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Steps in Making a Documentary

by Jean Mason

Making a documentary can be a thrilling journey, offering a platform to tell powerful stories that can educate, inspire, and challenge perceptions. Whether you're a seasoned filmmaker or a first-time director, the process requires careful planning and dedication. Here's a step-by-step guide to creating a compelling documentary.

Choose Your Subject

The first step is finding a subject that you are passionate about. It should be something that interests you deeply, as you will be spending a lot of time researching, filming, and editing. The subject should also be engaging to your intended audience and offer a new perspective or insight into the topic.


Once you've chosen your subject, immerse yourself in research. This phase is crucial for understanding the broader context of your topic, identifying potential interviewees, and refining your narrative. Research can include reading books and articles, watching other documentaries on similar subjects, and engaging with online forums or communities related to your topic.

Develop a Concept

Your documentary needs a clear concept or angle. This is where you decide on the narrative structure of your documentary. Will it be character-driven, following one person’s journey? Or will it be thematic, exploring a particular issue from multiple angles? Developing a concept helps you focus your research and filming.

Write a Treatment

A documentary treatment outlines your vision for the project. It includes the subject, style, structure, and central thesis of your documentary. A well-written treatment is essential for pitching your idea to potential funders or collaborators and serves as a roadmap for your project.


Documentaries can be expensive to produce, and securing funding is often a necessary step. Options include crowdfunding, grants, sponsorship from organizations, or investment from production companies. Be prepared to present your treatment and demonstrate why your documentary is worth investing in.

Plan Your Shoot

Pre-production planning is critical. This includes scouting locations, obtaining necessary permits, hiring crew members, and scheduling interviews. Having a detailed plan will help ensure your shoot runs smoothly and you capture all the necessary footage.


The filming stage is where your documentary starts to come to life. Be flexible and open to unexpected developments, as these can often lead to the most compelling footage. Remember to capture plenty of B-roll footage; these shots are invaluable for setting scenes and transitions in your documentary.

Creating a documentary is a challenging but rewarding process. It requires a blend of creativity, dedication, and perseverance. By following these steps, you can embark on the journey of bringing your unique vision to the screen, contributing to the rich tapestry of documentary filmmaking.

For more information, check out other documentaries, such as a not-parent-expected documentary.