a filmaker whose work hardly earned any recognition because of…um…a..ha! I am working on a minuature documentary film in order to share his skills with others. My documentary is on questions I have as a convert to the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) religion and would like to have him critique it when I am done. I had no idea where to start but voila…another eye just emerged. Thank you for your website.

  46. Hi Victoria.
    You are most welcome! I enjoy sharing my video making knowledge with others and I encourage you to make as many documentaries as you can! I’d be interested to hear your dad’s perspective.
    Thanks for your comment.
    Lorraine

  47. The film making experience I have is from watching my father. I told him about the project I shared with you and that a friend said I should take a class in film making.

    This is what he had to say:
    “If you know how to arouse interest in telling a story with unexpected short contrasting turns with mental-picture-forming words, then you need very little(if any) tuition on that. Retain your personal originality….then you will be ok with some editing.”

    I will have my family watch my first documentary online next week: The Joys of a Black Mormon – Part One.

    I very much look forward to sharing the experience with you, and, of course to receiving your feedback!

  48. I Have multiple questions about conducting research and swift transitions from open research, into dense information. Please email me if you have a chance. Please make sure you tell me who you are so I don’t overlook your message in my inbox.

    Much Apreciated,

    Cory Lestochi,

  49. Hey thank you very much. It is very help ful to me. I am a student of mass communication and this year i have a audio video project. Will you help me sir. . .

  50. Wow! Please write more! I am learning SO much. Thank you, Lorraine.

  51. My Mom has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. It’s slow moving so we don’t know how long she has left. I want to do a documentary of her remarkable life and amazing accomplishments but I need to read up on how to begin. I’m just learning my new Canon t3i capabilities but might not have time to make too many mistakes to re-do. What’s the best way, online, to get a quick brain dump on this topic? Your article is great as a starter but now I need to dive deeper. Thanks.

  52. Hi Rob.

    I am so sorry to hear abut your mom. Doing a documentary on her life a great idea. I have tons of information on this blog, much of it accessible from the home page. Read and watch the tutorials you think would help you. I bet I have more free info on this blog than some online paid products in how to make video. Then practice with your camera shooting anything you can, just to get a feel for it. I am talking about just practice video that you won’t use in the doc, but merely for the experience. Once you feel comfortable with what you’re doing, then, start interviewing people. Interviews are called “talking head” videos so read up on that, I have quite a lengthy post about it. Then gather other visuals, those you shoot yourself on video but also get as many still pictures as you can into digital form. It will just be a slow process of piecing it together. I am sure you can find other advice online, but I do know if you spent a lot of time on just this one blog, then you will learn a lot. You can email me for specific advice if you want. I hope this helps. Good luck. Lorraine

  53. I am working on a documentary that has a lot of photos available. My question how do we get the photos on Digital Video? Do we simply scan them in on my computer into my computer?

    Many years ago I worked on a doc with photos. We had a guy with a special overhead mounted camera that shot the individual photos on to the film.

    Help!

  54. Hi Ruth.
    I certainly remember the old way of using the overhead mounted camera that you described! That was for high budget stuff. for low budget stuff we just scotch taped them to the wall! LOL!

    But to answer your question, yes, scan the pics into digital form. If you do not have a printer to do that, any store like Kinkos could do it. Scan them in at the largest resolution possible. Any video editing program ought to be able to use the resulting jpegs. You can zoom in or do other movements while editing.

    I hope this helps.

    Good luck!!

    Lorraine

  55. Great article and tips. And of course the voice actor plays a big part in the documentary as well.
    Whether that’s the documentary maker, the subject, or a voice actor.
    They don’t always need to be famous either!

  56. I agree that the narrator is extremely important! All elements in a documentary are important but the narrator is who the audience will see as the authoritative storyteller so they must have a pleasant voice and sound credible. But depending on exactly how one produces the documentary, the narrator might be even more than the authoritative and credible storyteller, they can also be used as a “character” who is integral to the story. Thanks for your comment.

    Lorraine

  57. Hi Titus. I am so glad to hear this article helped you! Thanks so much for letting me know. If you have any questions, please let me know.

    Lorraine

  58. Yes, please do! I encourage you to make documentaries. There is a bigger market for documentary films now than ever before. It is my favorite style of video personally. Let me know if you need help.

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