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The Elements of Pre-Production for Documentaries

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/1/2011

Learn how to put together pre-production so your documentary project can be successful.

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    Great Movies

    A successful documentary mixes vision and access, materials and technique. Unlike a narrative film, a documentary requires you to mine research resources and convince people to share their experiences with you. This takes a very serious amount of planning a pre-production that is unique and unlike any other type of film process.

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    Shrink the Topic

    The first thing you must do is narrow down your topic as much as possible. If you are focusing on AIDS in America you will have a very tough time because it is such a broad issue. Try to make it as small as possible, focusing on one sub-issue or region that is affected by the disease. Another great way to present an issue or topic on a human scale is to tell a person’s story that highlights the larger social issue.

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    Research

    You need to make sure you research everything you can find about your topic and any other related issues. There should be absolutely no argument, detail, or event that has eluded you. Use library and Internet databases, and begin doing more casual interviews so that all the factual and opinion based information is covered.

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    Timeline and Treatment

    Since there will most likely be events characterized in the film you should begin putting together a timeline and story treatment. This will help you stay organized and know what material you will need and who you will want to interview. You do not need to fully develop an opinion on the issues or what will end up being interesting, but you need to have a practical direction to go.

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    Characters

    Begin to identify the main characters in the story as well as the people you would like to interview for the film. Interviews are usually the key element of any documentary, so you will need to know both who would be effective to talk to and who is important to follow for direct cinema footage. Contact them and explain your project, including what your film is about as well as your background. Research these people as much as possible, and try to know absolutely every bit of relevant information there is about them. This includes their socio-political affiliations and personal background because you will need to know how to talk to them and things you should avoid bringing up in conversation.

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    Interview Questions

    Start preparing interview questions for the project. You should have questions that are presented to everyone being interviewed as well as some that are targeted specifically to certain interview subjects. You should try and maintain the structure of the story you have developed when placing the questions in the correct order.

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    Footage

    Make a list of B-Roll and direct cinema footage that you want in the film. This can be a list of photos and documents as well as video footage you will need to get when in production. All events, locations, people, and important images need to be represented or re-created so you will need to know what you want and how you will be able to get it. Make lists of the exact types of shots you want to get, and how much direct cinema footage you would like. Also identify the difficult footage to get access to and try and identify possible alternatives that could take its place.

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    Company Book

    You need to begin a company book that will identify your primary interview subjects, the story treatment, the positions of the crewmembers, and other important pieces of production information. This is critical because it will set a standard for the production team and the story that you intend to capture. This can end up being your Bible while filming, and you can always reference it when things get unorganized. It also declares in print the positions so everyone knows their jobs and responsibilities.

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    Equipment

    Make sure you secure access to equipment and editing systems, identifying where you will get them and whether or not it will cost you money. You do not want to have to scramble once in production or post-production looking for all the equipment you will need. List what types of cameras and camera peripherals you will need as well as what kind of studio facilities you may need.

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    Schedule and Budget

    If you have a larger project you will need to put together both a shooting schedule and a budget. If you do not have the amount of money you will need then you need to spend some time securing financing or “pitching" the project to distribution or broadcast outlets. This is one of the most important elements of pre-production because it will diagram how the rest of the project will flow.

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    Successful Pre-Production/Successful Documentaries

    Once you have completed these tasks you will be well prepared to begin filming your documentary. Try to stick to what was established in pre-production as much as possible, and this will keep your film from getting out of control. Pre-production really decides whether or not your documentary will be successful.