Ten Tips for DSLR Documentary Filmmaking

A documentary is a non-fiction film account of a topic. To make your DSLR documentary of any length and subject matter into something that people will find interesting, consider these ten tips.

Know the topic you plan to film

Whether you’re making a two-hour feature length film or a two-minute online video, you need to understand the subject; otherwise, you’re not going to fully understand what to include, ask the right questions, or draw the appropriate conclusion. There’s a variety of ways to accomplish this task:

  • Research the topic. Understand the issue for both sides.

  • Understand the subject.

  • Seek out experts. Try to get a handle on the topic from someone familiar with it.

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Plan your shoot well

Making a documentary is about more than shooting a series of scenes, putting them together with a narration track, and expecting to have a compelling movie. Quite the contrary: A documentary encapsulates classic storytelling with a beginning, middle, and an end, along with detailing the conflict and coming to some sort of resolution.

In order to do all that, you need to meticulously plan for each shoot and the actual message. Here are a few tips:

  • Make calls ahead of time. See who will talk to you and what access you can have with them.

  • Know your questions ahead of time.

  • Create a shot-by-shot outline. A working script works well as a guide for your movie.

Have the right film equipment

Even professionals find themselves without the right gear sometimes because some situations require specific equipment for coverage. These decisions are vital before you get started.

Have a plan for shooting

Planning the shooting is not to be confused for planning the documentary. Remember to shoot your movies with the proper variations for each scene. Use focal length, camera angle, and camera-to-subject distance to capture the necessary shots.

  • Be sure to capture visuals referenced by the subject.

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  • Don’t forget the cutaways. Whether you capture these before, during, or after the interview with a second camera doesn’t matter as long as you get them.

  • Shoot adequate b-roll. Not the same as a cutaway, b-roll supports the subject.

  • Draw the viewer into the scene. Starting with wide shots, bring the viewer closer and closer to create drama.

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Make contact with sources before shooting

Unless you’re capturing a family event, chances are you won’t know the subject, nor will you shoot in your backyard or even your town.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Map the location.

  • Call or e-mail. After you make contact, make sure you're cordial and express your basic intentions.

  • Set up meeting times. Whether it’s in person or on the phone, arrange a time and don’t be late.

Don’t under/overestimate your social skills in your shots

Use your charm to approach each interview with politeness and wide-eyed optimism. Don’t assume you know the answers before you ask the questions.

Consider the following:

  • Be respectful. Even if you don’t agree with her position or attitude, don’t let it show.

  • Listen to the subject.

  • Make eye contact.

  • Don’t read your notes.

  • Be ready for impromptu interviews.

Shoot a strong narrative

In a perfect world, James Earl Jones would narrate your story. You can still find a strong solitary voice to carry the storyline and set up people, places, issues, and other elements.

Here a few suggestions:

  • Find the right voice.

  • Trolling for talent. Acting and broadcasting schools are not bad places to find someone.

  • Write a script. The voiceover script should include a tightly written, witty account of your story with references to movie footage.

Shoot much more than you’ll ever use

Many film classes teach that the average documentary shot at a 20:1 ratio between overall footage and what ended up in the movie. Because the movie is not scripted, you never know how long each interview takes to provide the content that you need. Because the story comes together in editing, it's hard to tell how much you’ll need to shoot.

Use still photos

Although using still photos in a documentary movie may sound more boring than watching your cousin’s homemade wedding video, that all changed with the work of Ken Burns. He took the static nature of a photo and made it move, added compelling narration, and took the audience through a place they never thought they’d go.

While Burns used Adobe After Effects, some followed up with Final Cut. Now you can do it using Adobe Premiere Elements.

Consider the following:

  • Fill the frame: Most photographs have a different aspect ratio than HD video.

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Crop them a little to fill the frame.

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  • Zoom: Pull in or out of a photo to show detail or setting.

  • Pan: Move from right to left; left to right; or up and down.

  • Twist: Shift the horizon a little.

  • One more thing: Use time to properly pace these moves.

Watch documentaries to understand narrative

Although a filmmaker learns how to make films by making films, the same can be said when it comes to watching them too. That applies to documentaries too.

Get past the misconception of documentaries as tedious, boring movies. When they're made correctly, they are as entertaining as a feature film.

Here are a few to consider:

  • Bowling for Columbine (2002)

    Director: Michael Moore

    The director of Roger and Me (1989), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) won an Academy Award for this humorous take on the serious subject of gun control after the tragic school shooting in Columbine, Colorado. By putting himself in the film, he changed the context of the narrative.

  • Waiting for Superman (2010)

    Director: Davis Guggenheim

    As his previous film An Inconvenient Truth (2006) took on the controversial subject of global warming, this one takes on the public education system and how it inhibits academic growth rather than encouraging it.

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