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Tips on Planning a Documentary Film

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 10/21/2010

Here are a few detailed tips to help your process when planning a documentary film.

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    Planning and Preparation

    Documentary pre-production is an entirely different process than that for narrative film, and can be both more involved and less specific. Each documentary film is actually very different in a way that narrative film does not replicate. Though narrative films are different in style and content, the general structure is relatively common between them. Documentary film is not usually in this common format as each individual story, concept, and project is prepared on its own terms and with its own rules. What this means is that you have to take a look at what your film may end up being while also preparing your concept, subjects, and production methods. Here is are some tips to help on planning a documentary film before you enter production.

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    Premise

    When planning a documentary film you first need to identify your idea very clearly, and developing a premise may help. A premise is often used when identifying your key elements in screenwriting, but can also help when planning a documentary film as it can give you an edge on how to make creative decisions around your topic. A premise is generally what you would like to say, which may be broader about the world or your specific subject. You may not know your premise entirely when planning a documentary film as you have not fully investigated it yet, but have a clear idea of the direction you go in so that you can shoot for understanding a premise. For example, if you are planning a documentary film around a specific energy issue and you do not know how you want to stand on that issue you should identify what the issue is so that you present yourself with a framework to make a decision. This does not have to be a clear black and white decision, and can even be something that is incredibly vague or contradictory. The point is that you have established a place to go and have provided clarity to your eventual framework.

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    Research

    Research is the most important part of planning a documentary film as you are going to need to know everything you can about your topic if you are going to be effective at filming it. This does not simply mean piling through encyclopedia references, secondary sources, and news reports, though these are a great way to get started. Instead you have to really get into the topic by visiting locations, talking to sources, reading specific documents, and looking at primary items that are involved in your story or topic. The research process is going to take you into a lot of areas and to meet with a lot of people that you may even film later on, which is a good way to start a relationship or get a feel for different things. You need to know this inside and out and in a way that a common person could not, otherwise you are just going to give a very hollow regurgitation of the facts. This is also the beginning of the documentary organization process that you are going to need all the way through.

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    Relationships and Characters

    P1110073crop Documentary films that are really successful draw out relationships with people and specific characters. Some documentary films may be more educational in their preparation, such as political or environmental films that expose issues. These are great filmic constructs, but they still identify characters and require the filmmaker to build relationships. Characters can be people that you get to know on a realistic level and so the audience can then relate to them, and therefore the context of the film. Characters could also be vaguer, but they have to be something that people can connect with on an emotional rather than intellectual level. Documentary film really do play to the intellectual character of people by presenting ideas and facts, but that is not what maintains an actual film. Instead you have to develop people that will create an emotional framework and allow the audience to become involved. For this to happen you have to develop relationships with people, and this is true of even sources that are not going to be clear characters. For people to open up to you and really allow you to bring out truths and ideas you will have to let them know you in a way that is not done in brief official visits. This means that when you are planning a documentary film you need to get to know the people that you may want to draw from, engage them intimately, and eventually ask them to go beyond their regular defenses and where they would normally allow someone to go.

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    A documentary film requires extensive planning and preparation if it is going to come out as a complete and important project. Here are some tips for planning your documentary film to help it become a developed film project.
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    Footage

    Oftentimes, people can focus on only one type of footage in their documentary film and ignore the fact that a documentary is really a collage of all different types. You are going to likely have interviews to help frame the film, firsthand video of things taking place, B-roll of more vague events and location, as well as stock footage or outside footage that is relevant to your film. All of these things are important and must be considered when you are planning a documentary film.

    Before you go into documentary film production try to think about where you are going to meet these needs and how you are going to get this footage. First, identify locations where you may be able to get footage that was created by others. There are hundreds of sources online and institutions that contain footage that will likely be relevant to your documentary film, so take the time to contact them and itemize your work. Begin collecting them in digital folders to be used during documentary editing. Create ideas of what kind of footage you may want and begin listing it so that you will know where to go and what kind of things you are going to film. This will also be the acquisition of still photos that you are going to use later in the editing process, possibly with photo motion.

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    Sequencing

    The documentary film is going to be one total project, but it is also going to have smaller segments and sequences. These sequences may be created through the pairing of a lot of news footage or interviews. It may be a situation that you filmed that is shortened into a dramatic sequence drawn together by music or a certain conversation. Either way, you are going to want to have an idea of what kind of sequences you may want before you even shoot them. What this is going to do is to give you a little direction when you begin bringing out relationships with subjects and are in the situations that will drive your documentary film. You cannot make clear choices about everything ahead of time, but you can set yourself up so that you are directed in what you are filming for. Without this you may end up just filming a lot of boring footage that ends up being unusable for your specific purpose.

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    Signatures

    If should go without saying that since your subjects are being caught in their natural life they may not always be completely happy with the model-release exposure of a documentary film. Even if they have agreed to be a part of your documentary film, that does not mean that they are completely on board. To really ensure that they understand what the requirements are and that they accept them you will need to get them to sign documentation, which may mean that you have them sign photo release forms ahead of time. This is a very important part of planning a documentary film as it is going to ensure your access.

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    Start and Editing Project

    final cut pro timeline Documentary films are really made in the editing room, so part of planning a documentary film for you may be to actually start an editing project. What this allows you to do is to have a place to put your footage every time you collect some and to place stock and outside footage that you acquire. This can help you to get a visual of your film and to put together the sequences that will make the meat of your film. It will also give you perspective on the bone structure of the big picture and will always let you see where the holes are.