• Elia Youssef

Documentary Filmmaking

Updated: Oct 15, 2018

  • What it takes?

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction and often more interesting. Many filmmakers are realizing this, choosing to delve into nonfiction narratives and bringing them to both the big and small screen. In fact, we are in the midst of a renaissance in documentary storytelling that has been going strong for more than three decades.

Getting a film made isn’t easy. When planning your own first film, the idea should be so compelling to you that you are willing to sacrifice comfort and stability in order to get it made.

Expect mistakes, and plan for them. Turn problems into learning opportunities.

There are many specialized trades in filmmaking, such as writing, editing, cinematography, sound design, and fundraising. To be a director you need to wear all of these hats, and more. Educate yourself broadly in the skills of filmmaking, but don’t let any one thing dominate. At the same time, understand that you cannot accomplish everything alone. Filmmaking is by nature collaborative, and you should seek out a talented and dedicated team of specialists to help achieve your vision.

Film careers are built by word-of-mouth, so ask around and find out who is proven, trusted, and respected in their trade.

  • Choosing your story

When exploring your own film ideas, look for the universal in the particular, and the particular in the universal. If your film delves into broad social movements, what are the granular and personal details that connect directly with human experience? If your film is about one day in one person’s life, what are the aspects of that story that cross borders and language barriers, and that connect your subject at an emotional level with a broader audience?

ensure that the topic you choose for your next project is one that will sustain your interest and motivation for years to come.

  • Finding your story within the subject

Read widely on the topic, and talk to as many experts and witnesses as possible, asking them to share their own artifacts. As you interview, shoot, write, and edit your film, never stop researching. Allow each new discovery to feed into your process and continually inform your story.

Write your script, and figure out the visuals later.

Allow your stories to be complex. Even if there are opposite points of view about the same event, including both perspectives helps to more precisely define what that event meant to different people. Complicated stories may be harder to tell, but they challenge your audience to go beyond a superficial understanding of the subject, and to grapple with new facts and ideas.

Allow your story to surprise even yourself.

  • Telling a true story

Documentary filmmakers may harness the same tools as any cinematic storyteller, but there’s an additional nuance to their task: they must balance their art with the truth.

Every filmmaker must find their own moral compass in this balancing act between facts and authenticity. Your task as a non- fiction filmmaker is to ‘trust but verify’: to authentically represent the different emotional experiences of the human subjects in your film, while also staying loyal to factual records.

When balancing factual with emotional truth in your film, try not to oversimplify. Stay true to the complicated and contradictory nature of history, and don’t hide the flaws of your heroes or the human side of your villains. If the facts are in doubt, err on the conservative side with your truth claims. At the same time, embrace the manipulation that is necessary and inherent to the process of storytelling.

  • Structuring a Documentary Narrative

Every story has a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. As Greek philosopher Aristotle posited, the ideal story should feature a main character, or protagonist, who encounters an obstacle, or antagonist. The conflict develops and climaxes, and then ends with a resolution, or dénouement.

Building a compelling story structure takes forethought, continual refinement, and a willingness to experiment—to move, rearrange, and delete until it works.

Beginnings must be strong, and establish from the very first scene a promise to the audience that this is a story worth paying attention to. However, beginnings do not necessarily need to start with the first chronological moment of the story.

Flashbacks can sometimes be useful to give expository details and context, but most of the time straight chronology simply works best.

The artistry of non- fiction storytelling is to create the feeling that from moment to moment, no one knows what is going to happen next.

  • Sourcing Archival Materials

Archival material is simultaneously proof that something happened, as well as a means to recreate that past. There are endless possibilities for what you may find, including still photos, footage, newspapers, online articles, paintings, etchings, sketches, letters, journals, and diaries. Search in places you wouldn’t initially think to look, and ask about collections that no one else asks about.

  • Shaping Non Fiction Characters

Conflict is the driving engine of story. When writing fiction, storytellers have free rein to create conflict and drive each character’s journey forward. When it comes to shaping non- fiction characters, however, documentary filmmakers face the additional challenge of feeling bound to factual accuracy.

Human life is three-dimensional, complex, and often contradictory it rarely conforms to a tidy character arc.

Avoid the temptation to reduce characters to simple archetypes such as “good” or “bad.” This may seem like an expedient way to create conflict between characters, but a more compelling option is to explore internal tensions within characters. These psychological conflicts may unlock a personal transformation that becomes key to a character’s three-act arc.

  • writing a script

Non fiction films can be every bit as artful and cinematic as fiction films, your first draft is often the most important one you will write. This version is the product of months of research, discussion, treatments, and structural outlines, and thus contains the full potential of what your film will look like. However unformed or sprawling it may be, refer to this first draft often as you refine your film’s structure.

Concentrate on the story first. Write each scene as it needs to be written, and trust that the visuals will follow. Find impactful ways to deliver information.

  • Visual Storytelling

Your challenge is to figure out how to manipulate that photograph in a meaningful and cinematic way that engages the audience and serves the complex, dramatic needs of the narrative.

An image that has equivalence brings something new to the mix, an element that may symbolize, add to, or even contradict what is being discussed. In illustration, the picture and the word are saying the same thing and have the same value (1+1 = 2). In equivalency, the picture and the word each say something different but related, so that the combination adds something entirely new to the mix (1+1 = 3).

Our understanding of the very first shot of a film is changed by what follows, and the impact of the final shot depends entirely on what came before.

Images can complement each other, or contrast with one another. What’s more, they have the power to arrest time, allowing you to dwell on a single moment and explore it in greater depth.

In your own project, challenge yourself to think beyond live footage, and explore ways to freeze or slow down moments in your story in order to dwell on the implications and emotions of an unfolding event.

  • Interview Subject

When searching for subjects to interview for your film, cast a very wide net.

Finding these individuals can be a challenge, and they may turn out to be camera shy. Assuming you can get them on camera, there’s no guarantee that you will succeed in drawing out a compelling testimony from them.

A wise first step in your search for subjects is to conduct a pre-interview; that is, a conversation either in person or over the phone long before a camera is present.

A different challenge exists when interviewing experts, who are sometimes prone to explaining too much in their answers, thereby giving away the whole story. A compelling expert will recount events as though they are occurring in the present, helping viewers to imagine the limited perspective of those who don’t know yet what fate will befall them.

One final caution: In your search for subjects, try not to dismiss anyone too quickly. They may just end up being the best interview in your film!

Go into each interview with a set of questions that you’d like to ask.

Simple questions can lead to complex answers, just remember to stay flexible.

The goal is not to check off a list of premeditated questions, but to create the right conditions to get a fantastic answer.

Look for ways to adjust your own approach to put your subject at greater ease.

What conditions can you create in the interviews for your own project in order to make great moments possible?

  • Non Fiction cinematography

Without moving images, there is no movie. You will need to choose a visual style for the cinematography in your film, treating them as if they’re paintings.

Each visual element that appears on screen can serve and enhance the story.

Create a shooting script consisting of narration or interview bites about this experience, and then brainstorm footage that you could collect to visually represent the story.

Remember: when generating ideas for what to shoot, think about visual equivalence, not just illustration!

You are creating options for your film, and the more flexible your visual palette is, the stronger your visual storytelling will become in the final edit.

  • Music

Music is one of the most powerful and efficient tools to generate emotion and engagement in viewers.

Musical themes can serve as signals to viewers that an event or emotion similar to what came before is now happening again. Characters may have themes as well, announced during their initial introduction and then reintroduced, with variations, during each subsequent appearance.

For each major character, brainstorm that person’s main qualities, defining characteristics, or motivations. Then, think about what kind of music fits with that role.

During your search, challenge yourself to experiment with musical styles that are unexpected, that elevate and add new elements to the mix

Best stock music websites:










  • Editing

There’s no way around it: good documentary storytelling takes time. And editing is absolutely central to that process.

The editing process cannot be rushed, and no amount of planning, determination, or money can replace the simple fact that the more time you have, the better your film can become.

The work of film editing actually has much in common with music. You can speak about holding either a shot or a note a beat longer. Let the story determine your pacing, rhythm, and cutting style, rather than vice-versa.

Ensure that viewers have time to process both what they are hearing and what they are seeing. Never force your audience to choose one perceptual channel over the other.

Always hold onto your enthusiasm and try to view the film with fresh eyes, as if you are a first time viewer, you can invite anyone you trust, or whom you think will provide helpful insights friends, neighbors, colleagues…

The point is to discuss, find out where viewers are confused or losing interest.

  • Voice Over

This voice serves as the viewer’s guide through the story, and the person you cast to read narration should be able to clearly enunciate each word without sounding unnatural.

Whether working with a narrator or a voice-over actor, you will likely need to record numerous takes to get things just right. And there probably will not be a single perfect take. Be prepared to divide up sentences and combine fragments from various takes in order to stitch together the perfect reading.

  • Sound Design

Words, songs, music, and sound effects: all of those elements are balanced and mixed by the sound designer.

Sound design is growing increasingly sophisticated, utilizing a vast library of realistic and high quality sounds.

Best sound effects library:





  • Sharing Your Film

Your work is not finished once you complete your film. Rather, a whole new phase begins with distribution, in which you share your creation with viewers. Films unfortunately do not obey the logic of “if you build it, they will come.”

Learning to navigate the festival circuit is an essential part of getting the word out about your film. True, festivals do not generate income for your film but there are other perks to the festival experience: awards, laurels, positive reviews, and buzz. They are also fantastic places to network and meet potential collaborators.

Cinema has the wonderful ability to cross cultural boundaries and unite audiences around a shared experience.

© 2018 by Elia Youssef, Director/ Filmmaker

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