How to create a good documentary film

The broadcaster has a new documentary series, Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America, on BBC Two

18 Feb 2022 1:18 PM

Louis Theroux has said the idea of documenting a story that turns to be “boring” terrifies him.

Theroux, who has had a 25-year career exploring topics from the world of neo-Nazi cults to the Church of Scientology, has revealed he likes “angst” when making documentaries.

The 51-year-old has a new three-part BBC Two documentary series, titled Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America, which explores the porn industry, the far-right and the rap world.

How to create a good documentary film
Louis Theroux has spoken about his new documentaries

Speaking on The Dotty Show on Apple Music, he said: “What terrifies me most on location is the idea of the story being boring, or just not being there in the way that I need it to be.

“I like grit, and I like angst.

“I like the feeling of being involved in worlds that are complex, but also in some way, threatening, even if it’s just emotionally threatening.”

The first film of his three-part series aired on Sunday, with Theroux exploring the rise of far-right ideology particularly in America, interviewing figures such as Nicholas J Fuentes, a 23-year-old white nationalist.

In another chapter, the Bafta-winning documentary maker will explore the porn industry as it deals with its own Me Too movement and the rise of platforms like OnlyFans.

Theroux will also immerse himself in the world of rap and hip-hop in the southern states of America, admitting he is a big fan of the genre.

On the podcast, Theroux performed a handwritten hip-hop rap in the persona of the Queen.

The broadcaster, who also performed the piece on The Russell Howard Hour in 2018, previously said he wrote the track for a comedy magazine while at university.

The next episode of Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America will air on BBC Two on Sunday February 20.

Use the FlexClip video maker to take your documentary video to the next level. It provides you with powerful functions, various professionally designed video templates, and numerous free resources, such as images, video clips, and music, to help you effortlessly create a documentary video with its easy to use tools. Try it free now.

  • Handy video editor
  • Rich video templates
  • Extensive media library
  • Dynamic text animations

Inspiring Documentary Video Templates

Stimulate the audience’s interest in your upcoming movie using a trailer video. Start with this editable template now.

Whether you’re going to market your own book or share your favorite one, a book trailer gets you all covered.

Drag-and-Drop Documentary Video Maker That Documents Stories

Do you need simple online video editing tools for basic media production or something more advanced for a full-length documentary film? Then you’ve arrived at the perfect spot! Take your documentary film to the next level with the FlexClip video creator.

Documentaries need loads of information, and lots of information come in a great number of footage clips and images. Finish the task in a shorter time by simply applying the drag-and-drop features with the videos and images to your documentary.

Unlike other celebratory videos, documentary videos do not require stylish transitions, text effects, and sound effects; all it needs is factual and reliable data or information. The good thing is FlexClip has templates specifically created for documentaries!

Simple Ways to Make Your Documentary Video Excellent

Storyboard the story with footage & images

Document a real-life story by adding video footage and images with FlexClip’s storyboard features.

Use text & titles to complete documentary

Use FlexClip in delivering the message more clearly by adding text captions and titles without covering up the entire video.

Record voiceover to explain the documentary

Bring your documentary closer to reality by explaining the documentary with your own voiceover instead of simply putting texts and titles.

Explore & pick background music for the story

Add a little creative touch to your documentary by picking background music that suits your documentary theme.

Hot Documentary Video Ideas to Try

Documentary films are nonfictional videos that aim to capture, and represent actual events, people, tragedies and nature. When making documentary videos, producer or director decides what they intend to document, then studies what they have captured while exploring existence of the subjects.

Country Secrets Documentary Video

Unveil country’s stories & secrets through a documentary video. A hidden treasure video or something political usually tickles curious minds, so you might as well aim for something related to it. But ensure your stories are true & honest! Otherwise, it wouldn’t be called a documentary anymore. Share stories by creating a documentary video!

Hero Documentary Video

Show a little tribute for a hero by telling their stories in a documentary video. Just like your favorite Marvel superhero’s life is narrated in movies, you can discuss the life of a notable person you know. With an informative documentary video, a person’s heroic actions can be recognized and appreciated better.

City Documentary Video

Thinking of discussing history of your favorite city, or discussing how your travel went when you visited a famous destination? A good documentary video can help you with storytelling! Through documentary videos, you can talk about day-to-day events and even people you bumped into while walking along busy streets in the city!

Friendly Pet Documentary Video

Planning to show off your puppy’s skills & talents? Film all fun & amazing moments with your pet, and compile them into a documentary video. Not only will you gain more viewers – since most people are naturally inclined to watch pet documentaries — but this can also help you look back into the best moments of your pet’s life!

Future & Science Documentary Video

People are usually keen to watch videos about science, especially when we talk about the future. Is there another Earth? Are there other creatures existing in our universe? How did Earth come to be? These are just some of the most commonly asked science questions that burst the curious bubble of most documentary video lovers.

Celebrity Documentary Video

Narrate a celebrity’s journey to their successful careers by producing a documentary video about them. Here you can show the challenges they’ve been through, the awards they’ve received, and the downfalls they’ve survived while in the entertainment industry. In this way, you can clearly explain what a celebrity’s life looks like behind the film reels.

War & Peace Documentary Video

Most people love watching dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. But when it comes to real-life scenarios, people’s genuine nature to care for humankind gets sparked. Raise awareness on different war and peace situations in other nations by creating a documentary video.

Why You Need to Make a Documentary Video

Share Moments

Making a video story is a great way to share your important moments with family and friends.

Evoke Emotion

A video can convey strong emotion and resonate well with audiences.

Improve Engagement

People are more likely to engage, share, and comment on video content.

Aspiring documentary filmmakers or students almost always have no clue where to start when creating a strong documentary film proposal. But like any film pre-production prep, much of the requirements remain the same. The difference is that you’re gearing your proposal towards a film documentary instead of a film feature, television series or what not.

Whether you’re starting out as an independent documentary film creator or looking to find employment in a top video production company in New York or L.A. It’s a good idea to understand the basics and to gather up pointers on how you can up your documentary filmmaking prep . And this all starts by knowing how to craft a strong and reliable proposal.

What is a Documentary Film Proposal?

A film proposal is a written and visual representation of your film. It is your main gateway in attracting cast and crew to help come onboard with your project.

Crafting A Strong Documentary Film Treatment

Have a Clear Vision

Your proposal should give readers a clear image of what you want to achieve with your documentary. Don’t just tell them what your film is about or how it needs to be made but also make sure to emphasize why you are the right person to do it.

Create a Clear Structure

Documentaries are meant to capture real life but you still need to present it in a way that’s captivating for your audience. This is where good storytelling comes in. If you’re at a loss, it’s always good to stick to the basics like creating a three-act structure to provide your documentary proper construction.

Depict a Clear Picture of Your Story and Characters

As you present your film treatment, make sure describe and flesh out the characters included in your story. When doing character writing, remember it’s all about being specific. Your viewers and readers need to identify and like your characters. Remember, your documentary proposal serves as the “ screenplay ” for your project. Also, this is a good time to make sure all of the people in your documentary have agreed to be in your production.

Ground Your Issue with the Characters Involved

For documentary filmmakers, it’s easy to overlook the story for the issue. Keep your intent for creating the documentary film front and center. Ask yourself, “Why should people care about this?” Instead of bombarding viewers with facts, ground the story to the experiences of the people, the human beings, whose lives are affected or revolve around the issue you are trying to communicate.

When needed, always add the backstory or other elements that are important to the story or the characters you will be featuring in your documentary film . Showcase in your proposal, how you are going to communicate this to your audience. Be vivid and paint a clear visual so your readers can imagine what the documentary will be like.

Read and Revise Until You Are Happy with the Result

Take your time. Your proposal is a way for you to sort out what you want to present or say in your video or film documentary. It will help clarify your vision and communicate your intention to your eventual audience. Refine it until you are sure this is how you want to present the story.

Writing a strong documentary film proposal for your video production or film project means paying attention to how you present your story and issue. Be clear, concise and present your vision with confidence and honesty.

Whether it’s creating your personal documentary film or working for an established video or film company service, knowing how to communicate using your documentary proposal will bring you one step ahead of everyone else.

How to create a good documentary film

Documentaries are fascinating and capture the brilliance of humanity when executed thoroughly. Every director and producer has his or her own routine of writing a documentary script, which can be very liberating to those who are starting out. Depending on the subject of the documentary, the schedule can be incredibly pressing, which means that having a system in place prior to embarking on a new documentary project can be quite rewarding. And don’t forget to check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking programs to find the best hands-on, intensive program for you.

Here are 7 steps on how to write a documentary script:

1. Finding the Story You’re Meant to Tell

Why documentary? What are you hoping to convey? Why are you the perfect person to tell this story? These are all questions you answer in a pitch in order to be green lit by producers and executive producers. Answering them first for yourself can lead you to a story you feel passionate about and are thus able to see through the long process of documentary filmmaking. Once answered, you begin the arduous task of looking deeper into material that will lead you to the story and ultimately, the script.

2. Research, Research, Research

Research is the most important phase of Pre-production and is the foundation of your script. Often, when we begin looking at a topic, others have come before us. This means that we need to dig deeper into the subject in order to not only inform but also surprise the audience. This surprise is key to creating an interesting story. If you’re looking for experts, one of the ways to find them is to search for books on the topic and then approach the authors. They may simply become “advisors” – people who can provide key background information and fact-checkers. They may also turn into interviewees, on-camera experts who elevate the believability factor. Whichever role they assume, their input is important to create the skeletal form that you then flesh out with “story” as you develop your outline.

3. Blueprint Your Documentary

This is the time to organize and plan how the story will be transmitted to your audience. This can be in the form of an outline most commonly expressed in a set of “sequences”. These are detailed scenes to show how the film may play out. When you have this sequence outline clear in your head, shooting the frame is much easier because you already know what you want. This sequence outline follows the natural narrative spine of storytelling which is broken into acts which culminate in the overall message that you are trying to convey. There may be some tweaking along the way, but the sequence outline is there as a guide.

4. Writing the Script

The first column is optional and is used by some filmmakers as a guide to the arc of the narrative. Video and Audio columns are the standard and they are formatted so that the visuals line up with the audio (interview, narration, music, etc.) that plays over them.

How to create a good documentary film

A sample documentary script

You must work backwards. It is the only way to write a documentary script. Once you have collected your research, data, and interviews, only then can you write the script. Without research, it would be impossible to conceive what an interviewee is going to say and how that ties into your message. Once you have all of the facts and materials, then you can sit down and write the script and voice-overs.

5. Compel Your Viewer

Viewers want to connect with your project. Zeroing in on protagonists to highlight compelling personal stories will enthrall viewers. Emotionally, your viewers will open up and understand the complexity of the issue while making the issue entirely relatable. Every viewer wants to be transported somewhere else, look through fresh eyes, learn something new, and then be motivated and moved by this information.

6. Declare Your Point Of View

Presenting the facts and reality isn’t always clean cut and unbiased. That isn’t to say that directors and producers spin a project a certain way but there is information that stays in a documentary and information that is cut. So, what is it that you want your documentary to transmit? When your thematic message is well-defined, putting the entire script and production together is much easier and it is clearer to the audience regardless of whether or not they agree. They can still connect because of the clarity of the message. At the very least, the audience is given something to think about moving forward. As a director/writer/producer, you can be flexible and allow your story to unfold even if it’s not in the precise direction that you thought it would go.

7. Finesse Your Project

Be thorough with your writing and voice-overs. Writing and rewriting the script is part of the process as you continue to define your message and refine the story. If you are using a narrator, you may have to readjust to your narrator’s style. Sometimes while you are fact checking, there may be some discrepancies so you want to make sure that everything you are presenting to the viewer is accurate and reflected in the rewriting process.

Documentaries aren’t an observation of humanity, but rather an opening door into our nature, into what drives us, what makes us fill with joy and weep with sorrow. Documentaries are real, with real people and dealing with real issues that are powerful and hit us at our core. Let your writing reflect those deep, moving messages and capture your audience emotionally.

Just like everything else, writing the right documentary script can only come after hours of training and practice, including feedback from professionals. Find out more about how you can gain that experience at NYFA’s Documentary Filmmaking Workshops.

Interested in learning more about the craft of creating excellent documentaries? Check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking programs to find the best hands-on, intensive program for you.

How To Write A Documentary Script by Helen Kantilaftis

How to create a good documentary film

  • How to Tell a Story
  • Story Structure in 3 Acts
  • Camera Shots & Angles
  • The history of storyboarding
  • Why storyboarding is important
  • How to storyboard a documentary

Storyboarding your documentary can help you nail down the story, saving time, money, and stress when you start shooting.

When it comes to documentary filmmaking, filmmakers and cinematographers have a secret weapon: the storyboard. It’s a vital tool in the pre-production flow that helps them get crystal clear on the story before they start crafting the documentary script.

Whether it’s your first documentary or you’re a seasoned filmmaking pro, it’s always a good idea to spend time on your documentary storyboard – before you start lining up interviewees or dreaming about enlisting Samuel L. Jackson for your voiceovers. (Although that would be cool.)

In this tutorial, we’ll show you how to go about creating a top-notch documentary storyboard that’ll take your documentary filmmaking to dizzy new heights. And we’ll throw in a free storyboard template for good measure, too.

The history of storyboarding

A storyboard’s a series of drawings accompanied by a little bit of text, where each drawing represents a specific part of the story. It became popular in film production back in the 1930s thanks to the OG storyboard artist, Webb Smith.

Smith, an animator at Walt Disney Studios, started drawing rough sketches of frames on different bits of paper, then stuck them up on a wall to communicate a sequence of events. Since then, plenty of people have adopted this approach in video production – including big names in the documentary world like Daniel Raim.

Why storyboarding is important

Documentary filmmaking is, by definition, an unknown. You have to know how to roll with the punches. But, as with everything in life, having a solid plan is going to make the whole process a lot easier. That’s where storyboarding comes in.

Although you don’t have a script (this isn’t screenwriting, obviously), you should have a strong idea of how your documentary is going to come together. Storyboarding is where you take that idea and reproduce it in image form.

Make sure that each image on your storyboard contains enough information for people to understand what’s going on, but not so much that it masks the most important details.

How to create a good documentary film

Three things to remember

  • Your storyboard is like a step-by-step graphic novel version of your documentary outline. You should dedicate each panel to an important moment in the story, or a fresh camera angle.
  • The storyboarding process has two main goals: ensuring you get all the shots you need (including vital b-roll), and doing it in an efficient way so that you don’t have to spend time and money fixing things in video production.
  • A storyboard is every filmmaker’s friend. It’ll help you navigate a hectic shoot, no matter which filmmaking discipline you’re working in: short film, music video, or gory slasher flick.

How to storyboard a documentary

1. Set up your storyboard

  • Go to your Boords dashboard, click New project and name it after your documentary
  • You’ll be prompted to create a new storyboard – you can name that after your documentary, too
  • Click Create storyboard

2. Customize your fields

You can use custom fields to add extra information and keep all your whipsmart ideation in one place. We recommend adding a Notes field and using a nifty custom icon.

  • Click the settings cog to open the storyboard settings menu
  • Use the toggle to turn off the default Sound and Action fields
  • Add Notes and any other new fields that’ll be useful for your planning. Generally, your footage will fit in three categories, so these might be good starting points for field names:
  1. Interviews with your subject(s)
  2. Live footage you spontaneously capture in the field
  3. Recreated events (sometimes known as ‘recreations’ or ‘recres’)

3. Add a frame for each moment

  • Break up the documentary into important parts of the story, with a frame for each
  • You can also use a new frame for each new camera angle
  • Label each frame so you can understand it at a glance

4. Add illustrations

Add an illustration in each frame to help tell the story. Emphasise each moment, and think of how your character feels about it. Visuals are a great way to bring a story to life, so use them wherever possible.

Don’t worry if your drawing skills aren’t too hot. There are oodles of stock images and handy illustrations in Boords’ image editor.

  • Click Edit image
  • Add a stock image, upload your own image, or use the drawing tool to sketch
  • Use thought bubbles to show what a character’s thinking
Get familiar with the basics of storytelling. We’ll show you how to tell a masterful story by doing your research, inspiring people, knowing your audience, and editing like a boss. You’ll also learn about our favorite movie franchise, Rocky. Learn more.

5. Add some emotion

It’s important to show your interviewee’s emotional state during each moment. You might want to add emoticons to give a clearer picture of what they’re likely to be feeling. Use the drawing tool to create a simple human face.

6. Add notes

Leave more information in the Notes field of each frame to give more context. You can also show a character’s thinking with thought bubbles.

This might be a good place to add notes about b-roll footage that you need to capture to bolster the story, or sound effects that you plan to add later.

7. Rearrange the frames

Now that you’ve got the entire story laid out, take a step back and check that everything flows correctly. Drag and drop frames if you need to tweak the order.

8. Ask for feedback

After you’ve drawn the storyboard, show it to other team members to make sure it’s clear to them.

  • Click Share in the top right of the screen
  • Copy the presentation link
  • Send the link to your team for feedback
  • Optional: click Manage people to give team members editing access

Here’s to your next step in UX mastery. We bow down!

What next?

We’ve got plenty more articles that can help on your documentary-making journey. You can explore our blog, or check out some suggestions below:

Become a documentary filmmaking maestro with Boords

Move over, Werner Herzog. Boords is the simple, powerful way to storyboard your next Oscar-winning documentary.

Try Boords today for free. A whopper Netflix licensing deal awaits, we’re sure.

Thanks to Masterclass and StudioBinder for their helpful posts on storyboarding.

How to create a good documentary film

  • How to Write a Logline
  • How to Write a Film Treatment
  • How to Storyboard a Short Film
  • How to Write Your First Short Film: Step-by-Step Guide for 2021
  • Essential terms
  • Why you need a documentary treatment
  • How long should a documentary treatment be?
  • What to include in a documentary treatment
  • Tips for writing a documentary treatment

If you’re a filmmaker looking to get support for your documentary project, you’ll need to create a documentary treatment. It’s an essential document that lays out the synopsis of your documentary, helping to attract collaborators, funders and interviewees.

Screenwriters all over the world know the value of writing documentary treatments. After reading this post, you’ll be able to create a roadmap that guides you throughout the filmmaking process, taking you from pre-production to the finished product – and maybe a few Sundance awards, too.

Essential terms to know

When you start reading about documentary treatments, you’ll see a lot of similar terms. Namely: documentary proposal, documentary synopsis and documentary logline. While there’s a lot of overlap between these terms, it’s good to know the differences.

  • Documentary treatment

Much like a script, your film treatment details exact scenes, main characters and story structure. It’s a constantly developing document that you’ll need to tweak as the story comes together. Large funding agencies might want to see your treatment if you approach them for fundraising—however, this can be difficult in the early stages of the pre-production process due to the unknown nature of documentaries.

  • Documentary proposal

A group of documents that detail your documentary project, including story synopsis, logline, documentary treatment, production team bios, budget and distribution plan. Potential funders might ask for your documentary proposal—it’s a bit like seeing a business plan.

  • Documentary synopsis

A synopsis is a short overview of your story, explaining why it’s important and how you’re going to tell it. A synopsis varies in length from a couple of paragraphs to a few pages.

  • Documentary logline

A logline is a one-sentence summary of your film that entices someone to read the entire script. Loglines explain the key parts of your screenplay—like the main character, inciting incident, central conflict, and antagonist—in a tight, hooky sentence.

  • Documentary tagline

A tagline is like a mini version of a logline. It’s a quick, catchy sentence used by marketers and distributors to advertise and sell your film. You’ll often see it on movie posters, DVD covers, film catalogues, adverts or TV guides.

Need help writing a logline? Check out our comprehensive guide: How to write a logline.

Why you need a documentary treatment

Your documentary treatment is a written document that describes your entire documentary project. As a filmmaker, it’ll help you get all your ideas on the page, working through potential themes and story angles. So it’s an essential part of the development process.

But your documentary treatment is useful for other reasons, too. You’ll need it to get potential investors, participants or supporters involved in your film. It explains your vision in word form, helping others to understand what you’re trying to create.

While it’s important to invest time in making your documentary treatment as good as it can be, you’ll constantly need to update it as the project progresses. It’s an evolving document that’ll flex as you move through the writing process.

How long should a documentary treatment be?

While there are strict rules for how long a spec script should be, documentary treatments can vary quite a lot. Your treatment needs to be short enough to be snappy and engaging, but long enough to cover all the plot points and sell the story.

If you’re writing without a specific audience in mind, then a ten-page document is a good length for a documentary treatment. If you’re writing your treatment for someone specific—like a reader at a production company—then screenwriter John August suggests asking them what they’re looking for. Sometimes readers have a certain page count in mind.

That said, there are no concrete rules. James Cameron, for example, is known for writing epic 70-page film treatments. His treatment for Terminator is worth a read. if you have time to kill.

What to include in a documentary treatment

When formatting your documentary treatment, you should write it in the same way that you would write a present-tense short story. It needs to include the key plot points and give a flavour of the tone you’re shooting for, but it shouldn’t be overly stylised—like a novel, for example.

Your treatment doesn’t need to include the whole story, so it’s a good idea to cut out non-critical subplots. You should aim for something that outlines your basic three-act structure but without the screenplay format. Stick to the meat of the story and the main characters.

Check out our guide on how to find your perfect story structure in three acts.

Here’s a list of things that you’ll want to include in your documentary treatment:

  • The working title of your documentary. This one’s essential.
  • Your name and contact details. So if someone does want to throw some cash your way, they know how to reach you.
  • Logline. Explain what your story’s about in a couple of lines.
  • Explanation of act one. Where are we? What’s this documentary about? Who are the main characters? What do they want? What’s the tone? What’s the setup?
  • Explanation of act two. What pushes these characters to change? What’s the conflict? Where’s the story going?
  • Explanation of act three. How does the story reach a resolution? What’s the climax?
  • Final wrap-up. Where do we leave the characters? What happens at the very end? Is there an epilogue?

Naturally, the writing process for documentary filmmaking is different to a regular film or TV show because there are a huge amount of unknowns. But if you follow this structure as closely as you can, you’ll be golden.

How to create a good documentary film

You’ve got the story of the century and some great subjects willing to bare all on camera. It’s a one-time opportunity to make some great documentary footage, so here’s how to make sure the interview goes swimmingly.

Getting Set Up

As with any shoot — not just documentary interviewing — the key to perfect footage lies in the setup. A few things to consider:

Background: You’ll want think carefully about where you place your subject, both from an aesthetic and exposure point of view. It’s worth reading up on our guide to filming in natural light for an in-depth look at how your choice background can make or break a shot.

Multiple Cameras: Having two different camera angles (or perhaps one recording wide while another does close up) will give you additional options in the editing suite, as discussed in more detail further down. It’s standard practice to have the subject looking at you and at a slight angle to the camera rather than directly into it.

How to create a good documentary film

Ambient Noise Level: Do a mental check of any background noise that might pose problems later on. It’s easy to overlook constant, low noises (like air conditioners) on the day, but they’ll stick out like a sore thumb when you listen back!

If time allows, try to factor in some time with the subject before the interview, especially if you don’t know them — it’s good to build rapport before you start firing questions at them, and it’ll help soothe everyone’s nerves … it can be quite an overwhelming experience for those who aren’t used to being interviewed! Finding small ways to make the process as comfortable as possible for your subject is always beneficial.

And of course, the main piece of preparation you need to focus on is the questions themselves…

Interview Preparation and Conducting

A few well-worded questions are all it takes to transform an interview from “good” to “great.”

How to create a good documentary film

Naturally, what these questions will entail depends entirely on your subject and nature of the discussion, but some good rules of thumb on both the writing and asking of your questions include:

  • Avoid yes/no questions. Rather than, “Did you feel under pressure during the incident,” a more open-ended approach such as, “There must have been a lot of pressure on you during the incident,” will yield more usable results.
  • Have the interviewee repeat the question as part of his or her answer. You’ll find it much easier to edit afterwards since the context is built into what they’re saying.
  • Avoid interrupting. You can always make a cut when the answer goes on too long, but it’s much harder to edit around an interviewer’s interjections.
  • In fact, avoid making any sound whatsoever. Outside of actually asking the question, don’t make the mistake of adding non-verbal noises (such as “hmmm” or gasping) while listening to your subject.
  • Have a solid idea of where you’re trying to lead the interview. Think of your time with the subject as one part of the whole documentary; you’ll have a clear idea of the overall narrative, so use pointed, structured questions that’ll lead you neatly onto the next part of the film.

Knowing when to let things veer away from the prepared questions and when to bring things back is a skill that can only be learned with time and practice, but trusting your instinct will get you most of the way.

Get as Much B-Roll Footage as Possible

You may be absolutely riveted by your subject while conducting the interview, and with a bit of luck they’ll give you more useful material than you could ever hope to use in the final cut.

However, a static shot of someone talking isn’t always that appealing for long periods of time from the audience’s perspective. You’ll probably want to overlay contextual B-roll footage to illustrate what your subject is saying, give the viewer a visual break, and add a little flavor.

It’ll make your life a lot easier to get as much B-roll footage as possible ahead of time rather than heading back out during the editing phase, particularly if you want the subject to be in the footage themselves.

However, there will be moments where the interview gets really good and you don’t want to switch to B-roll, particularly in emotionally powerful moments. For that, you’ll want to use a slider.

How to create a good documentary film

Creating Subtle Movement

If you want to zoom in on a subject (or pan across the room) during a documentary interview, you’ve got two options: manually zoom or move the camera, or make the adjustment during post.

The latter isn’t ideal from a quality point of view, and the former is tricky to do effectively on the fly (especially when you’re trying to conduct the interview at the same time).

The solution? Use a slider.

It’s a low-cost, highly effective solution that will add a level of dynamism to your interview footage.

Never Stop Filming!

It’s not uncommon (in fact, it’s usual) for the real gold to happen outside of the interview. Keeping the cameras rolling both during the setup and long after you’ve finished asking questions may prove to be the best documentary tip you ever implement.

Hopefully you’ll have way more footage than you’ll ever need, so now the fun begins: click here to read up on how to edit your interview footage for maximum impact.

A good interview goes a long way in a documentary, but it’s only a small piece of the equation. At NYFA, we value a rounded education in our Documentary Filmmaking workshops to prepare students for every part. To learn more, visitn our 6-Week Documentary Filmmaking workshop page.

How to Prepare and Conduct a Documentary Interview by

How to create a good documentary film

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Aaron Sorkin Screenwriting MasterClass

Aaron Sorkin wrote his first movie on cocktail napkins which turned into A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson. Now, the Academy Award-winning writer of The West Wing and The Social Network is teaching screenwriting.

In this class, you’ll learn his rules of storytelling, dialogue, character development, and what makes a script actually sell.

David Mamet Masterclass for Writers

David Mamet sat in on a poker game full of thieves and left with the inspiration for American Buffalo. Now, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of Glengarry Glen Ross takes you through his process for turning life’s strangest moments into dramatic art.

In his writing class, he’ll teach you the rules of drama, the nuances of dialogue, and the skills to develop your own voice and create your masterpiece.

Learn Film Directing Online

Martin Scorsese Masterclass for Directing

This legendary director whose films from Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street have shaped movie history. In his first-ever online film class, the Oscar winner teaches his approach, from storytelling to editing to working with actors.

He deconstructs films and breaks down his craft, changing how you make and watch movies.

In 30 lessons, learn the art of film from the director of Goodfellas, The Departed, and Taxi Driver.

David Lynch Teaches Creativity and Film

An avant-garde figure in filmmaking, David Lynch introduced mainstream audiences to art-house films. Now the Oscar-nominated director of Mulholland Drive teaches his cross-disciplinary creative process.

Learn how he catches ideas, translates them into a narrative, and moves beyond formulaic storytelling.

David Lynch teaches his unconventional process for translating visionary ideas into film and other art forms.

Jodie Foster Teaches Filmmaking

Go behind the scenes with two-time Oscar-winner Jodie Foster, star of Silence of the Lambs and director of Little Man Tate.

In her first online film class, she’ll teach you how to bring your vision to life. Jodie discusses her experience on both sides of the camera to guide you through every step of the filmmaking process, from storyboarding to casting and camera coverage.

Everyone has a story. Learn how to tell yours.

Jodie Foster teaches you how to bring stories from page to screen with emotion and confidence.

Mira Nair Teaches Independent Filmmaking

The Oscar-nominated director teaches her methods for directing powerful performances, maximizing budgets, and bringing authentic stories to life.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mira Nair approaches directing with the “heart of a poet and the skin of an elephant,” spurred by rejection and fighting to bring uncompromising stories to film.

James Cameron Teaches Filmmaking

Academy Award-winning director James Cameron teaches you the tricks of the trade and shares his approach to epic moviemaking on any budget.

From The Terminator and Titanic to Avatar, James Cameron has directed some of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters. Now, for the first time in his 40-year career, he opens up about his process.

Through behind-the-scenes breakdowns, James shares his approach to developing ideas, storylines, and characters; harnessing technology; and worldbuilding on any budget.

Ron Howard MasterClass for Directors

Ron Howard made his first film in 15 days with $300,000 and today, his movies have grossed over $1.8 billion. In his first-ever online directing class, the Oscar-winning director of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind decodes his craft like never before.

In lessons and on-set workshops, you’ll learn how to evaluate ideas, work with actors, block scenes, and bring your vision to the screen whether it’s a laptop or an IMAX theater.

Ron Howard teaches directing, editing, and storytelling in his exclusive video lessons.

Capture the Spectacular with Werner Herzog

In 6 hours of video lessons, Werner Herzog teaches his uncompromising approach to documentary and feature filmmaking.

When the legendary director Werner Herzog was 19, he stole a camera and made his first movie. 70 films and 50 awards later, Werner is teaching documentary and feature filmmaking.

In this film class, you’ll learn storytelling, cinematography, location scouting, self-financing, documentary interview techniques, and how to bring your ideas to life.

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.

In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives.

From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that bring their stories to life.

Learn Sound Design Online

Danny Elfman Teaches Music for Film

Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman teaches you his eclectic creative process and his approach to elevating a story with sound.

From The Simpsons theme to the soundtracks of Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and The Nightmare Before Christmas, Danny Elfman’s compositions are original, memorable, and exuberantly weird.

Step into Danny’s studio and learn his techniques for evoking emotion and elevating a story through music.

How to create a good documentary film

Hi. Welcome to my filmmaking blog. Here you will learn how to start a career in the film industry.

How to create a good documentary film

Feb 21 Making a Documentary – How I Personally Made My Documentary Film

Making a documentary requires planning, patience and most importantly a story. Seven years ago I set out to make a feature-length documentary film. This article will breakdown how I made my film, sold it and what I learned.

How to create a good documentary film

In 2013 I started to think seriously about leaving the film industry. The year before I had worked on three features in a row and was understandable feeling burnt out. I knew that film crew, on the road life was not for me, and I found myself contemplating my next career step.

I figured that the reason I disliked working on film sets was that the projects I was working on were not my own. I was working endless hours for someone else’s dream. So, I decided that the next step was to make my own films.

The Idea

Now my story is a little different. I didn’t want to be a documentary filmmaker but I wanted to make a film without a large budget. Documentary seemed like the perfect match. I could use the gear I already had and shoot it on my own.

I started to research into documentary filmmaking. It was then that I came across an online article on how to make money making documentaries. The article was about a filmmaker who had made several documentaries on the history of English towns. The article empathised how anyone can do what they did, about how profitable it was and ended with how shocked they where that other filmmakers weren’t doing it too.

Unfortunately for me, the article was outdated. The technique of selling local history documentaries might have worked 5 years previously, but at the start of this decade, this industry was changing fast.

The Budget

I could have easily made this film for free. I shot it on a Canon 5D with a Rode microphone zoom mounted on top. However, I figured that I would need a budget for music, graphics and most of all I was unemployed and running out of savings.

The next part of this story is a major blunder in my life. So, I am going to skip through this quickly. It’s also best to try and understand my mental health at the time too. I was mid-way through a quarter-life crisis, in depression and I had no idea how to analyse my feelings. I found a website (an official government website) that gave out loans to people with business ideas. I applied, out of curiosity and was hounded then manipulated into taking out a loan.

A loan I really didn’t need and when I tried to give it back, I was tricked and manipulated even more. The lesson learned here is to be careful when large sums of money are involved. But also to be aware of your own mental health, unfortunately, there are people out there willing to take advantage of it.

If you are making your own documentary yourself it is likely you can do it for free.

The Production

Shooting the film was not so difficult. I researched the story and timeline at the local library. I was also able to get permission for photographs and some stock footage.

The only problem I had at the time was that I didn’t own a car. My equipment, even if small, got heavy when walking around and relying on public transport. In hindsight, it might have been best to hire an assistant. From what I can remember I managed to get all of the footage together in two months and finish about a month later since I was editing as I went along.

I also made sure that I got permission for any media used and kept a large folder full of email print outs and signed permission slips. If you make a documentary everyone who appears in your film needs to without fail sign a permission slip. I personally know of a documentary that has been pulled out of festivals and possible major distribution because they didn’t have the written permission of one person who was interviewed.

You can download a free permission form here –

How to create a good documentary film

Editing a documentary is neither easy nor fast. Even when you start with an outline, that outline is likely to change as you get to know the footage, the subjects and events. A good place to start is to look at all the footage while suspending judgement. Look for and collect those magic moments of truth and beauty. Then you can begin to string them together and see what flows.

Structuring The Documentary

Documentary structure is often determined by the film’s subject. There are a number of common structures used in documentaries:

  • “Voice of God” narration tell the story
  • Interview clips tell the story
  • “Day In the Life” where the camera follows the subject
  • The filmmaker appears on camera and guides the story as a first person guide, such as Michael Moore, Werner Herzog and many others
  • Re-enactment of historical events using actors, photos and stock footage.

Some documentaries use a combination of these structures. It comes down to telling a complete story. Narration and titles can be used to weave the separate pieces and ideas together into a cohesive whole.

There are also “mockumentary” films which tell the story of a fictitious event or social group as if it were real. Any of the above structures may be used. The mockumentary is a parody or a way to comment on an event or social group. Examples of mockumentaries include This Is Spinal Tap directed by Rob Reiner, Best in Show by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy who also star in the film.

Documentaries and The Truth

A documentary is “a factual film which is dramatic” according to Pare Lorentz, the most influential documentary of the 1930’s. But all documentaries have a point of view, even if it is not readily admitted. Many documentary filmmakers would have you believe their films are objective, but every choice that’s made in the editing room harbors a point of view. Consider which interviews make the final cut, which part of an interview makes the final cut, and which questions are asked in the interview. All of these choices have points of view. Not to mention that everyone who works on a film has a point of view or bias on the subject, whether it is acknowledged or not. It’s more honest to be up front about your point of view than it is to try and present it as objective. See Documentary Editing Where Is the Truth?

Some films are “personal films” which means they are small in scope and esoteric in subject matter. Personal films point more inward than outward and have little commercial value. They are typically shown in art houses or university screening rooms.

Story Telling And Character

With the exception of the mockumentary, the characters in a doc are real people being themselves. The character moves from one situation to another to effect change. It is common for a character to go from weakness to strength. The character moves to greater tension and then to resolution. Viewers expect this pattern of start, tension and resolution in a story and characters. The editor can portray the character with sympathy or disdain.

A good ending is when

  • the action ends
  • the viewers know what the characters will do
  • the ending answers the questions in the film (often, but not always)
  • the ending is logical and satisfying.


Interviews can be a powerful way to tell a story. If you were to ask all interviewees the same questions, you would have a wealth of choices in the editing room. For instance one character could start a sentence and another could finish it. By selecting the right sound bytes, the editor could tell a complete story using only interviews without any narration.

If there is a lot of interview material, organizing it can be a challenge. Some editors prefer to work with written transcripts (including time-code) of the video interviews. A paper edit can be a more efficient way to start the job. The jump cuts may be covered with cutaways or B-roll although some editors prefer to leave the jump cuts visible rather than hide them.

While two-camera shoots are more expensive, today’s inexpensive HDSLR cameras make the two-camera interview an affordable proposition. Many interviews are not very striking visually so if interviews are a major portion of the film, the film can suffer. Take special care to make your interviews look great.

Outside Elements Legal and Organized

When you just dive into a project that will eventually include photos, home movies, stock footage and other diverse elements, it is too easy to lose track of the origins and contact information for each different elements. Much later it can be nearly impossible to pursue the legal rights to use those materials. A database or complete list that uses a unique naming system for all elements should be built from the beginning.

Don’t wait till the fine cut to get permissions to use the materials. That would waste a lot of time and hurt the film. If you can’t get permission or at least find the price of using a photo or video, why waste your time with it? See Complete set of releases for film and video.

The biggest challenge for wildlife film-makers is getting a program green lit by commissioning editors. Following trends, building gadgets, finding new filming techniques and building relationships and trust with broadcasters are all really helpful, but the one key ingredient that trumps all others is …. The Story.

Without a great story to tell, your idea will be dead in the water from the get go. Now the question is: what makes a great story? Well, I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar by a commissioning editor for the natural history unit of South Africa – Vyv Simson, at the 2013 Wildtalk Film Festival. Vyv, one of the world’s most experienced wildlife documentary experts, answered this very question in a simple and straight forward manner using a scene from Clint Eastwood’s Grand Torino film to position his argument.

In the film, Clint Eastwood was confronted by a panicked neighbour with a burst pipe. Eventually Clint brought out a wrench, screw driver and duck tape, packed it in front of the neighbour, with a sentence along the lines of “Here – with these three tools you can fix 95% of household problems.” Vyv then identified the four key story tools that will solve 95% of film producer’s problems when writing a wildlife documentary story.

Here is what they are:

1. Character

The character, protagonist, or simply the hero is the person / animal / thing whose journey we follow during the story. The audience need to relate to the character and be able to emotionally invest into the character. Building a strong character that your prospective audience can invest into is the first key ingredient into building a great story. That is why producers are always in search for great characters that will resonate with audiences. That is also why 100 great white shark films are made to every film on a guppy.

How to create a good documentary filmWilly jumped into hearts of millions a decade or so ago, making him one of the most loved animals on the big screen, and bringing in some serious dough for the producers.

2. Mission

The mission is the reason for the story, what is the character goal or quest they are on? There are many missions humans or wildlife embark on, however, the best missions (for a larger audience) are always those that cover a universal theme – e.g love, David vs. Goliath, redemption etc. Having a mission that covers a well recognized and established universal theme is the second main component to a great story. NB – today missions also need to be authentic! Will the character be on the mission if the cameras were off? If the answer is yes, then great!

3. Conflict

Now, if your hero’s mission was a walk in the park, very few people will invest heavily into it. The mission needs to be hard and thus there needs to be considerable conflict and challenges that the character must overcome to achieve their goal. Conflicts and challenges have many forms that are often put in place by a story’s antagonist, the entity that is committed to stopping the hero from reaching their goal. Building good conflicts and challenges build a story’s tension and cause the audience to sit on the edge of their seat.

How to create a good documentary filmThere would have been no story if King Leonidas decided to just share a cold one with Xerxes, and let bygones be bygones…

4. Resolution

How does it all end? What is the take home message of the story? Did the hero overcome the challenges and succeed in their mission? Or did they fail? Did the hero change in some way due to the mission? Having a good clear finish and resolution is the final key ingredient to a film. It is important to remember the finish of the documentary may not be scripted, and thus writer must be open here, as we are not creating fiction.

How to create a good documentary filmAfter a long day of dodging lions, struggling to find food and staying out of the crosshairs of a hunter’s rifle, these two will just continue, to survive, tomorrow.

Ok, so after this it may be that 5% is still needed to turn a good solid story into a great story. However, if you have these four boxes ticked when you present your idea, then you can be hopeful that a commissioner will be willing to work and mould the final bits to turn your good story into a great one! And ultimately, you may just have your story told and film made. Mission accomplished.

October 26, 2021

Making a short film is the rite of passage for many new filmmakers. If you have never made a short film, now is the time. Not only are there a gazillion film festivals that offer a short movie program, but with websites like YouTube, you can reach a global audience.

In the old days, making a short film meant that a studio would project your work in theaters before the feature presentation. But that trend ended. Short films were replaced by trailers and advertisements.

In the decades that followed, there wasn’t much of a market for short films. It was almost impossible to make money with a short film. As a result, finding investors to back a short was super challenging.

Table Of Contents

  • How To Make A Short Film
  • Tactic 1: Use Resources You Have
  • Tactic 2: Make Short Films That Suck
  • Tactic 3: Avoid Making Dramatic Films
  • Tactic 4: Okay… Make Drama If It’s Good
  • Tactic 5: Make Shorts Until You’re Bored
  • What Makes A Good Short Film?

How to create a good documentary film

How To Make A Short Film

While I can’t say that the economics of short movie making has improved dramatically, the emergence of crowdfunding, festivals, and internet-based video platforms offers hope. But regardless, you’re a filmmaker. And making a short film is a great training ground for getting your feature made, seen, and sold.

Many people in Hollywood bounce around for years pretending to do work when all they are doing is posing. Many of these people call themselves producers, yet they have no screen credits and have frankly failed to do anything! Don’t do that. If you haven’t yet made a short, my suggestion is to get started!

For your first few movies, don’t spend time worrying about lighting or special effects. Just learn how to utilize your limited resources and make something cool out of nothing. Here is a quick video outlining my tips for creating a short film.

Tactic 1: Use Resources You Have

Technology has come a long way. For a few hundred dollars, you can now buy a camera that produces cinematic results. And if you can’t afford a new camera, use any camera you can get your hands on. And yes, this includes camera phones. If you cannot yet afford your equipment, find someone who already has the gear and makes friends.

I also suggest you focus on a story you can tell in three minutes or less. When I was managing a film program, many first-time filmmakers created stories that focused on some guy staring into a mirror and talking or some girl shaving her head while reminiscing about apples and spiders. These films sucked, but they were good practice.

Your initial movies will probably suck too. And even if you think it is excellent, when you watch it five years from now, you’ll think it sucks. So don’t worry about any of it. Permit yourself to suck. Practice your craft. And if you’re wondering what a sucky short film looks like, here is an example:

Tactic 2: Make Short Films That Suck

Yeah. It is MY second short film, and I don’t know what I was thinking. But it was good practice. And despite the fact it was a stupid art piece that presented nothing new to the world, I learned a lot. And it simply sucks.

Keep in mind that I included this short film example to encourage. The odds are good that you can do better than this poo. I challenge you to get started and do something better! Prove it.

Just remember, the more you practice, the better you get. And if you’re making a short film, but find yourself low on short movie ideas, then the next best thing is to create a music video, which is essentially a short movie too.

Tactic 3: Avoid Making Dramatic Films

A while back, I stopped by the Haig Manoogian Screenings of the best short films. These films represented the best of NYU film school and were presented by former NYU alumni Eli Roth. Shot in film (not HDSLR video), all of the movies looked expensive and awesome. But most were dramatic.

Many student filmmakers create serious and dramatic films. So if you think you have something dramatic, you HAVE to share, by all means, make your movie! Case in point, I thought the best film of the night was Little Horses. Skillfully directed by Levi Abrino, this movie has a ton of heart.

Here is an excerpt:

Tactic 4: Okay… Make Drama If It’s Good

While my review of Levi’s short film is slightly biased (I have been a fan of Levi’s work for years), the audience’s laughter was evidence that Levi’s movie offered a nice break from all the drama. Go, Levi!

Keep in mind that your short film will probably end up on YouTube. So if you can be funny and get Internet viewers to share your movie with other people who will then share your film with other people, you will have achieved a great thing.

In addition to all the points mentioned thus far – Your audience is your business. Growing your audience is up to you. And the process starts with making a short film, getting your movie online, and exposing your work to the world.

Tactic 5: Make Shorts Until You’re Bored

After making a few short films, you may find yourself getting bored. And this is a good sign because it shows you’re growing. When this happens, begin to develop more complex short film ideas and then write a well-crafted screenplay.

In the event you have not yet made a short movie, write one or two-page scripts and then produce your story on a borrowed camcorder. Then edit the footage on a friend’s computer. From there, you can upload to YouTube, test audience reaction, Learn from it, then make another film!

Once you feel confident with short storytelling, move on to bigger and bigger projects. Keep pushing yourself. Keep refining and learning! The short movie marathon exercise described above will provide you with a fundamental understanding of shooting scenes for minimal cost and making them enjoyable.

What Makes A Good Short Film?

An excellent short film tells a compelling story and leaves the audience wanting more. When you upload your work for the world to watch, audience feedback will reveal areas needing improvement.

Making an excellent short film will help you gain endurance, experience, and confidence to make movies with greater efficiency. And even though you’re working with non-professional equipment and talent, if you can learn to make an excellent short film with a small camera, you can make a good feature film with a big camera.

Or think of it like this… If you make one or two three-minute movies every weekend for six months, you will have the equivalent experience of making a feature. And if you need some additional help, this online filmmaking course will help.


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Documentaries and film can bring the world to students in very real ways. Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Education Director for Global Oneness Project , tells us how and shares resources and strategies. And join Cleary and me on Twitter this Thursday, October 29 at 8pmET/5pmPT for #GlobalEdChat ! We will delve deeper into how to use film in the classroom.

by guest blogger Cleary Vaughan-Lee

Why do we need stories? Stories are universal and create connections across time, place, and cultures. Now more than ever, we need stories to help us understand and connect to our fast-changing world. Impactful stories—a book, a film, or an oral story passed down from generations—have the power to bring us closer to something much greater than ourselves.

Films, according to director Beeban Kidron in her 2012 TED talk , are the 20 th century’s most influential art form. Why? They tell universal stories across national boundaries and languages. Film helps us expand our world, introducing us to values, struggles, innovations, and beliefs beyond our daily experience.

Today, the short form documentary has filled an important role in education. Teacher and educational journalist Mark Phillips explains in his Edutopia blog “Film as a Great Motivator” that “this generation of students is film and video oriented; we should use this, not bewail it.” We need to meet students where they are, and the continuously growing digital landscape is an important opportunity for educators.

How can teachers use short documentary films in a meaningful and compelling way for young people? The following strategies exemplify ways in which short documentaries can enhance classroom environments.

Build Social & Emotional Awareness
In his blog, Phillips writes that in order to grab and hold students’ attention, educators need to reach them emotionally. Films are multi-sensory. A film has the potential to create an emotional connection to its subject matter and can provide a human experience. The impact of audio and visual components supports students’ retention of information.

How to create a good documentary film

Documentaries are emotionally powerful vehicles that can transport students to other cultures and create an awareness of global issues from the inside out through feeling and empathy. When enhanced with written reflection, films help students develop social and emotional learning in ways not available from textbooks or lectures. Students can experience the world through real-life people as well as see and feel what it is like for a person living around the world. PBS LearningMedia has lesson plans that include reflection questions to help students process the feelings evoked from documentary films.

I recently talked to Jennifer Klein , a former high school English teacher for 19 years and now a National Faculty member for The Buck Institute . She believes in an authentic approach to global learning and has been using short documentary films in her international classrooms for years. “There is nothing more humanizing for students than short documentary films; they grab the heart, offer a window into the daily lives of real people, and allow students to see other cultures and places as populated by living, breathing human beings on a planet we need for our survival,” Klein said.

Connect to Current Events
Students are exposed to a range of real-world problems in their daily lives, either through media or in their own backyards. Some of these issues include poverty, substance abuse, violence, consumerism, indigenous rights, immigration, modernization, and the effects of environmental changes. A short documentary can expose students to any number of global issues, reduce isolation, and allow students to connect to innovations and inspiration from sources beyond their immediate environment.

Film Club is a new teaching and discussion forum using short documentaries from the New York Times Learning Network . The platform complements classroom curricula and highlights issues that teenagers care about, such as technology and society, race and gender identity, and civil rights.

I met Mike Dunn, a history teacher turned college and career counselor at AIM Academy in Pennsylvania, this past June at the International Society for Technology in Education conference in Philadelphia. He said that students look at the past for relevancy and relationships. For example, students who may grapple with the idea of the French Revolution can relate to the more recent revolutionary actions in the Arab Spring and the Baltimore riots of 2015. He described that screening a short documentary film in a social studies class offers a vehicle for critical thinking and analysis of the historical events: “My goal is to encourage students to reflect on their own lives and scrutinize their actions/choices in meaningful ways. The combination of writing with film has resulted in more rich understanding for students and output options that encourage creative and critical communication.” Take a look at Dunn’s portfolio where he explores merging media in the social studies classroom.

Incorporate Reflective Writing Assignments
A short documentary story can increase students’ literacy with connections to a source, to self, and to the world. Just as students use quotes from a book or text to prove an analytical thought, students use the film as a source to justify their reasoning.

After viewing and discussing a film, a writing prompt can provide a way to integrate knowledge from various points of view and apply newly learned ideas. An English or art teacher may use a short documentary to study character development or themes in writing such as identity, family values, or commitment. A science or history teacher may examine how the issues explored in a film relate to students’ lives, such as the effects of environmental changes, immigration, the global economy, or consumer decision-making.

Global Oneness Project provides short documentary films that highlight global cultures and environmental issues, and related lesson plans contain reflective writing questions to accompany the stories.

By using film in a learning environment, educators can get the attention of young people and take them on a journey to experience the world. Global stories and issues become relevant to students’ lives and can support truly meaningful classroom discussions and activities, allowing students to find their own voices, making them stronger global citizens in this fast changing world. Because short, global documentaries can transcend boundaries and cultures, they are powerful tools for integrating universal human values integral to global education.

Image and video are courtesy of the author.

January 10, 2022

In addition to making great movies, you also need an audience of rabid fans to be a filmmaking success. And you can’t attract an audience unless people know about your film. One aspect of movie promotion worth leveraging is getting press.

Hiring an excellent publicist can help you spread the word about your movie. A good publicist has solid relationships with the press at various media outlets. Assuming your film is fantastic and newsworthy, these influencers can then put your project in front of thousands of people.

How to create a good documentary film

How To Create a Press Kit For Your Indie Movie

If you can’t hire a publicist, you will need to become a publicist. And you will need to create a press kit. A press kit is typically a document that tells the media what your movie is about and why their audiences should care.

Here are some things you’ll want to include as you create a press kit:

  1. Cover sheet: The cover sheet is the top sheet that grabs everyone’s attention and promotes the hook of your movie. In some ways, it’s’ sort of like a mini-poster that includes the title, contact info, some good quotes from previous reviews, the same cast and crew credits from the poster, and mention of any film festival awards you have won.

2. Synopsis: You should already have a pretty solid synopsis. If you do, just cut and paste it into the press kit. If not, you’ll need one. So write it. Some people add action photos from the movie to this page. Doing this is okay, as long as the images look good.

3. Photos: Get some journalist friends to check out your production photos. Pick a few high-resolution images that seem incredibly interesting and do an excellent job of making people want to see the movie. Please include them in the kit.

4. Cast and Crew: This is pretty simple. Create bios for the main cast and crew and include them on the page next to a miniature headshot.

5. Anecdotes: This is the story of how the film got made. For this, you can write about memorable moments, such as when the camera broke 25 times after traffic delayed the first day of shooting for 13 hours and the lead actor caught fire.

6. Reviews: Include them here if you have any good reviews.

7. Credits: This page is devoted to the entire cast and crew credits.

Taking time to create a press kit is can help you accelerate your promotional opportunities. Reporters and journalists can utilize the information in the press kit on your website, social media, and any branding opportunities. And getting press for your film is an excellent step towards landing a fantastic film distribution deal.

What advice do senior documentary filmmakers have for new filmmakers interested in pursuing internships and first jobs in documentary media? To prepare for a workshop on this topic, I conducted an informal survey of eight high-level independent filmmakers in Boston and New York. All are well-established, with their own companies and major theatrical and broadcast credits. All work with interns and production assistants. And all were willing to take time out of their busy schedules to talk, because they share a common frustration: Good help is hard to find. Which means opportunities are out there, provided you follow a few basic guidelines.


Know who the players are and where you want to be
Watch documentaries, read trade publications and websites, know the players, and know for whom you’d like to work and on what kinds of projects. Is your goal to make multi-part, primetime TV series? Giant-screen theatrical films? Interactive media for museum use? Reality shows? Put yourself in a position to work with and learn from people whose storytelling skills inspire you and whose record of achievement (and professional contacts) are most relevant to you.

Approach each opportunity individually
One size does not fit all. Whether you’re responding to a job listing or cold-contacting a company to see if they’re hiring, make your approach specific. A generic, “Here’s my résumé, I’m looking for film work,” is not going to be as effective as a letter that demonstrates some knowledge of the company (or project) and why you think you’re a good fit. (There are many online resources with information about how to write effective résumés and cover letters.)

Also, pay attention to the specific instructions of a job posting. Documentary filmmaking is a detail-oriented business, and the care you take with your application-sending a cover letter if one is requested; not calling if the ad says not to call-is a reflection on your future work. Make sure names and titles are accurate, and check your spelling and grammar carefully.

Hone your office skills
The amount of time a filmmaker spends shooting a project is generally miniscule compared to the time spent researching, writing, planning, fundraising, networking, budgeting, reporting, promoting-and so on. All of the filmmakers I queried stressed the importance of office skills (and a willingness to work in an office). You should have better than basic computer skills and experience with major office software, including Microsoft Word and Excel. You should have excellent phone skills. You should know how to set up and manage a filing system. And you should have good social skills, including table manners.

Hone your research and writing skills
A great deal of documentary filmmaking, including vérité, is built on the ability to conduct and communicate research–whether it’s accomplished online, in libraries, in person or at archives. Entry-level employees should have solid research skills, from the ability to take notes and keep an organized bibliography and database to the ability to quickly and effectively read through material to discern what’s useful and what’s not. You should understand the limits of Wikipedia, know the difference between a primary and secondary source, and know how to fact-check both print and audio-visual materials. You should have solid writing and editing skills. (Good writers, whether they’re crafting e-mails and business letters or helping to shape project treatments or fundraising proposals, are always in demand.)

What about film skills?
With the group I interviewed, filmmaking experience as a requirement for employment generally came second to (a) a willingness and ability to learn technical skills and (b) mastery of basic research, writing and organizational skills. With that said, experience in basic media digitizing and editing (Final Cut Pro or Avid) is strongly desired, as is knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and Adobe After Effects. Website-building experience would also often be of interest, along with general IT skills.


Understand that your professional education is just beginning
Some producers don’t want to see your production reel; it doesn’t tell them whether or not you’ll be a team player who can be trusted with basic tasks. Yes, it’s frustrating to get out of school and be told that your job now is to listen and learn, but you are not yet ready to compete with industry leaders for top assignments. In applying for entry-level work with more established filmmakers, recognize that you have an opportunity to learn from the masters, get a close-up view of the industry and make valuable connections. As one of the producers said, “Making your own film can be a long, hard, lonely road, even if you know what you’re doing. I’m not sure it should be anyone’s first introduction” to the profession.

Find meaning even in the small tasks
Filmmaking is composed of countless tasks, and all of them matter-even those that may seem mundane, such as photocopying, filing or making sure the crew has lunch. Perform these tasks well and cheerfully, and you’ll prove you’re capable of greater responsibility. Nobody wants to micromanage you, so demonstrate that you don’t need close supervision by keeping track of what’s assigned (write assignments down; it’s a good idea to carry a small notebook), giving the tasks your full attention and reporting back on what you’ve accomplished. Remember, too, that films are collaborative and are often made in fits and starts, which means that your work needs to be easily shared among colleagues both now and in the future. Organization and a willingness to go the extra step are important. (Conversely, if you’re disorganized, sloppy, a complainer or someone who needs a lot of attention-such as sharing a ride to a remote location and then telling the producer you need to leave early-you’re not likely to be invited back.)

Show initiative
All of the producers with whom I spoke agreed that the best way to get noticed is to use your common sense, perform assigned tasks well, and then take the initiative to see what else is going on around you and how you might contribute. Ask questions. Read. Be diligent about arriving on time, and if a task needs a bit of extra time, stay to see that it’s finished. Don’t waste other people’s time with half-completed tasks, and don’t use office time for personal calls, e-mails or texts; nor should you blog about your employer or work projects unless you have prior permission. Attitude is everything: You want to be the “can do” employee.

Be sure you’re getting as well as giving
As an intern or entry-level employee, you may be working for little or no money in exchange for meaningful experience and industry connections. If you find that you’re chained to the photocopy machine and not getting any opportunities to learn, speak up. If a solution can’t be found with that employer, find another. But be careful not to burn bridges, either with your employer or with co-workers. You never know who will be in a position to help or hinder your career in the future.

Filmmaker Sheila Curran Bernard, author of Documentary Storytelling (Focal Press), is the associate director of the Documentary Studies Program at the State University of New York at Albany, SUNY.

The documentary film is a movie that documents some form of reality in order to tell a true story, whether it’s to convey a message or to inform the viewer of a current event. Depending on the content, the documentary film can anger, shock or delight the audience. The documentary film pitch is a one-page outline that explains your idea and contains information about the talent that would be needed, such as narrators and famous cameos; locations that will be used; geographical areas you would cover; and finally why your idea would garner nationwide or even global interest. The pitch needs to not only sell itself to a director or production company but it also needs to hook investors who will fund the film.

Step 1

Simplify your pitch. A documentary film obviously covers a lot of information, and it might be hard to fit everything in one page. You have to capture the interest of people who don’t have a lot of time on their hands and probably read pages like this every day. They want to see something short and to the point. Begin with your idea, and use paragraphs for each specific area for such things as location, talent, interest and experience.

Step 2

Choose a documentary subject, or if you’ve already researched one fully, start with a brief description, no more than a few sentences. For example, you may know or have heard about a family who raises sea otters and then releases them into the ocean. Assuming you want to tackle this project, write about the family, what they do, where they are and the animals under their care.

Step 3

Explain why you’re qualified to write about your idea in the next paragraph. In the case of the family caring for sea otters, you might want to talk about your experience working with these animals, or education you may have had in marine biology or veterinary science. Your qualifications are very important to the people reading your pitch. They want to know the project is in good hands. You’re not trying to sell yourself, however, so keep the self-praise to a paragraph at most.

Step 4

Explain the emotional elements of the project. Using the sea otter scenario, you should decide if this film will be a heart-tugging drama about the plight of sea otters today, or a light-hearted, cuddly look at sea otters being playful as they’re home-grown.

Step 5

Decide if you want to use a narrator, and the celebrity voice you can arrange. If you have a pleasant enough voice, you could offer to call the action yourself. If you have some actors in mind that would like to appear in the film, you can list those as well.

Step 6

Write a list of the technical equipment and other considerations that would be needed to film. Sea otters spend a great deal of time in water, so you might need extensive underwater camera equipment, for example.

Step 7

Conclude your pitch by writing a paragraph about the conclusions that could be drawn from your documentary, and the reasons it could be very popular and well received. For example, audiences may flock to theaters to watch lovable sea otter pups at play, and could appreciate the often-treacherous lives they lead. This appreciation could then lead to global concern and outreach to organizations and movements that fight against sea otter hunting.

Step 8

Revise and edit your pitch once you have everything written down. No decent film professional will look twice at a documentary pitch filled with typographical errors or bad grammar.

What happens after you’ve finally finished that amazing film you worked on for years? You want to sell it, of course. You want to find a way to get it out there and earn what you know it’s worth. But where do you start? Who do you take it to?

With Preferred Content’s Managing Partner Kevin Iwashina at the helm, we brought together an expert panel including top sales agents Josh Braun of Submarine (US sales) and Annie Roney of ro*co (international sales), as well as David Magdael (publicist), to give you a few insider dos and don’ts for selling your documentary.

DO find the right match.

Documentaries are built on passion. Make sure whoever you bring onto your team loves the film as much as you do. That definitely includes your sales agent and distributor, reminds publicist David Magdael. The best sales agents will call you back because they love your doc as much as you do, and because they see something unique in it.

DON’T rush into representation.

Don’t just give your doc away just because someone gives you a two-week deadline. When you do find the perfect fit, fully commit to the company. It’ll pay off in the long run when they stick with your project for ten years. Always remember that distribution is an ongoing process.

DO send in your film as soon as possible.

Kevin Iwashina of Preferred Content recommends sending your sales agent a rough cut early in your post-production process. They don’t care about finished sound and color; they care about figuring out if the film is a good fit for them. If it is, they want to start conceptualizing a sales and marketing strategy right away.

DON’T send in a cut too early.

It’s really hard to get them to watch the same film twice, so don’t send a cut that is too long or too far from your end vision. Be smart about sending something close to your final cut, but don’t sweat the final touches at this point.

DO send your film, not an invitation to coffee.

Josh Braun suggests that you follow protocol when it comes to contacting a sales agent. Don’t be afraid of sending them your film and synopsis. They really like discovering new filmmakers! Instead of asking for a meeting to tell a potential agent about your film, send them a link to it. If they like it, they’ll ask for that meeting anyway. They’re probably too busy for a hypothetical discussion over a cup of coffee.

DON’T practice poor timing.

No sales agent has time to watch your film two days before Sundance. Even if they try to screen it on the plane to Park City, they will probably forget all about it later. Have a little patience with the process.

DO your homework before you send that email.

Annie Roney of ro*co suggests you know about the company you’re sending your film to. Is your film going to be right for this company? Make sure your sales agent’s body of work matches your film in sensibility, style and content.

DON’T send your film to everybody

There’s no point in sending your human-interest documentary to a company that produces indie action films.

DO take a walk on the practical side.

Sometimes you have to be practical about the business side, such as where you’re getting your money from, who controls the creative decisions, and your responsibility to investors.

DON’T be afraid to just say, “no”.

Braun suggests that you should be careful about who ends up having the final say on your film. If a financier or equity partner does not share your vision or has a different agenda, you don’t want to get stuck in a deal that prevents you from making the film you want to make.

Stewart Dunlop / published 7 years ago

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How to create a good documentary film

Powerful means of conveying social messages to the world

Documentaries are also means by which young people can share and learn about cultural experiences with others. Watching documentaries about other cultures and nations can generate interest in various subjects like languages and culture of a nation.

Viewing documentaries together on television at home, gives a family to voice out their opinions, not only strengthening family bonds but also giving a platform to learn about everyone’s views in the families. A good factual representation of homosexuality, for example, when viewed together as a family, gives a closeted homosexual in the family an opportunity to come out into the open with his sexual preference instead of attempting to hide it from his family and living a double life.

Documentaries are also a great way for parents to get their children to the reading habit. After watching some interesting films about wildlife, space or a foreign culture, it is easier for kids to get nudged into reading in detail about them. Documentaries can also teach good common sense and great values to children through the reality lesson it conveys.

Documentaries can be an ice breaker in families or between friends when they put forward facts about sensitive issues like HIV and AIDS. It gives a chance to every interested party to broach a discussion to test the waters to see how each one reacts.

Documentaries also encourage critical thinking about the world, and seeing facts, can eliminate many myths and superstitions about issues. Watching documentaries about a certain country or region in the world can educate those people who cannot afford travel. They can still learn and enjoy the many benefits of travelling, by watching documentaries.

Documentaries can also open up history in a very interesting manner. Whereas most of us frown to study history, when the same facts are presented in the form of motion picture, we get interested and we learn quickly and more effectively. History can also include the history of art, music or motion picture or various abstract things.

A visually recorded fact is invincible evidence and therefore has a greater power to move minds more than the written or the spoken word. This is how awareness can be created of social stigmas like child labor, adult and children trafficking and forced prostitution. The recent “Blood diamonds” debates and the “Acid wash jeans” debates have been the result of documentaries exposing the terrible living and working conditions of the workforce behind these products.

Documentaries can educate and inspire people into taking certain steps which would not have been possible otherwise. Lives are changed when people watch brave deeds or selfless serving of humanity and then decide to emulate the examples shown in the documentary. Many people get a new direction in life when they are positively influenced by these films.

The documentary titled “Into great silence,” inspired quite a few people to practice meditation and value silence as a major part of their lives.

David Attenborough’s classic series, “life on earth,” changed the way we looked at life and existence on earth. We learn t to respect life, its creation and evolution in a new way through these series. Viewing of documentaries should be encouraged in every school and university so that students find an interesting supplementation to their ways of gaining knowledge.

How to create a good documentary film

Please write a 3-4 page paper (double-spaced) about a documentary film that addresses social class. Essays can be longer if you need extra space.

Documentary films use a variety of methods (e.g., images, words, sounds, and various film techniques) in order to present an argument. View a documentary film and analyze the rhetorical and persuasive strategies employed by the filmmaker in the construction of the film’s argument. Identify the filmmaker’s thesis and analyze the rhetorical strategies and persuasive devices and film techniques used in order to develop the film’s thesis. Take notes as you view the documentary. Your essay should do all of the following:

1. Identify the film’s main argument and / or purpose.

2. Provide a brief summary of the film and the “main characters” in and “plot” of the film.

3. Examine how the film’s argument is supported through rhetorical and persuasive strategies (e.g., presentation of facts, dismissing credibility of counterfactual information, not addressing certain related issues, etc.).

4. How does the structure of the film help achieve its purpose?

5. How valid is the argument? Does the argument contain fallacies, contradictions, or inconsistencies?

Suggested Documentary Films:

Harvest of Shame (Edward R. Murrow, 1960)

Seeing Red (Jim Klein and Julia Reichert, 1983)

American Dream (Barbara Kopple, 1990)

The Corporation (Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, 2003)

Morristown in the Air and Sun (Anne Lewis, 2007)

Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009)

The Harvest/La Cosecha (U. Roberto Romano, 2010)

The Line (Linda Midgett, 2012)

Inequality for All (Jason Kornbluth, 2013)

Citizen Koch (Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, 2013)

Cesar’s Last Fast (Richard Ray Perez and Lorena Parlee, 2014)

Dogtown Redemption (Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush, 2015)

While you might think of books and journal articles as the go-to sources when writing essays, documentaries can also be a great source of information—and they can also serve as a form of entertainment. Citing a documentary might seem more complicated than citing a textbook, but we’ve put together this handy guide on how to cite a documentary to make the process a bit easier for you.

Quickly cite a documentary by using our citation generator form for a film.

As an example, we’ve cited “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”—a great Netflix documentary by David Gelb about a legendary Tokyo sushi chef—in three different styles: MLA 9, APA, and Chicago.

To cite a documentary properly, you must take the following pieces of information into consideration:

  1. Documentary title
  2. Name of the documentary director
  3. Any performers in the documentary
  4. Documentary producers
  5. Title of the site, database, or streaming service that the documentary was found on (if applicable)
  6. Name of the production company
  7. Publication date
  8. City where the production company is based
  9. URL for the documentary (if applicable)

Depending on the medium used to access the documentary, you may need to do additional research to find all of the information listed below.

How to create a good documentary film

Use the following structure to cite a documentary in MLA 9:

Documentary title. Directed by First name Last name, performance by First name Last name, Production Company, Year published. Title of Site, Database, or Service where movie was streamed from (if applicable), URL.

Here’s how the above example would be cited in MLA format:

Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Directed by David Gelb, performance by Jiro Ono and Yoshikazu Ono. Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2011. Netflix,

Here’s how the above example would be cited in an in-text citation:

(Shortened Documentary Title)

Use the following structure to cite a documentary in APA:

Last name of Documentary Producer(s), F.M. (Producer[s]), & Last name of Documentary Director(s), F.M. (Director[s]). (Year). Documentary title [ Medium (DVD, Video file]. Retrieved from URL

Here’s how the above example would be cited in APA format:

Iwashina, K., & Yamamoto, M.(Producers), & Gelb, D. (Director). (2011). Jiro dreams of sushi [Video file]. Retrieved from

Use the following structure to cite a documentary in Chicago:

Documentary Title. Directed by Director’s Name. City of Publication: Studio, Year.

Here’s how the above example would be cited in Chicago:

Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Directed by David Gelb. New York: Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2011.

Citation Guides

APA Format

  • Abstract
  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Block Quotes
  • Citation Examples
  • et al Usage
  • Footnotes
  • In-text Citations
  • Page Numbers
  • Reference Page
  • Sample Paper
  • Title Page
  • APA 7 Updates
  • View APA Guide

MLA Format

  • Abstract
  • Annotated Bibliography
  • Bibliography
  • Block Quotes
  • Citation Examples
  • Containers
  • et al Usage
  • Footnotes
  • In-text Citations
  • Page Numbers
  • Title Page
  • Works Cited
  • MLA 8 Updates
  • View MLA Guide

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To cite a documentary from a media streaming website, include the following details: the producer’s name and/or director’s name and their title (e.g., Producer, Director, etc.), year released, title of the documentary, description of the source in square brackets if needed, website name, and URL.

Note that in APA, it is not necessary to include the name of the streaming website/app in the citation.

To cite a documentary in MLA or APA style, it is important to have basic information including the name of the director, name of the artists and/or producers, production company, publication date, and URL. Templates and examples for how to create in-text citations for documentaries in APA and MLA format are included below.

APA in-text citations


(Director Surname, publication year)


MLA in-text citations


(Shortened Title of the Documentary)

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Hi, my name is Lorraine Grula and I spent decades making documentary style videos. My blog is full of examples. I was lucky and got to do TV news back in the day when it was still valued as real journalism.

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Portrait of the documentarian as a young man

How to create a good documentary filmIn translation, he found his raison d’être

Arts & Humanities

Film explores midcentury archive of Kalahari peoples

How to create a good documentary film

Arts & Humanities

Photo courtesy of Che Applewhaite

Film explores midcentury archive of Kalahari peoples

By Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite Harvard Staff Writer

Date September 9, 2020 September 9, 2020


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Growing up in London, Che R. Applewhaite loved going to art exhibitions and film screenings. He would often chronicle his experiences through blogging and journaling. At Harvard, he wrote articles on culture and politics for campus publications like the Harvard Political Review and the Harvard Advocate. While he has long orbited the art scene, Applewhaite ’21 never considered himself an artist until he made his first short documentary, “A New England Document,” last year.

The film was an official selection at the 2020 Sheffield Doc/Fest, a prominent global documentary film festival, and premiered online this summer. “A New England Document” profiles Lorna and Lawrence Marshall and details their extended expeditions with their children to Africa’s Kalahari Desert starting in the 1950s. But it also explores Applewhaite’s personal and intellectual concerns with history and with colonialism as a native of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as related questions of the field of anthropology, which he studies at Harvard.

The 16-minute production features archival images and documents from the Laurence K. and Lorna J. Marshall Collection, housed at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The material was gathered over 11 years by Lorna, an anthropologist, and Laurence, founder of the aerospace and defense firm Raytheon, and documents the lives of Indigenous peoples as they transition from a migratory life as hunter-gatherers to one on a preserve.

Applewhaite, a joint concentrator in anthropology and history and literature, used the Marshall collection as the foundation for his film after attending the Peabody exhibition “Kalahari Perspectives: Anthropology, Photography, and the Marshall Family” in 2019. He was struck by the groundbreaking photography that captured everyday life for the G/wi and Ju/’hoansi Indigenous peoples prior to extended contact with Western people, but he also came away uneasy about the stories he wasn’t hearing from the subjects of the photographs.

Having access to the collection, which includes 40,000 photographs, “allowed me to work through my own relationship to the archive [by] looking through items firsthand. It was quite haunting to see some of the photos of the G/wi and Ju/’hoansi Indigenous people being looked at in a similar way to people in the British colonies” around the world.

Over the course of the spring semester, Applewhaite went through the Marshalls’ photographs and diaries, and collected and edited footage of the items he found. He also taught himself how to organize a production schedule, create a storyboard, do camerawork, and edit video, guided by Joana Pimenta, interim director of the Film Study Center, director of graduate studies for Critical Media Practice, and a visiting lecturer on Art, Film, and Visual Studies.

He applied lessons learned in “Art of the Real: Rethinking Documentary,” a fall 2019 course taught by Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a visiting lecturer on AFVS. In the class, Applewhaite and his peers watched historically significant documentaries like “Chronicle of a Summer” by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, “Handsworth Songs” by John Akomfrah of the U.K.’s Black Audio Film Collective, and “A Thousand Suns” by Mati Diop.

“I really didn’t see myself as an artist, and [that class] helped me understand how capacious documentary film is,” said Applewhaite. As an anthropology student, he wanted to create a new kind of visual anthropology document that brought the Marshalls’ work into a contemporary context and expressed his own worldview as a descendent of colonized peoples.

“I was interested in how [I could] reckon with the silences in the archives that prevent me from having a fuller understanding of my own history as a person under an empire,” he said.

How to create a good documentary filmElizabeth Marshall Thomas in Peterborough, N.H. Photo by Che Applewhaite

Applewhaite’s connections to the Marshall archive deepened after meeting Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, daughter of the collection’s creators and a bestselling author of work on animal consciousness. She invited Applewhaite to her home in New Hampshire to film its grounds and record her reading from her own writings and those of her parents for the film’s narration. Applewhaite, who also recorded his own readings of Lorna and Laurence Marshall’s diaries for the film, stressed the importance of including both the Marshalls’ words and his own voice in the work.

“Reading some of the things she has written and having conversations with her about her family” helped strengthen the film, said Applewhaite. “I got to see how people [in a family] can have very different life paths and outcomes, and I wanted to show that in the film.”

With the support of mentors at Harvard and beyond, Applewhaite has continued to create films, and is working on a creative senior thesis documentary about a St. Louis youth athletics team. And he will write as a Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow at Harvard Magazine this academic year.


How to create a good documentary film

Sundance in the spotlight

Actor Shirley Chen ’22 and director Lance Oppenheim ’19 have films premiering at prized Park City festival

Vloggers, home movie-makers and video enthusiasts can all have a lot of fun and get professional results with these apps

Video blogger Benjamin Cook (ninebrassmonkeys) , at the Google offices in Covent Garden. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer Photograph: Richard Saker/Observer

Video blogger Benjamin Cook (ninebrassmonkeys) , at the Google offices in Covent Garden. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer Photograph: Richard Saker/Observer

S martphones are not only changing the way we watch films, but also the way we make them. When director Malik Bendjelloul ran out of money filming his documentary feature Searching for Sugar Man, he took a punt: he decided to shoot the remaining shots on his iPhone using an 8mm Vintage Camera app. It paid off. The film won the 2013 Academy award for best documentary feature.

You see, smartphone movie-making is Oscar-winning.

And if it’s good enough for the Academy, it’s good enough for us – the home movie-makers, the enthusiasts, the vloggers, the seasoned pros. If you’re anything like me, your smartphone is brimming with video clips already: mementoes of holidays, birthdays, nights out, ice bucket challenges, and tiny, surprising, chance encounters. Rather than leaving these clips estranged on your camera roll, a broad range of smart, cutting-edge, video-editing apps can turn even the rawest of footage into something fantastic: stringing together the best clips, trimming off the parts where you mistakenly filmed your foot, and adding a variety of subtle – and not so subtle – special effects.


Hyperlapse from Instagram. Photograph: Observer

Capable of shooting up to 45 minutes of footage, Instagram’s new time-lapse app is extraordinarily simple. When you open Hyperlapse, you have one option: record. (If you’ve shaky hands, Hyperlapse’s in-house stabilisation is stunningly efficient.) You can preview your video in speeds ranging from 1x to 12x, then share to Instagram or Facebook.


The Vine app. Photograph: Observer

Andy Warhol overestimated the future. In 2014, everyone can be famous, but for six-and-a-half seconds, not 15 minutes. Vine is both a fun video-making app – it allows users to create six-and-a-half-second looping vignettes and share them online – and one of the coolest social media platforms. The world’s biggest Viner, 16-year-old Nash Grier, has a staggering 9.3 million followers.


My favourite video-editing app: Video Editor For Free – well, mostly free – is less popular than the iMovie app, but I’d argue it’s faster and easier to use. It lets you trim, merge and share your videos, and some nifty additional features – transitions, adding music from your iTunes, recording voiceovers etc – cost 60p a pop.


Action Movie FX app. Photograph: Observer

Torpedo your granny! Blow up your cat! Action Movie FX is a shameless “guilty” pleasure. Created by Bad Robot, the US production company owned by JJ Abrams, it allows you to add action movie-style visuals to your videos – missile attacks, car smashes, avalanches, spider strikes – and its intuitive interface is easy to navigate. Above all, it’s brilliant fun.


Stop Motion Studio app. Photograph: Observer

Stop Motion Studio lets you take photos (or import ones from your camera roll) and string them together to create stop-motion masterpieces. A tripod (or a makeshift one) is pretty essential, and so is patience. The free app lets you add music and your own narration, while in-app purchases include green screen, paint tools and sound effects.

(IOS £4.99)

On location shoots, Sun Seeker is the app that I use most frequently. It’s killer. You can tell exactly where the sun is going to be throughout the day – invaluable when blocking a scene or planning a shooting schedule. Pair it with first-rate weather-forecasting app Dark Sky, and you’re prepared for anything from rain to shine.

(IOS £13.99)

Cine Meter II app. Photograph: Observer

A good light meter can cost 400 quid, and most have horrible little screens that look like 90s calculators. This Cine Meter app turns your smartphone into a light meter – not quite pro-level, but a laudable alternative if you’ve a limited budget, or for recces when you might not have your actual meter with you. Think of this app as a “light meter lite”.

(IOS £20.99)

Artemis director app. Photograph: Observer

On TV and movie sets worldwide, professional cinematographers and directors are using Artemis Director’s Viewfinder to roughly frame shots before moving a heavy camera, for location scouting, and for storyboarding. It can be configured to match any camera system. The priciest app, it is worth every penny.

(IOS £3.99)

Like the Cine Meter II, the RØDE Rec app is a blessing for low-budget productions that can’t afford radio mics. It’s a broadcast-quality audio recorder for your phone, and it works great when paired with a lapel mic. It features a suite of editing tools, and an introductory version of the app, RØDE Rec LE, is available for free.


Digislate app. Photograph: Observer

MovieSlate® is probably the best clapperboard app, but it isn’t cheap. Save your pennies. DigiSlate is a class act. In bright sunlight, it can be hard to see it on a smartphone screen, but in lower light it has the edge over traditional clapperboards; you don’t have to shine a torch on it for the camera to see.

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