How to Make a Documentary By Yourself
You might think that you need a big team to make a decent documentary. Not so. Here’s how you can make a documentary without anyone else’s help!
Are you a vlogger who shares their videos on YouTube? Or perhaps you tend to make feature films independently. If you’re looking to steer your content creation skills towards documentary making, you might be pleasantly surprised to find you can do it alone.
Often, bigger projects can get put on the back burner whilst you wait for other people to become available. Sometimes, getting a crew together can be like herding cats. Commitments get in the way, life throws curveballs. That doesn’t mean you need to let your documentarian dreams die.
Whether it’s financial constraints, or personnel limitations holding you back, it’s time to take control. You can make a documentary all by yourself, and we’re going to tell you how!
Unsurprisingly, documentaries involve an awful lot of research. All the great ones do, at least. With this in mind, it’s important to pick a topic you’re truly invested and interested in. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting bored quickly.
You’re unlikely to wake up every month with a brand-new, fully-fledged project idea in your head. Checking out the news and seeing what’s going on in the world will help you pick your next topic. It’s also a good idea to keep the audience in mind, at least a little. This doesn’t have to dictate your whole decision, but you want to make a documentary people will actually be keen to watch.
Utilising social media platforms like Instagram are an effective way to stumble upon interesting and relevant topics.
In this incredibly informative video, Mario (aka EPOCH) explains how he relies on friends, the newspaper, or social media to scout new stories.
Familiar with the adage, “fail to prepare, and you should prepare to fail”?
When making a documentary on your own, you’re left to juggle a lot of responsibilities and spin many a plate – it’s a real circus. This is why careful planning is vital. Once you’ve decided on a topic and found some communities and people to interview and shoot, you need to get scheduling.
If you can’t offer the people getting involved any pay, you need to make yourself fit around their schedules. That’s why you have to be clever and careful about organising shoot days and interviews. Mario, in his video, outlines the fact he often gets just 3 or 4 days with people, so has to figure out how he can pack everything he needs into this time.
Not only logistics, you should plan what you want to talk about. This will save you time, but also headspace. If you have a few major questions prepared for your interviews, you give yourself the freedom to be more present and involved in the conversation. This allows for organic interactions and fresh questions to arise, which always makes for better viewing.
Shooting & B-Roll
Lots of documentaries revolve around an interview, or multiple interviews. You could just conduct an interview and film that, and let that be the bulk of your project. However, it’s generally more engaging to watch documentaries with different visuals, as this helps to convey the interviewee’s story.
During the days you’ve organised to meet with your interviewee/s, you should take the opportunity to shoot some B-roll. Mario highlights how he likes to film people in their homes, as this provides some backstory to the character. This also helps audiences to connect with someone much more.
Hopping back to the planning stage for a moment – it’s useful to have a rough idea of what kind of B-roll you’d like to include before shoot days. You can definitely film on the fly, and this can result in some great candid footage or cool shots. However, it can also lead to you not quite bagging all the video you wanted or needed. Scouting out some locations and thinking about the sorts of themes that could crop up within the interview can help steer the direction of your B-roll nicely.
Filming and editing are two different skills, but being able to do both will give you a huge advantage. You can learn how to edit video online for free or through classes on Skillshare. If you’re trying to keep your budget down, there are some powerful free video editing software available, like DaVinci Resolve.
As Mario points out in his video, the editing process is where your documentary will really start to come together. You’ll certainly need patience, as you could end up cutting a 2-hour interview down to just 10 minutes, it all depends on how long your finished project will be.
A documentary tends to revolve around a story, so once you’ve edited down the interview to form a succinct, interesting story that makes sense, you can think about everything else. This is when you should add in your B-roll, thinking about how the footage can bolster the story and words being spoken over the top.
Paying attention to the audio aspects during this process will give you a more professional final product. You can add royalty free music from sites like Synchedin, enabling you to use tracks in your documentary without worrying about copyright issues. This is also a great affordable alternative to licensing individual high profile tracks.
Sound effects and Foley shouldn’t be overlooked either. Certain sounds may not be picked up during your shooting sessions, causing the footage to lose some of its impact. Synchedin also has a great catalogue of creative commons and royalty free sound effects you can add to video, so your audio is never wanting.
Finally, you’ll want to add any finishing touches, like colour correction, to make your project feel polished and fully complete. Adding any captions or subtitles at this point is a great idea, particularly for any foreign language and for improving accessibility.
You don’t need a huge team or loads of resources to make a documentary by yourself. By employing some savvy scheduling, careful planning, and developing your editing skills, you can create a beautiful and informative video. Whatever your personal style, applying these steps to your filming will make life a lot easier.
And remember, the more projects you create, the more developed your documentarian skills will become!