Documentary Directing

Tips for planning out your documentary 
before shooting begins

Documentary Directing Pre-Production Check List

Documentary Directing: Pre-Production

Pre-production is all about the stuff that needs to be done before the shooting or editing begins.

Do you have your documentary idea?  Great.  Do you have passion for your project?  Excellent.  Do you have the determination to see your project through to the end.  Faaaan-tas-tic!

Then you're ready to get started.

Just like building a house, the prep work often takes much longer than the actual building of the house. It's the same with filmmaking.

And in fact, it's a mistake to rush into shooting without thinking everything through.

Documentary Directing: Pre-Production

Here's your pre-production check-list:

  • Music - It may seem odd to think about music before you even start shooting, but getting music rights can sometimes take months, so it's in your best interest not to wait until the last minute to begin that process.  Also, considering music in advance can help you to start visualizing your film and thinking about a style of shooting to match the music you want to use.  

  • "Wow" Shots - Adding some cool and unique elements into your film can really help you stand out from the crowd.  Examples of "wow" shots include timelapse, stop-motion, aerial shots and cartoon animation.

  • Production Schedule - Write down key shooting events/dates and your timeline of when you want everything completed.

  • Filmmaking Gear - Camcorder, tripod, lighting kit, microphones, etc. Make sure you've got all the necessary gear for your shoots.  Check out our handy video production equipment check-list.

  • Production Elements -- Gather existing footage & other production elements (photos, documents, old home movies, etc).  Sometimes you can save a lot of money by using free public domain footage from places like the internet archive or buying stock footage from companies like Pond5.

  • Interviews/Shot List -- Create an interview and shot list. Remember that in your final documentary, an audience can only get to know 7-8 "characters" in a typical 1-hour documentary.  So even if you want to interview 100 people, just realize a fraction of them will end up in the film.  

  • Write A Script Outline -- You may think to yourself, "How can I write a script before I've shot anything?"  That's a great question.  It's true that the nature of documentaries is that it's unscripted.  What you CAN do is imagine what your documentary might look like and craft a "pretend script" or outline based on the information you have so far.  You'll be amazed how helpful this process can be to help you think of scenes and possibilities that you may not have thought of otherwise.

  • Video/Fundraising Trailer -- Having a compelling video trailer is key if you're going to be raising funds for your documentary.  Check out crowdfunding sites like IndieGoGo and KickStarter for inspiration.

  • Documentary Treatment and Proposal - This is a "must-have" item if you plan to raise funds for your film. Get step-by-step instructions with our documentary proposal / pitch deck template.

  • Documentary Budget - Along with your documentary proposal, another key item is your budget.  It's easy to put it all together with our documentary budget template pack.

  • Set up a Website/Blog/Facebook page to start building buzz. Don't wait until your documentary is finished to start looking for your audience. As soon as you have your documentary idea, get going on social media and start building your audience.  Keep them updated, get their input, post out-takes, etc... anything that will engage your followers and get them interested in the process.  Your core supporters will help you when you need funds and when you're ready to launch your film.  
  • Fiscal Sponsor - If you want to accept donations for your film, having a non-profit sponsor or "fiscal sponsor" can save you a lot of headaches and streamline the donation process.  Learn how to find and work with a fiscal sponsor as part of our documentary fundraising course: Lights, Camera, Pitch! Documentary Cash-Winning Guide.

  • Distribution Plan -- Consider your distribution plan and your audience.  Many filmmakers are so caught up in the making of their documentary that they forget about this VERY important step.  Think of the END first.  Where do you envision your film being shown?  Theaters? Community Centers? PBS?  HBO?  Or are you just going to post it on YouTube and share it with the world?  Thinking about the end first can sometimes dramatically impact your decisions as you make your film.  

  • Marketing Materials -- Make sure you get plenty of production stills of your documentary team in action during filming.  These photos will be invaluable for marketing later. Also consider "The-Making-Of" video.  Think ahead about possibly finding someone who can document YOU filming which could become an "Extra" on the DVD or VOD package.. at the very least this provides visuals for your website and other social media sites.

If you liked this article, we recommend the 7-Day Documentary Crash Course.

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