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Filming Documentaries: What You Need to Know

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 12/5/2011

Whether you wish to create a documentary for a school project or hope to make it to the box office, there are steps you must take to make a successful film. Fortunately, this is possible even for a first-timer with a little guidance and know-how.

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    Getting Started

    While you could just grab your camera, start filming and wing it as you go along, you'll create a much more polished and professional documentary if you have a plan and all the tools you will need in advance.

    Factors that you should consider include selecting the best topic for the film, determining how much it will cost you to create it, what type of camera and other equipment you might need and how to put together the final production. Don't worry if you are not sure how to begin, as these expertly-written articles and tutorials will take you from planning your budget to selecting equipment to the final editing process.

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    Pre-Production & Planning

    The Ten Elements for Producing Great Digital Video Documentaries

    Although your film will document factual information, a documentary still includes characters and follows a storyline. The primary difference is that you cannot dictate the precise direction of the film. What you can do, however, is learn how to choose the best interviewees, keep the movie relevant to your topic and ensure that your purpose for the film is clear.

    The Elements of Pre-Production for Documentaries

    Pre-production primarily consists of planning for filming and editing. Find out how to perform research efficiently and productively, pinpoint the theme of the documentary and create a timeline for the entire process. Treating your film as a business project will help you stay on course and be successful.

    Tips on Planning a Documentary Film

    Another benefit to thorough planning is that you can foresee potential obstacles and devise alternative methods or workarounds to stay on target. To some extent, you can plan for various events throughout your documentary project. Learn how to prepare for piecing together a variety of footage, shortening or drawing out interviews and obtaining release signatures from all the right people.

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    Start Filming!

    Top Tips to Make a Documentary

    If you have never filmed a documentary before, there are likely aspects of the process that you wouldn't consider. There is more to making a budget than knowing what equipment to purchase, and you need to get in touch with the right people before you begin as well. Discover some costs that will affect your budget, how to cast interviewees and where you should go once the film is complete.

    Finding a Good Profile Subject for Your Documentary Film

    Do you want to focus on the life of someone who has made an impact? Choosing the best person can mean the difference between a mediocre move and a fabulous film. Read ideas about what makes an ideal subject and how to make a connection.

    Tips for Organizing Your Documentary Project

    Organization is key for success in any type of project, and documentaries are no exclusion. Create a system that will keep the film running smoothly from pre-production through editing. Find out how to design an outline that will keep you focused as well as a shot list that ensures you capture the information you really want to share.

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    How Much is This Going to Cost?

    Documentary Film Budgets

    Do you have a general idea regarding how much your filming project will cost, or do you simply plan to begin and hope you don't run out of money? Creating a budget is important whether you are requesting support from investors and donors or you simply need to determine how much you will need to spend before starting. Learn what your budget should contain and how to best organize it.

    Guerrilla Documentary: Hidden Costs

    Another secret to creating a detailed and realistic budget is to calculate potential hidden costs. You might think that you have it all covered, but this article points out some likely expenses that even the most meticulous planner might not consider. Learn about unforeseen amounts such as permits, travel costs and research expenses.

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    Equipment & Techniques

    Choosing a Video Camera for Documentary Filmmaking

    You know that you need a video camera in order to create a documentary. Do you know what kind will produce the best results, though? Read about the options that are available and what features you should look for when selecting the equipment to film your movie.

    Tips for Using DSLR Cameras for Documentary Production

    Are you considering the use of a DSLR camera to film your documentary? Although these cameras offer advantages, they have limitations as well. Find out how to deal with audio that doesn't sync with video, lack of storage space and other issues that may arise.

    Guerrilla Documentary: Using Still Photography

    Have you considered inserting still photos into your film? You might find yourself unable to bring a video camera to a certain location, or you may wish to integrate historical images into your documentary. Gain some ideas regarding how to best take these photos and how to combine them with your movie.

    Guerrilla Documentary: Don't Turn Off Your Camera

    Most documentary filmmakers seek to bring the truth to light. This is difficult to do when significant people ask you not to film their interview. Learn about situations in which this is most likely to occur and how to best handle each instance.

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    The Finished Product: Editing & Final Touches

    Tips for Selecting Music for Your Documentary Film

    The bulk of your documentary is likely to consist of interviewees or a narrator speaking. However, there may be scenes where you rely on visuals, such as shots of the aftermath of severe weather or the faces of hungry children. Discover how background music can provide symbolism, establish a mood and help you transition from one section of the story to another.

    Tips on How to Edit Together Scenes from Documentary Footage

    No matter how stellar your filmmaking skills may be, it is highly unlikely that you will be able to film a perfect documentary from start to finish. Your movie will need to be edited and pieced together to take out unnecessary footage, place interviews in the proper sequence and have the best flow. Learn about creating an outline, structuring scenes and putting together the best possible film.

    Marketing an Independent Film or Documentary through Press Releases

    You did it! You followed your plan and created your documentary. Now you want the whole world to see it! Find out about cost-effective ways to get the word out about your film and get moviegoers in to watch it.

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    Creating a documentary might not be easy, but it is achievable and is sure to be a rewarding endeavor. Share your tips on documentary filming in the Comments section below!