Basics of Making a Documentary: Production 101

17 Point Check-list For Making A Documentary

Learn the basics of making a documentary.

Many first time documentary filmmakers make the mistake believing that making a documentary is only about the creative process.

That's certainly a big part of it.

Assuming you are both the producer AND the director, the actual “making of the documentary” is only about 50% of the process. The other half of the process involves things like fundraising, buying/renting video gear, writing proposals, distribution, website development, film festivals, public relations, etc.

Of course, if you are only making a small film for yourself, then sure, you can enjoy a pure creative process. But if you have hopes of having your film widely seen and sold, then there are numerous factors you will need to consider.

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17 Point Check-List For Making A Documentary

Here is a handy 17-point checklist that will guide you through the primary stages of documentary production, from initial development to distribution and recognition.

Documentary Idea Development

Every documentary starts with an idea. It could be a societal issue, a historical event, or an interesting personality. This phase involves researching the topic, figuring out what you want to say, and how you want to say it. Identify your audience and consider what they would find compelling.

Number 3

Setting Up An LLC or S-Corp

Establishing a limited liability company (LLC) or an S-Corporation for your production company AND your documentary project provides a legal entity that can enter into contracts, provide liability protection, and receive funds.

Number 4

Protect Your Rights

This phase involves obtaining all the necessary legal documents, such as releases from participants, insurance for the production, and copyright registrations to protect your work. Be sure to consult with a legal expert in entertainment law to ensure you have covered all bases.

Number 5

Create A Documentary Proposal or Pitch Deck

This is a document that outlines your documentary project and why it matters. It's vital for securing funding and generating interest in your project. A proposal typically includes your documentary’s objective, synopsis, approach, target audience, and projected budget.

Number 6

Make A Budget

A budget will help you understand how much it will cost to bring your documentary to life. This includes expenses for equipment, crew salaries, travel, post-production, and distribution. Consider using a Documentary Budget Template for this step.

Number 7

Create A Fundraising Trailer

A well-produced trailer can help convince potential investors, donors, and grant committees of the merit of your project. It should be compelling, succinct, and showcase the unique aspects of your documentary.

Number 2

Raise Money For Your Project

Funding can come from many sources, including grants, crowdfunding campaigns, private donors, and special events. Be prepared to invest time in this phase – fundraising is often the most challenging part of the process.

Number 8


This is the stage where you're actively filming your documentary. It includes hiring your crew, character development, conducting interviews, and capturing all necessary shots.

Number 9

Footage Transcription

Transcribing all spoken content in your footage ensures accuracy during the editing process. It's a significant tool for organizing your material and creating your documentary's narrative structure.

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Transcription tools include: BlancDescript and Rev or check inside your video editing software program (Resolve, Premiere, etc).

Transcription tools include: BlancDescript and Rev or check inside your video editing software program (Resolve, Premiere, etc).

Number 10


Regardless of whether your documentary will have narration, a script is essential. It outlines what viewers will see and hear, and it serves as a roadmap during the editing process.

Number 11

Post Production

In post-production, you'll assemble the final version of your documentary. This involves editing the footage, integrating music, creating graphics, color correction, possible animation, adding narration, and more.

Number 12

Test Audience Screenings

Showing your film to a test audience before finalizing it can provide invaluable feedback. Take their responses into account and make necessary revisions.

Number 13

Publicity Materials/Press Pack

Create promotional materials, including a press release, production stills, a director's statement, and a synopsis of your documentary. These will be useful when submitting your film to festivals, potential distributors, and media outlets.

Number 14

Film Festivals

Submit your documentary to film festivals that cater to your topic or style. Not only do they provide a platform for showcasing your work, but they also create networking opportunities.

Number 20

Distribution Deliverables

Prepare the required deliverables for distribution. This typically includes the master film, cue sheet, trailer, errors and omissions insurance, and promotional materials.

Number 19


Here's where your documentary finds its audience. Distribution could be via video on demand (VOD), theatrical release, DVD, educational screenings, broadcast television, or streaming platforms like Netflix. Research each platform's requirements and terms.

Number 17

Win Awards, Take the Weekend Off, Start Again!

After the hard work of creating and distributing your documentary, celebrate any recognition your film receives, whether it's awards or positive reviews. Take some time to recharge, and then start the process again for your next documentary project.

Ready to go deeper? Learn all the nitty-gritty details of how to make a documentary with our exclusive 7-Day Documentary Crash Course

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