How to Make a Documentary: Practical Step by Step Guide to make a good one

Making a Documentary film is very much easier and affordable than making a Feature film. With the advent of new DSLRs integrated with video recording capability, filming a documentary has become something anybody can do. A good Documentary starts with a good Research.


Making a Documentary film is very much easier and affordable than making a Feature film. With the advent of new DSLRs integrated with video recording capability, filming a documentary has become something anybody can do. A good Documentary starts with a good Research.

A documentary is a film which speaks or shows about a topic by providing factual records.

Making a documentary is usually (Not always) much simpler and easier than making a feature film. With the advent of filming in DSLRs and professional editing tools in computers, any body with a little interest and dedication can make a good documentary film.


Here are the steps to make your work simpler

Step 1. Brain storm on a Topic to make a film

Step 2. A beforehand feasibility check & Know your audience

Step 3: Do a good research & prepare an outline.

Step 4: Look for funding Source

Step 5: Shoot and Make a Script and voice over.

Step 6: Mix and Skin your Film

Step 7: Show it to the world


Step 1

Brain storm on a Topic to make a film

There are several interesting topics to make a documentary. A documentary can be made on anything ..say .about a special tourist attraction or a vacation (Say trekking at Thiruannamalai), a person (Say a man who collects vintage cameras), need of the society (Say do you really require a new highway), educate society (say How to drive along a six lane highway) ..virtually anything on the earth.

Documentary can be about anything, from something as silly as : the lifestyle of beautiful girl in the neighborhood or as tall as: to the world’s tallest building.

Think simple:

Think of a topic which is interesting to people. In case the topic is not interesting, add creative elements and more surrounding stories to make it more interesting and present it more close to viewer`s life or perspective. If the documentary is on a scientific theory, present the practical application of the theory and then talk about the actual theory.  Try to find some interesting element surrounding the subject.


Believe me, most of the people who watch documentaries will be the masses and not the scientific community: because usually, the scientific community will stick to more technical documents and papers .

The scientific community and film makers are professionally competitive.

Step 2

A beforehand feasibility check & Know your audience

Find whether you can actually do the film you have though about.

There are a lot of constrains for making a film: they can be Money (Amount you have to spend to meet the expenses), Time (Time to make the film), Permits (permits for shooting at restricted areas like inside religious buildings or National Park… even a deserted highway) etc.

Practically the most important constraint is money: money can buy time and permits. But hard-work and determination can replace money to get you time and permits


The constraints are little when you do a film on a person living in the neighborhood. But it is difficult to make a film on a particular species of animal or one about say Reserve Bank of India.

When you do your first film, think about a simple topic which is available to you, to prevent overheads.

Create a list of potential viewers.

This helps you to make a rough idea on the number of views you can get for your film. This data is very important when you request for sponsorships.

When you stick on to an Ideology say religion / lifestyle / politics etc, people who is involved/believe in that ideology will watch your film.

For example when you do a film on Paragliding, your viewers include adventure lovers and people who are interested in outdoor sports. When you make a film on your family, your family and friends will have interest to watch it (Unless your family member is a celebrity).

Trust me Gods and Sympathy are the most sell able in media

Step 3

Do a good research & prepare an outline.

Do a good background study of the topic you would love to film.

Read books, Search in the internet. Watching a documentary on similar subject.. all these will give you a lot of ideas and supplementary stories to make your film.

Think about a little history, connections and Interviews to substantiate the facts, and then prepare an outline of the actual story yo want to shoot.  in case you find a book/ publication on your topic, follow the sequence of the book, which can make the outline work easier.

  • Make a list of shots which can substantiate the story.
  • Make a list of shots you need to shoot
  • Think about a few locations where you need to shoot.
  • Do a few pre-visits (recce) to the places connected with your documentary.
  • Do a few sample shots and see how it looks like.

Always try to include well known or established people in the film: This will improve the credibility of the film and improves the rating and viewership of the film.

Prepare Budget:

Prepare a detailed budget for making the film. The cost involves the cost for travel and shooting, rentals for equipments, permit charges, daily workers (Assistant) charges etc. It should also include the post-production charges, editing, audio recording, poster making etc.


Tricks of Trade: Minimize the cost

Trust me many of the films broadcast channels do a  lot of tricks to minimize cost: Sometimes shots are staged.

A film about tigers, which you may have watched in the discovery channel yesterday may not have been actually shot inside a National Park: they may have shot it at a similar location, where tigers are more reachable and easily filmable.

Look for places where you can get shots similar to what you need at a cheaper rate. Private resorts are very much accessible, cheaper and safer to shoot than National Parks in case you need forest scenes. me obtaining permits for shooting inside National Parks in India is very expensive and tiring work.

As long as the you make the staged shot similar to natural scene it is accepted in most International film festivals and the International Broadcasters: again staging shots depends on filmmakers personal satisfaction.

Use Stock Footage and Archives

Shots of many popular places can be bought from stock footage websites. This can be cheaper than traveling and shooting at the actual location in many cases.

Most of the cameraman in India have a collection of the footage which they have shot over the years. (one such organization is Felis Creations by Wildlife Filmmaker Sandesh Kadur)

By combining stock footage of Kaziranga National Park and laboratory shots of an endemic species of plant, you can make a wonderful film on that species.

No Factual Errors

Make sure you don’t make any factual errors, and keep a copy of all the references as proofs. Make the script in a neutral fashion to avoid controversies.

Many documentaries on Asian Elephant (Indian) show African Elephants and speak about elephants: because the film maker have not studied about his subject properly.

Many top newspapers report stories on cheetah attack in the villages of India (look in google and you will find thousands): but cheetah has become extinct in India a decade ago: This clearly marks the journalists lack of knowledge.

Step 4

Look for funding Source

For anything and everything, you need money in this world (Usually). The money put in is a major factor which determines the quality of the World Class Documentaries produced by the BBC and National Geographic.

If you can make a good documentary with the little money you have got, you must be really proud of it.


In most cases, funding is more like a business deal: the sponsors look at how much returns they gain by funding for a documentary film: as money, advertisement or propaganda.

There are many organizations and NGOs which will be looking for filmmakers to film their activities and make a film on what they want to show to the people.

Film Division and Public Service Broadcast Trust funds documentaries made by new filmmakers

For example, local parish may be looking to make a film on the history of the church. A resort at a vacation spot may be looking to make a film to market the destination.

There are several organizations which funds for documentaries like NGOs, private establishments, Government Funds, or Crowd funding.

Think about your stakeholders.

A film on Paragliding may be funded by paragliding equipment manufacturers or an outdoor sport club.  If you are making a film on the eating habits of Mumbaians, you can approach the good restaurants chains in Mumbai for sponsorship. Local Schools, Shops, Resorts etc, who will be able to get commercial benefit from your documentary.

The bottom line : You may loose the control on the story partially as you will have to embed something in the sponsors favor: in most cases.

Believe me, sponsors spend money on a documentary, as it is a different mode of advertising. The information about the sponsor or the information what the sponsor wants to convey is fed into the viewers brain automatically (Magic Bullet Theory) when they watch the film. Most of the sponsors will ask just for a credit or an Interviews of theirs in the film.

Think this way, Coca Cola Company will sponsor you, to make a film on “Tap water is not good for health”. This will help them to market their product

If you want to make an Independent film, and have a good interesting story, try crowd funding, whereby many individuals around the world, can contribute little by little for the film. Visit websites like to find more.

Step 5

Shoot and Make a Script and voice over.

When we go into the field with 1000 shots in mind, we will be able to shoot only a tenth of it.

Once you are back at work start classifying / logging the shots (keep the acceptable shots in a different folder or bin called OK shots). Mark them as good, prime and rushes. Sort them according to priority.

There is a major difference between shooting documentary films and feature films.


In feature films, you pre-plan all your shots and then shoot. But while making a documentary film, we shoot and then make a story: which works better than making a complete script and then shooting according to it.

Based on the outline and the footage we have got, we make the final script.

Say  you are making a film on tiger, you can’t expect a tiger to stand in front of you to shoot (Unless you are ready to pay for a tamed tiger),

Match the matching video with the matching narration

For example, when you say India gets Independence, the video of hoisting the National flag, Singing the National Anthem or Soldiers/People waving their hands will connect. This gives an emotional aspect to the film. The narration should be connected to the video.

Reading the commentary in Present tense  will make it lively. Saying “India Gains Independence” will be more appealing than saying “India gained independence” while showing the flag hoisting footage.

The speed of commentary can be about 100 words per minute: not be more than 180. Use simple and short sentences, containing non-ambiguous words and less jargon,  that can be pronounced and listened easily and clearly.

Take your camera, Go out and Shoot.

A decent DSLR camera with Video recording option or a Gopro is more than sufficient. Most of the new DSLRs come with full HD or 4K recording. It would be great, if you can get an additional external mic to record interviews.

Keep your camera on tripods while shooting, especially while shooting pans and tilt Shots. Always remember to shoot some stills. Wide angle shots, gives an appealing effect for landscapes.

Minimize the use of zoom shots. If you are very particular about using zoom, use slow zoom. Zoom can be very useful to connect subject to background. For example, while shooting a trek. Start the shot with a close-up of the trekker, and then slowly zoom out to include the mountains and the scenic. This gives a real feel of the trek.

Make sure that you shoot a few interviews and testimonials. Shoot with an anchor in the film: It gives life to the film. Shoot a lot of rushes, vehicular movements, people around, kids, animals, landscapes etc….

Shoot as much as you can grab from the field.

Step 6

Mix and Skin your Film

Now, we can make your film, by mixing all what we have got.

Free packages like Windows movie maker or paid editing programs like Adobe Premier or Final Cut Pro can help you do this.

  • Noise reduction and audio editing can be done in Soundforge
  • Music Composition cab be done in Frutyloops
  • 3d Graphics can be done in 3dsmax
  • Brochure and Promotions can be done in Indesign and Photoshop


Make sure that no shots are more than 15 seconds, unless you really want it to.

Add a background music; try not to use copyrighted music. If you are making a film on tribes or a village, traditional songs sung by them can be used. Use more realistic sounds. Say you are making a film on macaque and there is a closeup shot of them chewing food.

Its practically difficult for you you keep a microphone nearby and record the chewing sound. The effective solution is to make somebody in the crew, chew it and record the sound and use it.

There are a lot of websites from where you can download freeplay music and natural sounds.

Add maps and illustrations in between to emphasis your ideas.

Maps and illustrations must be as simple as possible, just show what is the most important: A satellite map with a 100 place mark may look wonderful, but present confusion to the viewers. If you are making a film on a remote village in Madhya Pradesh, just mark, India and that village on the map. Overlay of line map will be much readable than a satellite map for simple documentaries.

Show it to your friends and then get comments about it.

Keep their names in the credit list. The best method to get good reviews is to show the film to people who loves your subject and who are closely related to the subject.

Step 7

Show it to the world


There are lots of ways to show your video, release CDs, publish on Youtube, screen it in local Theaters.

Broadcast it in a local or national television. Upload it in video sharing websites like Youtube, Blip,Vimeo. Youtube pays you a little by putting advertisements in the video.

Now, think about making your first film.

These steps, any not work linearly, you may  have to spiral the steps several times to make the film better and better.

Another approach which is done by many filmmakers is to create film from the stock footage they own.

2 thoughts on “How to Make a Documentary: Practical Step by Step Guide to make a good one

  1. Archana Chopra

    Very interesting and practical tips for beginners on how to make a good documentary & that too in a way that almost every one can relate to.
    Thanks & Regards


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