How do I transition from researcher to documentary maker?

by Thomas
(Melbourne, Australia)

Question: I am a researcher with a PhD, including a lot of experience in archival research, interviewing, oral history, etc. I would like to use my research skills for documentary making, but don't know where to start. I have documentary ideas of my own, but I'd be happy to start by doing research for other documentary makers. Any advice appreciated! Thanks.


Desktop Documentaries | Answer

Being a filmmaker is all about being a storyteller. So your first step is to learn the basic concepts of storytelling and how to recognize the key components that make up a good story.

How To Get Started Making A Documentary

Of course, I will recommend our 7-Day Documentary Crash Course as a great entry point to understand the core concepts around how to make a documentary.

Learn How To Make A Documentary: 7-Day Crash Course

There are also numerous scriptwriting books such as Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV by Dona Cooper. It was written back in the 90's, but the core concepts are timeless.

With a research background, you are way ahead of the game. All you need now is a bit of training/insight into the fundamentals of filmmaking.

I also highly recommend diving in as quickly as possible. Challenge yourself to make a 1-minute documentary. There's no better teacher than experience! For inspiration, check out this free tutorial on how to make a mini-documentary.

What Is A Mini-Documentary and How Do You Make One?

Good luck!

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Comments for How do I transition from researcher to documentary maker?

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Apr 05, 2016
thank you
by: Thomas

Thanks so much for your helpful answer! Very much appreciated.

Apr 05, 2016
by: James


First, you came to the right place and asked the right question. Your best advice for everything you need to know to become a "Documentary Filmmaker" is right here on this website. Faith Fuller has created an extensive and truly remarkable website that is solely dedicated to documentary filmmakers and people wanting to learn the craft.

My advice to you, is look through this website thoroughly and study everything she has to offer. The info here is priceless, and much of what she has to offer is free, so make the most of it and learn about what you need to do. Be warned though... it is a lot of work and requires hours and hours of dedication.

Second, go out and buy yourself a good camcorder, or a good camera. Most new DSLR cameras are capable of shooting high resolution video in what the industry standard refers to as "4k resolution," which is what most videos are filmed in nowadays. To capture good audio, you need a good microphone. All the info about the equipment you will need exists right here. I use a separate digital audio recorder for doing my video shoots and use a "Clap Board" to synchronize the audio with my video if necessary. I also have a few good quality microphones for capturing audio, including shotgun mics and lapel microphones for recording interviews. I have an older camcorder, a Canon GL2 for my videos, several good tripods and a decent 3 point lighting kit system for indoor shoots.

Ultimately, how much and how deep you want to get into this venture is your choice. To get started, at least get a good camera to start with. Take your camera out and start filming. Film everything and anything at first. Get into the habit of using your camera. Learn about its capabilities and limitations, color adjustment, lighting adjustments, audio recordings lens speed, aperture settings, and more. There is so much to learn. One of the best ways to start the learning process, is to just take your camera out and start filming. My advice, make the most use of a tripod. I hate the handheld look of most of today's filmmaking. It looks cheap and very unprofessional. A good tripod offers the best footage in most situations. Though cumbersome at first, you will always be happy with the bulk of your footage if filmed with a tripod. In situations where you can't use a tripod, a good mono-pod is an alternative and will help steady your shots. In short practice filming. Practice, practice practice. Also, take some of Faith's classes, they're great! She has several digital books filled with a wealth of information about any and every aspect of making a documentary. Buy them and use them. You won't regret it. Good luck.

Apr 05, 2016
Last tidbit of advice...
by: James

Thomas, When you start filming, make sure you have a good computer that is capable of handling the video footage. A separate "Scratch-Disc" is a separate and external storage unite that most professional filmmakers use for storing all their video footage. Videos eat up huge amounts of computer RAM and ROM storage space, so having a "Scratch Disc" setup specifically geared to capture and store your videos is a must.

Also, be sure you get a good quality video editing suite, or computer program. Learn how to use it and get to know all its features and its limitations. Study what you need to know about post production editing. Post production is perhaps the most arduous aspect of filmmaking, because you must take all your footage and piece it together, decide what works best and what doesn't and so on. Then the footage must be spliced together to tell your story as you want. No easy task, but the results can be very rewarding. Faith knows all about this very well.

If at all possible, assemble a film crew to assist you with your filming as your skills in filmmaking grows. Many people want to do and shoot documentaries by themselves. I know, I did the same thing, and I can tell you that it's not easy and nearly impossible. If you can afford a good crew, put one together. Faith has a lot of valuable info about this too... Again, good luck.

Apr 05, 2016
Thanks for the advice
by: Thomas

Thanks James for the comprehensive advice. There's a lot to think about but I look forward to getting started. Really appreciate the support here.

Apr 08, 2016
very helpful
by: Faith

Thank you James!

Jul 22, 2016
by: Pamela Joy

Hello Thomas,

If you are truly passionate about becoming a filmmaker, you will find a way. Talented people like Faith Fuller will make the journey so much easier. She has a gift for making a highly complex concepts easy to understand. I'm following my heart to tell the story of a rock and roll disc jockey who touched the lives of a generation of teenagers in the sixties. My project will involve researching archival materials. If this is something of interest to you, please get in touch. Hey, maybe you can be part of my film!


P.S. My mom grew up in Melbourne and I'm an Aussie too, though I live in America.

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