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Tips for Organizing Your Documentary Project

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 4/28/2010

Here are a few key ways that you can keep your documentary film organized.

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    Organization and the Best of Documentary Film

    The best documentary films do not have an implicit organizational structure from the beginning because they usually do not have a script. Instead the best documentary films are an exploration into a subject and set of characters and a collage of different pieces of media, all sewn together into one project. This can be a little overwhelming for a documentary film director as he begins to look at what he has and how he is going to create an actual film out of it. To do this effectively you must put together an organizational strategy that takes you through pre-production, physical production, and post-production. Here are a few tips to help you organize your documentary film.

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    Documentary Pre-Production Tips

    The best organizational tips for documentary film comes in pre-production. Just as in narrative film pre-production, you will want to as much as you possibly can during pre-production. This does not just mean making content, finding sources, and working out contractual agreements. More than this you should research the documentary subject, and all associated subjects, as well as you possibly can. This way you can find the root of your story and ideas so you can then chip it away from the general whole. You may come into documentary pre-production with a general idea of the topic, but you are not sure exactly what you want to do with it. Here you need to look through the information, see what stands out, and how it connects to your own ideas and things you would like to express. This will help you organize your efforts and guide you during the production phase. This does not have to be absolute as you are also going to find an even more precise way when in production. A good tip to follow is get an idea of who may be the characters, what larger "human truths" or ideas may be in this story, and what you are going to want to go after.

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    Shot Lists

    Shot lists may be important to organize your documentary production, but only in so much as they will not restrict you. If you are going into filming without any idea of what you may want to get then a shot list is going to be critical. Over all you should have a general idea of what kinds of things you would want to get out of each documentary shoot. Make a physical list of some of these images that you want and keep them in a binder along with interview questions, curiosities, and photo release forms. This is going to be more important on later shoots where you have a much clearer idea of where your documentary project is going and what you are going to need for that. A good tip to follow is to try and create a shot list of a whole host of shots that you may not even need and then over shoot around them. This will allow you to have more than enough in the editing room, though this is going to make post-production complicated.

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    Documentary Outline

    The documentary outline may be the most crucial organizational and story based piece in your project. This outline will lay out the film you want to create in your editing phases. If you are doing a more historical documentary then you can actually try to prepare a fairly complete outline during the pre-production research phases for your documentary film. If you are doing a more character driven, emotional, or abstract piece you can do this once a lot of things have been shot. It is good to have a general idea early on and you may want to jot some things down so you have something to look at when preparing each shoot. Before you get into heavy editing it is good to have a fairly air tight documentary outline, though this can change when you are actually editing.

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    Editing Your Documentary

    Documentary film is going to use a lot of footage, both shot by your production team and found, when putting together the project. This means that organizing your editing space may be the most important organizational element in your production. After you import and capture your footage break it up into small sub clips that are labeled so that they can be clearly seen as to what they contain. This is especially true for interviews where each question and answer should be included in its own sub clip. Use log notes and clip labeling to indicate the quality of the clip and what's on it.