How to Make a Documentary Film: Do These Five Things First

how to make a documentary film

Learning how to make a documentary film? Kudos to you for taking on such gratifying, important work. As history buffs we jump at historical documentary projects whenever we get the chance. But make no mistake—it’s also hard work. 

You want to tell a story that’s cohesive, factually accurate and engaging. To do that, you’ll have to keep track of a lot of moving parts. But don’t let a daunting prospect keep you from getting started. Here’s are five things you can do in pre-production to make your next historical filmmaking project smooth and successful. 

Step 1: Schedule time-sensitive interviews and filming right away.

All morbid connotations aside, if your documentary is delving into, say, WWII history, you must schedule interviews with survivors while there’s time. Similarly, if a storied hotel or monument plays into the story you’re telling, you will want to gather contextual modern-day footage as soon as possible. After all, it’s not unheard of for an important landmark to be demolished in the blink of an eye. Sadly, that often happens without input from the community.

Step 2: Pick a theme or angle for your historical documentary—and stick to it.

There are plenty of great documentaries that manage to cover an enormous topic without losing the audience’s attention. (Ken Burns’s Civil War comes to mind. Or really anything Ken Burns; that guy is arguably the gold standard.)

But in most cases, it’s much more efficient to pick a specific angle or period within a larger subject. Instead of tackling the 1960s in America, for example, focus on a particular moment, event, trend or person. Then, stick as closely as possible to your topic as you unpack the details. You can always branch out in subsequent projects.

Step 3: Write the film storyboard.

Even if you haven’t nailed down the people and places you want to highlight (more on that in the next section), it’s important to get at least a working storyboard in place. We like to approach storyboarding by summing up the project in a short “elevator pitch.” We identify a beginning (how the issue you’re addressing came to be), middle (events that made the issue significant) and end (how it was resolved, or if it was never resolved, the meaning or call to action we want viewers to consider).

With a solid structure in place, you can begin to flesh out each section and start to visualize images, music, and speakers that will bring the story to life.

Step 4: Choose the speakers.

Whether your documentary is three minutes or three hours long, it needs to have an appropriate number of “talking heads.” Too many, and your audience will get confused or bored. Too few, and your documentary could lack authority. For shorter pieces, we like to include three or fewer main speakers. For longer films, we tend to use more speakers, but we always make sure they’re each bringing distinct perspectives to the piece.

Step 5: Organize historical assets and other inventory.

Once you have gathered all the assets you need — historical images and video, speaking participants, b-roll, etc. — start organizing the assets according to your established storyboard. If you’re working with a team, label each asset so it’s easy to find during the editing process. 

Getting started is half the battle, especially if you’re just learning how to make a documentary film. And although these tips aren’t rocket science by any means, that’s kind of the point. No matter how complex the topic, it’s best to break it down into simple, manageable steps toward a larger goal. 

And as always, if you find that you simply don’t have the time or energy to scale a historical documentary film project, drop us a line. We’re always excited to meet fellow history buffs, and we’d love to help share your story with the world.