How to make a good documentary

I’m no documentary expert but I know what works. I have seen enough bad documentaries and plenty of good ones to know the patterns and how to make a documentary which is engaging, focused and in the very best of cases could even change the world. Six steps is all you need and your documentary could be the next Super Size Me!

Step 1 – Find a good story

It is the most important aspect of any documentary. Stories come in all shapes and sizes, from the individuals life story to the documenting of a unique event. It must be something of interest and worth for a documentary. If you are going to get people to commit ninety minutes of their life, it shouldn’t be dedicated to your previous sexual encounters. Make it about something that will hook people, like the conditions at Seaworld or the a man who walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope.

Step 2 – Make yourself an expert (or at least get some experts).

There is nothing worse than a documentary that is under-prepared. If you want to make your documentary interesting, make it informative. The worse case I ever saw was Nick Broomfield walk into a barbershop and ask strangers if “they knew Biggie.” Compare this to Alex Gibney, who interviews genuine Scientology members for his documentary Going Clear.

Or better yet, make yourself the subject. Go through the documentary yourself. Morgan Spurlock has become a household name (or at least was a household name) after he ate nothing but McDonalds for 30 days. The interest wasn’t the effect on America, although that came as an interesting by-product, but more the effects on Spurlock himself, who found his body visibly and irreparably damaged by the “experiment.”

Step 4 – Pick the right “format.”

A documentary doesn’t have to be talking heads and lots of stock footage. Some of the best documentaries use reconstructions or dramatisations. Some of the best parts of The Imposter were the chilling reconstructions of the story being told. Other documentaries use chapters or sub-headings to divide up the movie and the story into easier to digest chunks, although for films like Room 237, it did nothing to make it any clearer.

The tone needs to be right as well. Chilling is perfect for films like Going Clear or Into the Abyss because their subjects suit that but when looking at the ridiculous nature of some religious groups, humour would probably work better. Nobody manages to mix incredulous humour and “antics” with hard-hitting journalism better than Michael Moore.

Step 5 – Make the uninterested interested

A documentary shouldn’t just appeal to the people who are already interested. That is cheap and it is easy. A documentary should hook any average movie-goer. If your story is interesting, it shouldn’t matter if you originally knew about the source material or not. The best recent example seems to be Senna, which is repeatedly advertised and reviewed with the comment “you don’t have to be a F1 fan.” The same can be said for movies like Class of ’92 or Project Nim. The original investment isn’t necessary for any audience member to come away with a new outlook or interest. A good documentary appeals to anyone.

Step 6 – Give your work a purpose

The best documentaries have a purpose. The purpose doesn’t have to be something wholly life-changing or hugely significant. It could be a personal crusade, like bringing the story of Timothy Treadwell to life in Grizzly Man or something addressing a bigger event, like Bowling for Columbine.

It could be fighting a person’s freedom, or at least questioning the system, like Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss or just bringing a characters life to the screen, as in the case of Amy. There are some many different reason to make a documentary but the best serve a purpose, be it personal or something larger and much more significant. The very best, like Super Size Me, actually change things too.

Overall, these are my steps for making a good documentary. I don’t have any actual experience or have ever made a documentary and by no means follow these rules, as some of the best movies purposely avert the norm, but after watching many different stories, it seems the best follow the steps I have outlined above.

Find and watch The Imposter – a bizarre and chilling story
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4 comments

  1. Where’s Step 3? 😉

    I think it’s harder to make a bad documentary than a good one! I think you need to be passionate about something interesting, and the rest should follow.

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