Documentary movies and how to make them

Making your own documentary is not an easy task. This requires not only an interesting story from life, but also its convincing implementation. Yes, documentaries are supposed to be objective, but if you don’t get into your story, your movie will look bland to the viewers.

The process of documentary filmmaking is complex, so you really have to be passionate about it. To evoke feelings in the viewer, you’ll have to find the balance between your own thoughts about the situation you’re showing and what it’s like in reality. Each filmmaker has their own style and their own way of expressing ideas.

Are you interested in this genre and want to learn more about it? Let’s start with the styles classification!

Documentary filmmaking process

Types of documentaries

Bill Nichols, an American film critic and film theorist, in his book "Introduction to Documentary" proposed the following six main styles:

  • Poetic

    The task of such films is not to reflect reality objectively, but to show the director’s subjective perception of it. The main idea is often expressed visually, rather than with the help of words. Films of this type look more like a work of art.

  • Expository

    Such movies are made for educational purposes: they are designed to logically and coherently tell about a certain event or problem. To make a film in this style, you’ll have to look up many sources, like interviews, infographics, documents, and chronicles.

  • Participatory

    In such a film, its creator is present in the frame: they visit the place they’re talking about, interview the participants in the events described, and express their point of view.

  • Observational

    There’s no narrative in such movies, no interviewer, no on-camera commentary, no voice-over and no music. Most of the scenes are shot in long takes, there are almost no cuts. Such movies let the viewer live what is shown on the screen "in the first person".

  • Reflexive

    Films of this subgenre provide commentary either on documentary films in general or on their particular phenomenon. Such films expose the very process of filming, talk about how a documentary is made and how it affects the characters in its story.

  • Performative

    This subgenre is the exact opposite of observational documentary. In such films, the filmmaker shows socio-political or historical reality through the prism of their personal experience. Such films are mostly subjective and emotional.

Hardly at least one documentary film is entirely made using just one style. According to Nichols, each movie is a combination of several of them. Having studied these methods, you can not only take a different look at non-fiction films, but also, by combining them, search for your own style, and learn how to create stylistically integral films.

Documentary film creation

How to make a documentary

What makes a good movie? Everyone has their own answer to this question, but in general, it would not be wrong to say that it’s a mixture of an interesting idea, perseverance and teamwork of everyone involved, and understanding of how everything works. If you’re new to the documentary genre, we have a few tips to make things easier for you.

One of the most important things before shooting is having a documentary script. It gives an understanding of the story flow: where it starts and how it develops. If you’ve never filmed before, look at other documentaries as examples. Take at least 10-15 minutes of any film and sketch them frame by frame. Outline how angles, long shots and close-ups are used, how the camera moves – later you’ll be able to use this knowledge in your own movie.

Pay attention to the selection of equipment. In a feature film, you would have the luxury of re-recording a sound or doing retakes, but in a documentary, you have to be content with what you got. Therefore, get high-quality microphones and a camera and make sure everything is set up correctly before shooting.

Documentary video production

Once you’re confident in your script and armed with the right gear, you can move on to the video production. There are no specific restrictions, but most likely your footage will include interviews, reports from the scene, or reconstructions. Natural interferences may occur in the filming process, so you should be ready to quickly respond to the situation.

In terms of editing, a documentary is once again different from a feature film. It’s often not as complicated, since it mostly involves cutting out unnecessary footage, adding music, or changing color grading to create a specific atmosphere in some episodes. If you follow your script, it should be even easier.

So, are you ready to start your own documentary? Light your inner fire of creativity!