top of page

How to Make a Documentary Film

I've guided many students in the making of many award winning documentary films and while there are many approaches, here are some best practices.

When I think of documentary films I think about what question(s) I want to answer, and who would be the best person or people to talk with to explore the issue/topic.

1. Research Your Topic

Research your ideas and the people you want to interview. 

Use tools like Google, Books, Articles, Newspaper Archive, Government Documents, Interviews, YouTube and the C-SPAN Archive.

2. Make an Outline / Script

Write an outline or a 2 column script. Outlining your main points in the documentary will help with organization of thought.

Using a 2 column script will help you with deciding what interviews and b-roll you will need to tell the story.

Some people find it helpful to write and essay type script helpful. An Open, Main Paragraphs and a Close. 

3. Production Schedule

A Production Schedule is just a calendar with the dates, times and milestones of your production elements, i.e., research, scripting, interviews, b-roll, animations, and music.

Production Schedule

4. Schedule Interviews

Once your documentary topic is decided you will need to reach out to people to book the interview(s). Calling, DM'ing, and emailing all work as long as you get a response. Do not sit back and let time pass, you have to follow-up on the interview request. 

Some people are not confident in what to say in the request for an interview. Here is a sample email: 


Dear (insert their name here), 


I hope you are well.


My name is (your name) and I am a student filmmaker at (school name). Currently, I am working on a documentary regarding (insert topic here). 


I would like to interview you for my documentary.  Are you available for a 15 minute interview at 4pm on November 18th? If you are not available, please let me know another time that would work for you.


Thank you so much for your time.  Also, if you know of others that would be knowledgeable about (insert topic), I would greatly appreciate their contact information.




(your name)

Student Filmmaker

(school name)



Phone number

Once the interviews is accepted confirm the time, and location. Build in time for you to set up your equipment. 

There are 2 parts that go into conducting an interview, the technical and the asking the questions. Both require a good level of skill and preparation.

Part 1: The Technical Part

Where are you putting the cameras?
Across from the interviewer, if you have a 2nd camera it can go off to the side. 

Where is the interviewer sitting? 
Usually slightly left or right of the camera. The interviewee looks at the interviewer, and not directly into the camera. 

How are you framing the interviewee?
Framing is usually rule of 1/3s with the interviewee slightly cheated with talk room on the side they are facing. 

How many cameras are you using?
1, 2, 3? You will want to sync the cameras with a slate or a hand clap. 1 should be primary/main camera, 2nd can be side angle, wide angle or b-roll camera. B-roll can consist of close-ups of hands, eyes, etc. Also, pick up b-roll shots of the interviewee and the environment, if it makes sense for the story.   

What kind of mic are you using?
If you are using a wired microphone the cord cannot be showing

Do you need any lighting? 
If you need lighting do not over power any outlets, also be careful of shooting near windows. If your subject turns into a silhouette you will want to reposition. 

Tech check everything prior to you interviewee getting into position. 

PRO TIP - Tech check all equipment prior to your shoot.
Charge batteries,
Prepare SD cards,
Choose your lenses, how do you want your images to look?
Select and charge/get batteries for microphones

Rule of 1/3s Interview Framing

Part 2: Asking the Questions 

Research your topic, and the person you are interviewing. 

Prepare open-ended questions for your interviews. (Not Yes or No Answers). Ask WHY questions, and feelings questions. 

Your questions should build on one another, and go in a direction you researched to help tell the story. 

Ask the interviewee to restate your question in their answer.

Dress professionally.  

Tech check all of the equipment prior to the interview.

Thank your interviewee for their time and the interview.

Mic them up and make sure your mic cable is NOT showing.

Ask your interviewee to say and spell their name.  

Make sure you get their title.  

Get a business card or take a picture of it with your phone.

Actively listen to their answers.

PAUSE after each answer the question to ensure a clean edit and bonus - you'll get more responses. People get nervous in the silence.  

If you don't get a clear answer say, "Can you tell me more about that?" OR, re-ask the question.

Feel free to ask topic relevant, spontaneous questions, but be respectful of their time. 

At the end of the interview check with your camera person/your team to see if anyone has a question they would like to ask. The observers often have the best questions. 

Finally, ask the interviewee, " Is there anything you would like to say, or anything you wished I asked you about?"

Thank them again for their time.

Send them a thank you note or email. 

You can transcribe your interview using the microphone and google docs. 


6. Shoot & Create B-Roll

B-roll is the key to making a great documentary. Think about it. If we had to sit and watch a talking head for 5 minutes we would go crazy fighting the urge to turn it off. 

B-Roll is additional footage that helps tell the story of your documentary. These are Weather shots, exterior / location / establishing shots, close-ups of hands, livingrooms, pictures, pictures on the wall, awards, re-enactments, everything that brings the interviewees words to life. 

Also, b-roll is key for footage to cover the voice-over. 

B-Roll 5
B-Roll 3

7. Import, Edit & Export!

The edit is where you get to craft the story of your documentary. Importing your footage, choosing your music, editing your interviews, and b-roll into a cohesive story.

This is where the details really matter. Once the edit it near finished you will add your graphics (custom graphics), color grading, and finalize any effects. 


Video Editors

PRO TIP - Paying attention to the details add a professional level polish.

  • Color Correction is fixing a color problem, but Color Grading is using color to enhance the look of your film. 

  • Customize your graphics so they look/feel like your film (ex, and/or do something interesting with your titles, i.e., Masking Text

  • Balance your audio

Documentary Film Analysis

Documentary Film Analysis

If you are struggling with where to start?
Select a documentary and analyze how the producer/director/editor/writer put the film together. Watching film without sound can help you see more visual details. 

Make a slide presentation or video using lots of visuals (images / videos) to explain.   
1. Doc title and when was it created? 
2. What is the doc about? 
3. What question or questions does it answer? 
4. How does the documentary begin? 
5. Who is being interviewed? (experts of opinion)  
6. How many interviews? 
7. What about the framing for the interviews? 
8. What kind of b-roll is being used? 
9. What are the graphics like? Title, Lower 1/3s, b-roll, Credits.
10. Audio? Quality, Voiceovers, Music, Natural Sound. 
11. Tone/Color/ Color Grading? 
12. Pacing? 
13. Did you like it and why or why not? 
14. What do you wish they did differently? 
15. What can you take away from this film to make your project better? 
...Additional thoughts? 

Favorite Documentary Films

Favorite Documentary Films

Doc History

Documentary Films - A Brief History

bottom of page