HOW TO MAKE A DOCUMENTARY FILM

I did it. You can too, this way.
  1. 1.
    Find the intersection of what someone will pay you to make and something you want to be known for making.
    I wanted to make a cultural documentary. Someone else wanted a fundraising video. I said, what if we made this documentary instead, and became known for it and helped others also raise money for similar things of their own? It took, and I got to make a dream project with someone else's money. Note: The thing you are making MUST fully satisfy the need(s) of your funders, or you are just being manipulative. The trick is to find a true confluence of interests.
  2. 2.
    Find a reference point in another specific work of art.
    Helvetica, by Gary Hustwit, was the mental template for my film "We Are Makers" (wearemakers.org). I was paid the highest compliment when someone watching a rough cut said, "This reminds me of Helvetica." I had never made a documentary of this scale, and having a loose set of creative rules to follow was hugely helpful. It also helped me and my team focus on details without losing the big picture. Someone I had never met later told me our film was "better than any TED Talk."
  3. 3.
    Dive deep, and swim with good divers.
    There is nuance to good storytelling. Shooting, editing, sound, structuring an interview and helping someone feel comfortable in front of the camera. These things do not come easy, and it helps if you have a team around you, even if it's just a couple of trustworthy people, whose skills fill in the gaps in your own skill set.
  4. 4.
    Write your film.
    It's tempting to see a documentary as a haphazard collection of whatever comments you happen to find in your interviews, but it's actually a story that you write. Who comes after or before whom? What images accompany the spoken words, and what emotions can you evoke or avoid that were or were not present or intended by the interviewee? What story can you tell with all of the parts that none of them alone could tell? Write it out. Draw charts, have discussions. Go deep.
  5. 5.
    Release it online, for free.
    You will make less money this way. But your goal was to get paid for what you make on the front end, not the back. If you performed Step 1 effectively, your film might be helping promote a cause or company that gave you the funds, and the film is a vehicle for your art to inspire their audience to action. The beauty of this recipe is that anyone can now see what you made for free. This removes friction from the viewing experience for people who may hire you to work for them in the future.
  6. 6.
    Never stop learning.
    Treat your film like school. Be the best student you can be—no sleeping through class or forgetting to read up on the subject. Documentary film is a very forgiving medium, so if you're looking to break into film, start here.
  7. 7.
    Share what you made and ask for feedback.
    If you find this helpful or if you need help, get in touch with me. @ndriskell on Twitter. If you don't connect with me, find others you trust and share what you made with them. Ask them to share it with others if it was meaningful to them. Never be afraid to ask for help or feedback. It's the only real way any of us succeed.