Directing the Documentary
Lights, Camera, Action!

Directing the documentary. Okay, so you have dreams of directing, but what does that mean exactly?

Does it mean you stand around the camera looking cool and pointing at people and things to film?

Um, no, not really.

What it really comes down to is... VISION.

As the director, you must have a clear sense of the heart of the story and how it's going to be told.

It's the movie you see in your head.

That vision determines everything else: the tone, style, format, budget, crew, video equipment, how your footage is gathered.. everything.

What Was I Thinking??

So are you kinda' interested in making a documentary or are you really interested?

At some point in the process, it's almost guaranteed that you'll ask yourself "What was I thinking?" "Why did I ever decide to do this project in the first place?!"

It's at that moment that sheer determination will have to kick in. If you are one of those creative types that has a hard time staying focused and completing a project, find a producer who will keep you and the project organized and on track.

It's The Journey, Stupid

From day one, there will be problems that arise that will need to be solved. Every step of the way, things will come up that could potentially derail your efforts: broken equipment, no money, cancelled events, injury, etc etc.

You must accept going in that the process will not be easy, but also realize it's the problems that create the unique journey and the fun of it!

7 Day Documentary Crash Course

Directing The Documentary: Nuts and Bolts

Directing the documentary can be as simple as picking up your camcorder and shooting something you think is cool.

Or it can involve overseeing a whole production team for a big event.

Traditionally, a documentary is thought of as a 1-2 hour in-depth story about a certain topic. But there are plenty of fantastic documentary shorts these days...

For the most part, directing requires a great deal of planning, passion and persistence. If you haven't already, determine your documentary idea.

If this is your first directing endeavor, familiarize yourself with the basics of making a documentary and make sure not to fall for the common mistakes of a new documentary filmmaker.

Consider the business side of the project:

Who is your audience and is there the potential to sell your film to a TV network, offer internet downloads or sell DVD's? How much money will this project require and who will provide funding? What is the projected revenue for the finished film? If revenue is expected to be low, consider raising money through an existing non-profit organization such as the International Documentary Association. (Typically, a non-profit/fiscal sponsor will require a 5% fee of all money raised to cover management of the account).  

Directing the Documentary: Pre-Production

You've got your documentary idea, now's the time to put your plan in place.

This part of the process is called pre-production.

Just like painting, the prep work often takes much longer than the actual paint job. And in fact, it's a mistake to rush into shooting without thinking everything through.

Here's your pre-production check list for directing the documentary:

  • Thoroughly think through everything you'll need for your film from start to finish
  • Think about music, interesting scenes, styles, stop-motion and other unique visuals that can help tell your story.
  • Create a production schedule
  • Write a clear synopsis and visual style description
  • Put together a budget and proposal
  • Create an equipment list (camera, mics, lighting, etc)
  • Gather existing footage & other production elements (photos, documents, etc) 
  • Create an interview and shot list
  • Write a script outline
  • Produce a video trailer
  • Set up a Website/Blog/Facebook page to start building buzz.
  • Consider "The making of" video -- Think ahead about possibly finding someone who can document YOU filming, this could become an "Extra" on the DVD.. at the very least this provides visuals for your website and other social media sites.

Directing the Documentary: Production

Ready to start shooting? Time for production.. the fun stuff!

Here are a few directing tips:

Directing crew - Your crew needs clear instructions for what is expected of them. Any visuals or examples of what you envision for the project should be shared with the crew in advance. Expectations for payment also needs to be clearly defined in advance.

Directing your subjects - It's critical that you've built trust in advance with the people you're interviewing. When you show up for the interview, make sure the person is as comfortable as possible and that they understand what's happening.

Directing the scene - Depending what is being shot (dramatization with actors, live event, interview, etc), always ask yourself "how will this fit in with the rest of the footage?" Think about safety of each shoot --the crew and documentary subjects are your responsibility. Also, make sure you've gotten permission in advance to shoot in that location.

Directing yourself - always make sure you show up on location prepared and organized. Always be professional and courteous to those around you. Prepare yourself to remain calm even if things don't go according to plan. For a director, flexibility and a clear head is key.

Directing the Documentary: Post Production

So here you are.

You've shot all your footage and you're now ready to sit yourself down in front of your computer and start making magic.

Are you ready. Do you know what to do?

Here's your post-production check-list:


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