Documentary Production 101
The 6 CORE Phases Of Making A Documentary

Jilann and Hank pose with cameraAward-Winning Documentary Team Jilann Spitzmiller and Hank Rogerson
(Instructors at Desktop Documentaries)

Documentary production is an art form that combines storytelling with the portrayal of real-life events, people, and situations.

It differs from fiction filmmaking in its pursuit of truth and its reliance on real-world sources, rather than scripted scenes.

Here, we will explore the basic steps of making a documentary, from conception to final product.

1. Concept and Research

The first step in documentary production is to choose a subject. This could be a person, an event, a social issue, or anything that interests you and you believe will interest others.

Once the subject is selected, extensive research is crucial. This includes reading books, articles, watching other documentaries on the subject, and speaking to experts.

The more you understand your topic, the better you'll be able to present it.

Check out these 4 steps to developing a winning documentary idea

2. Planning and Pre-Production

Planning involves defining the scope and aim of your documentary.

What story are you trying to tell?

What is your perspective or angle?

Pre-production also includes scripting, which in the case of documentaries, is more about outlining than writing dialogue. It's about planning what you want to cover, the key points, the flow of the narrative, and the main characters or interview subjects.

Documentary budgeting is another critical aspect.

Even a low-budget documentary needs funding for equipment, travel, and post-production. Crowdfunding, film grants, and sponsorship are common funding sources.

Resource: The Ultimate Documentary Pitch Template Package

3. Equipment and Crew

Choosing the right video production equipment is crucial.

You need cameras, sound recording equipment, lighting (if necessary), and video editing software.

The type of equipment depends on your budget and the style of your documentary.

Additionally, assembling a reliable documentary crew is essential. This could include a director, camera operator, sound technician, and editor. Learn about the different documentary crew roles.

4. Filming

This is where the actual shooting of the documentary takes place.

It involves interviewing people, shooting relevant locations, events, and gathering any necessary footage to tell your story.

Being flexible and adaptable during filming is key, as real-life events are unpredictable.

5. Post-Production

After filming, the post-production process begins.

This includes reviewing and organizing the footage, editing the film, adding music, voice-overs, and any graphical elements.

Editing is a critical process where the story is truly shaped and told.

It's often a time-consuming process, requiring patience and attention to detail.

Learn the 10 Best Tips For Editing A Documentary

6. Distribution and Promotion

Finally, once the documentary is completed, it needs an audience.

Today, there are various platforms for distribution - film festivals, TV, online streaming services, and social media.

Promotion is also crucial; creating a strong online presence, engaging in social media marketing, and networking within the documentary community can greatly help.


Documentary production is a powerful medium for storytelling and educating.

It requires a combination of passion, research, planning, technical skills, and creativity.

Whether you're a seasoned filmmaker or a beginner, the world of documentary production offers a rich and rewarding experience for those willing to delve into the real stories that shape our world.

Ready to dive in? Get the 7-Day Documentary Crash Course

Documentary Filmmaking Resources

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