Week 6

Get live footage of relevant events.

One of the main advantages of documentary is that they allow the director to show the audience real footage of actual real-life events. Provided I don’t break any privacy laws, get as much real-world footage as I can. Film events that support my documentary’s viewpoint, or, if the subject of my documentary happened in the past, get in touch with agencies or people who have historical footage to get permission to use it.

Cinematic Techniques for Making A Documentary More Impactful

  1. Know the story: during the pre-production phase, I learn all I can about the story I plan to tell. Whether it’s a corporate promotional film, or a personal profile, I get as much information as I can about the people, places, and events related to the film.
  2. Create a shot list: as much as possible I determine ahead of time the shots I want to get to tell the visual story I want to tell. Naturally a big part of what I plan to shoot will be based on sound bites I get during the interviews. But the more I know up front what I will be shooting, the more shots I can plan ahead of time.
  3. Shoot it like a script: in much of the work I do, I’m NOT a journalistic filmmaker, capturing events as they happen, like an ENG news shooter might. Usually I’m directing the “talent” (i.e. employees, interview subjects, etc) and doing minimum production design (even if it’s just rearranging someone’s office to make it look just right). Where appropriate and whenever possible I also get good coverage (e.g. wide, medium and close up shots of the same “scene”; opposing angle shots; etc.)
  4. Mind the metaphorical: my favorite kind of narrative storytelling is metaphorical or allegorical imagery similar to the Nooma examples I gave above. Where I have the opportunity to shoot narrative scenes that have no literal connection to the soundbites, but have the strong emotional resonance.
  5. Music is key: when I get to the editing process, I put a lot of time into finding the right music. Music has almost as much influence in eliciting emotional responses to a film as the visuals do.

I’ve also been strongly influenced by other amazing documentary filmmakers utilizing cinematic techniques; filmmakers like Errol Morris, Werner Hertzog, and Alex Gibney.

Film establishing shots.

I’ve watched a documentary before, I noticed that the entire movie isn’t just footage of interviews and of live events with nothing in between. For instance, there are often shots leading into interviews that establish a mood or show where the interview is taking place by showing the outside of the building, the city skyline, etc. These are called “establishing shots,” and they’re a small but important part of the documentary. Always collect audio from the shoot including room tone and sound effects unique to that location.

Film the interview

While two-camera shoots are more expensive, today’s inexpensive HDSLR cameras make the two-camera interview an affordable proposition. Many interviews are not very striking visually so if interviews are a major portion of the film, the film can suffer. Take special care to make our interviews look great.

Finding great locations

It is an essential element in film. But great locations do not find themselves. On big budget productions, there is an official location scout. But if we’re on a small budget, I’ll have to do it myself. I’ll want to start by studying the script or outline to see what locations it suggests.

Choosing the background for a lengthy interview is an important decision. An interview may become most of the film so it must look good. I want a room that is large enough, quiet enough and one where I can control the light – a controlled environment to shoot in.

This eliminates shooting outside because the noises and lighting will change and could ruin the interview. Short interviews are filmed outside everyday, but a long interview like a story or biography must be filmed in a more controlled location which generally means inside.

Look for a quiet room. Listen carefully in the room. Do you hear noise from heat or air vents, airplanes, traffic, construction? Ask about what sounds one might typically hear in the room.Loud traffic noise or being in the flight path of an airport are real problems we should must avoid. Like when we shoot Angie on the boat at harbour, the sound of another yacht in the distance almost ruin our shooting.  In some interviews I can just wait for the noise to stop, but when we’re recording a life story, I don’t want that kind of distraction to disturb the rhythm of the shooting.

Go to the location before the shoot. Walk around. Take lots of pictures. Here are a few questions to ask about any location:

• Is there electricity?
• Is this location near an airports or railroad?
• Will you need someone to let you in?
• Where are the breaker boxes?
• Is the area or neighborhood safe?
• Where can the crew set up their gear?
• Are there events scheduled for the shoot day?
• Does the location cost money?
• Is there can set up the good light and kiddile?

Do Not Forget Audio

There are so many potential audio issues that can add time and expense to a shoot. Look and listen carefully to see what audio gotchas could be lurking. I got a lot of lessons from the audio issue during the shooting day.

Week 5

Organize, outline, and schedule the shooting.

I don’t necessarily need to know exactly how my documentary is going to come together before I start shooting – I may discover things during the process of filming that change the plans or offer new avenues of investigation. However, I should definitely have a plan before I start shooting, including an outline of specific footage I want to shoot. Having a plan ahead of time will give me extra time to schedule interviews, work around scheduling conflicts, etc. my plan for shooting should include:

  • Specific people I want to interview – make contact with these people as early as possible to schedule interviews.
  • Specific events I want to record as they occur – arrange travel to and from these events, and get permission from the event’s planners to be able to shoot at the event.
  • Specific writings, pictures, drawings, music, and/or other documents I want to use. Get permission to use these from the creator(s) before I add them to the documentary.
  • Any dramatic recreations I want to shoot. Search for actors, props, and shooting locations well ahead of time.

Interview relevant people.

Pick a selection of relevant people to interview and collect as much footage as I can from these interviews. I’ll be able to splice this footage throughout the documentary to help prove my point or convey the message. Interviews can be “news style” – in other words, simply sticking a microphone in someone’s face – but I’ll probably want want to rely more on one-on-one sit-down interviews, as these give us a chance to control the lighting, staging, and sound quality of your footage while also allowing your subject to relax, take his or her time, tell stories, etc.

  • These people may be famous or important – many of these people may not be famous or important. They may be ordinary people whose work has given them a familiarity of my subject or people who simply witnessed an important event firsthand. They can, in certain situations, even be completely ignorant of my subject – it can even be enlightening (and entertaining) for the audience to hear the difference between a knowledgeable person’s opinion and an ignorant person’s opinion.
  • Remember––a good interview should be more like a conversation. As the interviewer, I must be prepared, having done my research and informed myself to glean the most information from the interview subject.
  • Grab B-roll whenever possible. Get shots of  interview subject after the formal interview. This allows me to cutaway from the talking head shot.

Week 4

Directing the Documentary: Production

Ready to start shooting? Time for production!

A documentary is any non-fiction video or film that informs viewers about a real-life topic, person, event, or issue. Some documentary films provide us with educational information about things that aren’t well-known. Others tell detailed stories about important people and/or events. Still others try to persuade the audience to agree with a certain viewpoint. Whatever subject I choose, filming a documentary can be a serious undertaking.

StartUp  Outline

  • Synopsis: B-roll of Angie Wu’s company + background music
  1. Interview clip #1 of Angie
  2. B-roll: angled waist-up shot of Angie walking, bird’s-eye shot of Angie throwing ingredients on pies +background music #1
  3. Interview clip #2 of Angie Wu
  4. B-roll: detailed close-up of angie type on her laptop, wide-angle shot of Angie’s stuff talking +background music #2
  5. B-roll ofAngie Wu’s company exterior on harbor +background music
  • Eric Gao
  1. Interview clip #1 of Eric, close-up frame
  2. B-roll: close-up of Eric making the tea, bird’s-eye shot of Eric’s finger + Eric voiceover #1
  3. Interview clip #2 of Eric, torso frame
  4. B-roll: profile shot of Eric call his custmer, very tight close-up of Eric + Eric voiceover #2
  1. B-roll of Eric’s company interior + Eric voiceover
  • Locky Ge
  1. Interview clip #1 of Locky
  2. B-roll: wide-angle shot of Locky use his laptop, close-up of Locky’s finger+ Locky  voiceover #1
  3. Interview clip #2 of Locky
  4. B-roll: close-up of Locky +Locky  voiceover #2
  5. B-roll: interview shots of Locky +  credits


Week 3


Before I interview our actors, take a look at this list of things to think about when writing the questions to ask in those interviews. Asking open‐ended questions can help I avoid one‐word answers. I may also want to ask two questions together to get the most out of the answer.

  • Who? Whom will  interview? My interviews can play an important part in my film, so choose my  characters carefully. Choose people who are confident enough to talk on camera and have the knowledge to answer the questions clearly. I may wish to include information about the  characters in my documentary, so think about the questions I could ask to get this information.

  • What? Think about what I’ll ask the characters to get more information about the topic. I may wish to ask questions about their experiences and how they are involved in the topic to show their knowledge.

  • When? If I am creating a documentary film about an event or a party, then the date and time are quite important. I  may want to ask my characters questions about when they do something or how often they do it.

  • Where? I may wish to include questions about the location or venue of the topic, if it’s needed. I could film my interview in a place that’s connected with the topic.

  • Why? Using why in my questions is a great way to get more information out of a character or subject during the interview. Questions beginning with why are simple, but they’re more likely to give me longer and more emotional answers.

    Before I interview our actors, I also learned after lots of research.

  • Learn to ask open ended questions. “Tell me about . . .”  “How do you . . . “
  • Listen, listen, listen. Don’t even think about what I am going to ask next until my subject has stopped talking. Ask follow up questions: “I’m interested in what you said about ________..Tell me more about that.”
  • Make a checklist of questions (things I want to cover), but don’t be a slave to it. Follow-up is more interesting than going on to the next question on the list. Check the list before I wrap, to make sure I haven’t left anything out.
  • NEVER, EVER ask the subject to repeat the question before answering it. The reason is that, first, they forget to repeat it, then I asked them again, then they say,  “What should I say?” Then I asked the question again, they repeat it, and by this time they’ve forgotten what they were going to answer.
  • My purpose in interviewing is to gain information, not just sound bites. As much as possible, I  want my subject to forget he or she is being  interviewed and simply carry on a conversation with you. I can’t do that if I am asking the subject to repeat  the question. In my experience, most sound bites from interviews run very well without needing the wording of the question.

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 our pre-production check list for directing the documentary:

    • Thoroughly think through everything I’ll need for my film from start to finish
    • Think about music, interesting scenes, styles and other unique visuals that can help tell the 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) Read my review of Pond5 for stock footage
    • 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.