Making Your First Documentary: 10 Practical Tips

The decision to make a documentary is usually pretty simple. It’s the process of making it that is complex.

As a filmmaker, I’ve always focused on subjects that mattered to me. I can only tell a story that I care about, that’s the starting point. If you believe in the story and its message, you should consider making a documentary about it.

Many articles have been written about the bureaucratic process of filmmaking: from the early research to the distribution of the film. In this article, I’ll give more practical tips, based on my experience:

1. Before shooting, you have to make some script, or at least an idea of what the film will look like. Of course, the look and feel will be totally different when it's released, thanks to scenes that you never thought about. But being prepared and organized, and knowing what you want to achieve, is very important. Try to ask yourself over and over what’s your vision, what’s your message and why you’re making the film?

2. ALWAYS respect the person that you film. It must be very clear that you will "watch out for him" throughout the process of making the film. What I mean is that he should trust you that when the film is released, viewers will be inspired by him, will identify and even admire him for who he is. You don't need to say these words, but it needs to be like an unwritten contract.

I think that my biggest achievement is the response that I receive from my main "character" after making the film. That, to me is more important than winning awards.

This also guarantees the footage will be much more personal. If you build trust with your character, he'll let you see and film his best and worst moments. And this is what documentary is all about in my opinion: showing the real life, with no masks.

3. It's very important to make the shooting days close to each other. Don't shoot today and wait a month until the second day of shooting. When you shoot 4 days a week, the masks will disappear. When your character gets used to the camera and the crew, magic will happen.

4. Shoot as much as you can. Even the most "usual" situations – for example: your character goes with his/her father somewhere on the street. I found out that sometimes the most exciting scenes happened when we filmed those small things. Also, shooting all day would help your character feel comfortable with the camera. BUT, if you feel like your character needs “a break” from being filmed, don’t hesitate and turn it off! There are things that are more important than any film.

5. Although you have to be prepared with a script, and ideas for the next scenes, you should "flow" with his real life scenes - don't get "stuck" with your script. If something happens (and things will happen!), "flow" with them and consider changing the basic idea if necessary.

6. What's your film about? What's the message? Every day, before and after shooting, think about that. Even if you think that you know exactly what you want, think again, every day. The filming process is long; you’ll be surprised to discover new insights as each shooting day passes.

7. PASSION – I love that word, and especially in making a documentary; it perfectly connects to SUCCESS. If you keep your passion at a high level throughout the process of making your documentary, it will succeed.

8. Here's one of the most important tips for making an outstanding documentary (are you ready?!) - Your character must go through some process in his life, during the filming. Don't get stuck on the story that happened to him (though it's important to tell that story); find his next goal, and like in Hollywood stories - find the conflicts that he needs to go through before he succeeds (or fails) at the end. The process and conflicts that the character goes through are VERY important, and will keep the viewer interested while watching the film.

9. To keep the viewer interested from the beginning to the end of your film, you need to get the viewer to ask himself at each scene: What is going to happen to the character? You have to find a struggle/goal for each scene (or at least for most of them).

10. Speak with your character before shooting. Learn more about him, try to find what's unique about him as a person, and which of his characteristics you relate to. Also, try to figure out what would make you go and watch the film about him. Don’t get panicked if he tells you the most amazing story while you’re not with the camera. This only means that you build trust, which is, again, the basis of every relationship.

And YES, you and your character are officially “in a relationship.” Congratulations!

If you would like to share more practical tips from your experience, or if you have any questions, please comment here and I’ll do my best to help!

Good luck with making your film, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

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