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How to Make a Documentary: Essential Tools, Tips, and Templates for Creating a Documentary

Want to learn how to create a successful and impactful documentary? Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned filmmaker, here are all the essential tools, tips, and templates you need to make your documentary a reality.

Posted 17 May 2023
How to Make a Documentary with Envato Elements: Essential Tools, Tips, and Templates for Creating a Documentary

If you’re a filmmaker, videographer, or video editor, you’ll know that creating documentaries can be as challenging as rewarding. Within this article, we’ll map out tips for making stand-out documentaries and explain how Envato Elements can be your secret weapon for bringing your documentary to life. 

What Is a Documentary?

A documentary is a non-fictional film or video that aims to inform, educate, or raise awareness about particular issues or themes. Documentaries often comprise interviews, facts, and background footage.

The purpose of a documentary can vary, and some are more objective than others. They can expose injustices or release never-seen-before content to challenge ways of thinking. Topics include celebrity culture, humanitarian injustices, family tragedies, and sustainability issues. Documentary-making has a long history – one of the earliest is the black and white silent film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, produced in 1895. 

In recent years, the rise of digital technology has made the skill more accessible, with filmmakers worldwide exploring diverse topics. Popular streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Netflix, have helped bring documentaries to a broader audience. Documentaries can get the world talking – just think about how Tiger King took over our screens and social media feeds in 2020!

How to Make a Documentary 

Whether you have a killer idea for the next viral documentary or are just beginning to explore the art form, read on to learn how to create a documentary. 

1. Pre-Production Planning and Research

First, work out the subject and focus of your documentary and conduct in-depth research to ensure you clearly understand the subject. It’s vital you allocate enough time to this in the early stages to avoid any surprises down the road. Although the pre-production phase varies based on the budget and complexity of the project, it can take several weeks or months to crack. 

Are there key people you must interview for your narrative to work? Now would be the right time to get in touch to check if they’re open to providing their insights for your documentary film. 

2. Develop your Topic, Theme, and Story

Once you’ve done your research, it’s time to define your story and angle. What story would you like to tell? Will you be presenting facts objectively, or will you be using your content to explore a particular narrative? Will your documentary take a different approach from others on a similar topic? Work out your point of difference and stick to it. During the development phase, you should also think about your story arc. This involves setting out the beginning, middle, and end.

3. Create a Budget and Timeline

The amount of time and money it takes to create a documentary depends on many factors, including the length of your film and your access to equipment. Filming low-budget documentaries can range from $2,000 to $15,000, whereas feature-length documentaries with multiple sets and larger crews typically start at $50,000

Just as with the pre-production phase, the time it takes to shoot and edit your documentary depends on the scope. However, in many cases, it can take between eight months and three years to film a feature-length documentary. 

4. Choose Your Equipment for Filming and Sound Recording

Some key pieces of documentary equipment include a camera and tripod, lenses, an audio recorder, lighting, and a gimbal. Many documentary makers use professional-grade cameras. However, some prefer to use DSLR or mirrorless cameras as a more affordable option. Some also use smartphones and GoPros to capture some or all elements of their documentary. 

Consider whether you want to buy or rent your documentary equipment. Buying can be more cost-effective over time if you’re planning on making multiple documentaries, which means you can customize your documentary equipment based on your requirements. However, be prepared for a significant upfront cost and remember that technology can become outdated over time. 

5. Conduct Interviews and Capture Footage 

Here’s where things start to get serious. Your interviews will make or break your documentary, so whatever you do, don’t rush them. Develop a list of open questions to encourage more detailed responses – starting with easy questions and building up to more serious, probing ones can be effective.

It’s also important to capture additional footage to enrich the storyline and cut to between interview shots. If you don’t have the time or resources to capture a ton of B-roll footage yourself, you can use Envato Elements stock footage. The Elements library provides royalty-free high-definition stock videos covering themes including travel, tech, pets, and sport. Having this tool up your sleeve can help save you time and money in the long run.  

6. Edit Footage in Post-Production 

Once you’ve captured your content, it’s time to get editing! This will help to shape your narrative and tell the story you’re looking to tell. Use video templates to create everything from openers and transitions to titles and logo stings for your documentary. There are tens of thousands to choose from, so you can pick templates that work with the look and feel of your project. 

Premiere Pro is one of the top video programs on the market and has become a vital piece of software for timeline-based and non-linear video editing. It allows you to execute everything from everyday tasks to advanced video editing, leaving you with a broadcast-quality video.

After Effects is also a popular product for creating high-quality video content. In recent years, it’s become more commonly used as a compositing tool for creating advanced visual effects and motion graphics.  

7. Add Music & Sound Effects to Enhance Your Documentary 

The next step is adding music! Whether you’re looking for background music or sound effects to build the tension in a crime documentary or uplifting tunes for a nature documentary, your footage will only be enhanced by suitable audio.

With an Envato Elements subscription, you can access thousands of premium royalty-free audio tracks. All are expertly composed and can be filtered by refinements such as happy, epic, dramatic, and comical. 

8. Finalize Your Documentary

You’re nearly there! Your last step is polishing your creation to prepare it for distribution or broadcast. Mastering involves making various adjustments to the video, including color correction, audio mixing, and compressing. It could also involve creating multiple versions, including different aspect ratios or languages, or adding subtitles. 

Again, Envato Elements will help you here, offering effects for programs including After Effects, Premiere Pro, and Apple Motion. 

5 Tips for Making a Successful Documentary 

The development of video production tools has made it easier for more people to put their documentary ideas into motion, but it also means there’s much more competition! Here are some top tips to help your documentary film stand out from the crowd.

1. Stay Organized

While this sounds simple, it shouldn’t be overlooked – organization can make or break your documentary. As documentary-making isn’t exactly a speedy process, staying organized will help you stick to timelines within each stage of the production process, including shooting, editing, and post-production. A well-organized production plan can help identify any issues early and create contingency plans. 

2. Collect B-Roll Footage

When on location, don’t forget to shoot additional or secondary footage that can provide context, cover transitions, or offer additional information during your project. Plan ahead to consider the types of B-roll footage that would benefit your documentary film – including people, places, objects, or activities related to the film’s overarching narrative. 

It can also include background or establishing shots to give viewers more information related to the location or setting of the documentary. Archival footage could also make great B-roll content if you’re producing a historical documentary. 

Check out the royalty-free stock videos available on Envato Elements, which can help with this step. 

3. Focus on Character Development 

Consider how your interviewees can bring your wider narrative to life. By showing your characters’ growth and journey over time, you can create a strong narrative arc to create a sense of progression in your story. 

Your characters help to create context for the story by explaining how the events have affected them either now or in the past. If you have main characters, it’s even more important – you want to go beyond the obvious questions. Dedicating enough time to interviewing people can help with this. Get to know them and build a rapport so you can ask deeper and more insightful questions. 

Never underestimate the power of observational footage too. When it comes to character development, it’s not just what’s said that helps viewers make their own conclusions – it’s also what’s left unsaid. Filming daily routines may also help with this by showing how subjects interact with the world and the people around them. 

4. Collaborate with Other Industry Professionals

Depending on your budget, you don’t have to do everything yourself! Sharing skills and expertise can save you time and money in the production process. You could ask contacts for feedback on your documentary and even utilize their skills by involving them at relevant stages of your project. 

5. Use Video Templates

Rather than creating every element of your documentary from scratch, video templates from Envato Elements are another useful tool to save time and money. Choose from thousands of infographics, logo stings, openers, titles, and video displays, to suit your project.

Video templates like this Urban Fast Intro could work well if you’re making a cool indie documentary film. If you’re creating a historical documentary, you could consider transitions like Sweet Memories Cinematic Slideshow. Tech-related documentaries could use templates like Modern Glitch Titles V.1 – as you can see, there’s plenty of variety!

How to Make a Documentary Using Envato Elements 

Envato Elements is your one-stop shop for video, music, sound FX, and more – all available with a single subscription. It’s the ultimate creative resource for making a documentary. If you’d like to know how to make a good documentary, here are a few ways Elements can help. 

1. Video Templates

  • Premiere Pro templates: If you’re creating your documentary in Premiere Pro, plenty of video templates help your film stand out! Check out the Sports Opener, which would be a good option for action-based documentaries.
    Lower thirds: Templates can help to display key information such as people’s names, ages, and job titles. This Lower Thirds template presents the text in a clean and clear way. 
  • Openers: People’s time is precious – studies have shown that marketers have just 10 seconds to capture and engage an audience before they click away from a video. Make your opening count with templates like Stylish Any Media Opener Premiere Pro
  • Teasers/trailers: Capture viewers’ attention ahead of the big reveal with previews like this eye-catching Documentary Teaser
  • Color Correction Packs: Using presets can be a big time-saver – particularly to help with color grading. The 1000 Color Grading Presets – Lut Pack for Premiere Pro pack has 12 categories, including cinematic, wedding, and fashion. 

2. Audio, Sound Effects, and Music

  • Music: The music you choose will help set the mood of your documentary film. Looking for an atmospheric track as characters remember key events? Try Hopeful Dramatic Piano Memories
  • Sound Effects: After interviewing your characters, consider the sound effects that could help tell their story—from futuristic Scifi Loading Bars to a dramatic Whoosh
  • Background Audio: There’s a huge variety to choose from, including Calm Office and Birds

3. Stock Videos

4. Tutorials & Courses

If you’re a documentary newbie or are looking to hone your skills, check out Tuts+ for plenty of useful resources, such as: 

To Wrap Up

Now you know the basics of making a documentary film, including the tools you can use to make your life easier, you can start thinking about the story you’d like to share with the world. To ensure you’re well-equipped for the journey, sign up for Envato Elements and get ready to be amazed at the content available at your fingertips.

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