5 tips for documentary filmmaking

Home Video Editing Filmmaking 20/07/2023 5 min read

The very first documentary, Nanook of the North, was released in 1922 by Robert Flaherty, and ever since, documentaries have become the format for informing and educating audiences across the globe. From theatrically released documentary films to the programs shown in classrooms, documentaries come in various genres and styles. If you’re considering producing a documentary, it can be challenging to know where to start, so we put together 5 top tips to help out budding documentarians. 


What is a documentary?

A documentary is a series of interviews, clips, and photos of real-life events presented in a narrative to inform and educate an audience. Documentaries take many forms, from episodic TV shows to feature films to factual YouTube content. Whatever form your documentary takes should always be based on evidence and facts.

Documentary, mockumentary, and propaganda

While a documentary aims to inform the viewer of the facts, it is hard to escape the bias documentary filmmakers have on their narratives. The information they choose to include and how they present it can potentially misrepresent opinion as fact. A documentary can quickly become propaganda if the filmmaker sets out with a specific agenda – to sway the viewers’ opinions.

A mockumentary is a mock documentary and mimics the style to tell a fictional story, with ”real people” being portrayed by actors. Most mockumentaries are apparent and listed as fiction, but with the growth of online content creators, it can be difficult to tell what’s a documentary, a mockumentary, or propaganda. So the best thing to do when consuming any content labeled as factual is to double-check and always do your research. 

Top 5 tips for creating a documentary

The first thing you need to know is that the production of a documentary is entirely different from films, TV shows, and other forms of visual content. Most productions start with a script and a lot of planning, but with a documentary film, you don’t always know your story until you’ve shot/found your interviews.

Download Documentary Interview

Create an Engaging Narrative

While a documentary film should be based on facts and evidence, it doesn’t mean you can’t tell a story. Audiences engage with content that has a narrative and emotional journey, and it is essential to find the story in your documentaries.

Documentary filmmaking can be like creating a collage from various media, including video clips, audio clips, photos, narration, and motion graphics. Once you have all the pieces, you must weave them into a compelling and engaging narrative. 

If you’re new to documentary filmmaking, one of the best and easiest stories to tell is your own. By making yourself a part of the documentary, you can tell your story of discovering and learning about your chosen subject. Your emotional journey is the thread your audience can follow throughout the film, and it gives you an easy way to fill in gaps in your story through narration.


Use Stock Footage

Stock Footage is a fantastic asset for all filmmakers, especially documentarians, as it helps fill in the blanks for footage you can’t get or would be too costly to film yourself. Stock footage sites like Motion Array have a massive library of assets you can choose from to help tell your story. 

Establishing shots

If you’re producing a documentary film covering global events or multiple locations, stock footage can save you time and money with establishing shots. Whether your story is in New York, London, Dubai, or anywhere, you will surely find some stock footage to suit the location.

Download London Sunrise and Sunset

Action Shots

There are many different subjects whereby the action shots required to tell the story are virtually impossible to film yourself. If your narrative requires footage such as planes taking off, wildfires, or military action, then stock footage is your best option.

Download Wild Fire

Tone Shots

Tone shots are used whenever you need to create atmospheric visuals for audio clips without having specific shots to use. A familiar example of tone shots is when a crime documentary uses abstract footage to create crime scenes, such as out-of-focus victim shots, police lights, and crime scene tape.

Download Police Lights Flashing


Motion Graphics backgrounds are also available on Motion Array and can be super helpful when you need a visual as a background for other assets. If, for example, your story includes the use of newspaper clippings, legal documents, or even text message screenshots, a motion graphics background can help create consistency and style across your project.

Download Paper Logo Opener

Add Movement to your Still Images

Images can be dull in a documentary, especially if you are using lots of them. The Ken Burns Effect is a traditional way to add a little movement to your stills, helping move the story forward or highlighting specific focal areas of a picture.

A 2.5D Parallax effect is a step up from the Ken Burns effect, and while it may take a little longer to produce, it can add visual flair to your documentary. Fortunately, Motion Array has created a fantastic step-by-step guide to creating a 2.5D Parallax effect along with many Parallax style effects templates.

Use LUTs to create consistency.

Documentary Filmmaking is similar to collage making, only in a linear order inside a computer. The assets you use to build your documentary can come from various places and be created using different techniques and equipment. Additionally, your subject, format, and quality may differ from what you can record now if you look back into the past.

Creating consistency across your documentary is incredibly important for the narrative flow of your story. LUTs are a fantastic option for adding a color profile to your film, making all your visual assets feel cohesive and a part of the same project. Motion Array has hundreds of LUTs to download, including Cinematic Teal and Orange effects, gritty, cold thriller, and neon pop colors.

Choose the right music.

Music is a fantastic way of highlighting emotional intention in your documentary film. However well-edited, your documentary will feel slightly flat without music, and choosing the right tracks can feel overwhelming. Stock music is a fantastic option as the licensing is easy, and Motion Array has a range of filters to find your ideal track quickly.

The trick to choosing the right music is to consider your story and the emotion you want to evoke from your viewers. Ask yourself if the subject requires a specific genre – you wouldn’t, for example, use rock music in a documentary about Hip Hop. Once you know the genre of the music you want to use, search using emotive keywords; do you want your audience to be angry, sad, or excited?

What’s more, with Adobe’s Remix Audio tool, you don’t even need to worry about the length of the track. Premiere Pro will automatically remix your song or track to the desired length, creating a seamless version and saving you hours of audio mixing. You can find out how with our handy guide.

While the way documentaries are presented has evolved over the years, some core principles remain the same, and audiences understand and expect these principles to be followed. One of the best ways to understand documentary filmmaking is to immerse yourself in documentaries, watching a variety of genres and formats. You can learn many other filming and editing techniques to produce better documentary films. Motion Array has a vast collection of tutorials and guides ready to help you on your editing journey.