To Make a Documentary

Everything I'm learning on this life pit stop

From January - April of 2023, I'm taking time off to make a feature length documentary. I'm doing this for a couple reasons

  1. I care a lot about the topic - We're covering unconventional climate solutions. It's something that's super close to my heart
  2. I want to see if I can - A wise man once said, "fuck it we ball"

On the road, we were pulling 16 hour days filming, planning, and plotting - every day felt like bootcamp. Here's everything I'm learning:


  • You can’t just make a documentary about a subject. You need a story otherwise it’s just a lecture.


  • Good audio is ridiculously important, maybe even more so than video. Without a designated boom person, what worked best for us were wireless transmitters
  • The set we used was the following. It did the job well because our action shots we're too motion heavy. Next time I'd opt for a more traditional documentary setup with a handheld rig and large screen, while staying with the camera and lens. In terms of cost benefit, it'd also be interest to get different Cinebloom lens filters.
    • Sony a7IV - Crisp visuals, compact. Only problem is that sometimes it can overheat when recording 4k for more than 40 minutes at a time
    • Sony FE 28-70mm F3.5-5.6 - Power lens. Wide range of possibilities, 3.5 is usually low enough to get a reasonable amount of bokeh if you're averse to switching out your lens often
    • Sony FE 50mm F1.8 - Good for talking head interviews. The most typical prime lens you can get.
    • Zhiyun Weebil S - Great lightweight gimbal for the camera. Can connect to Sony cameras easily to make use of record/focus button. Worth it to play around with tracking settings before hand so they aren't too responsive.
    • Rode Go II - An awesome product. The dual stream wireless transmitters make it great for mic-ing up multiple people at once. They can be hard to wrangle and maintain without a charger case, so would recommend buying off of Amazon
    • Rode Lav Mics - Powerful mics, aesthetically consistent, easy to pack
    • Manfrotto 290 Light - This kind of fits in my backpack. The fluid headplate was good for panning. If you're optimizing for interoperability, the 290 Light has the same headplate as the Zhiyun Weebil S. Good for switching between static and moving shots often.
  • Netflix has very specific cameras that they allow for any productions. If they are a potential distributor, good to keep in mind!
    • There is a 10% allowance for non Netflix verified cameras


  • Set a working title early. At least for me, it helps to have something to title documents with. You are allowed to change it later.

  • The first thing you should do is set out a creative brief with information about the project. It should include everything you know about

    • What the film is about
    • How you're framing it
    • Visual references
    • Logistics (locations, dates, timeline)
    • Expected deliverables (type, format, length, quantity)
    • Distribution
    • Partners
    • Team (biographies, qualifications)
    • Contacts
  • Print out physical permission forms. You'll need them for and print physical copies just in case.


  • Work with the editing team to figure out what aspect ratio you want to deliver the final film in. Quality should be UHD, with common ratios being 1:1.78 and 1:2.39.
  • For documentary, set up and start filming before you enter the interview. Get the greetings, document the walk in. The interstitial motions are what make it the film feel more human.
  • When listening to interviews, note specific points that you want to emphasize. Tack on 30 minutes before or after to get B-roll that complements those sections.
  • The B-roll you take should vary between close-up, medium, and wide. The thinking I like to use is that you want to see the environment through your subject's eyes. These shots are useful for clarifying what their world is like.
  • If possible, bring a second camera to get the 180 reaction shot. If not, film reactions before or after. Reactions don't just need to be faces, it can be tapping feet or fiddling hands
  • The Sony alpha cameras have an accompanying mobile app that is helpful when recording yourself. You can stream the viewfinder, adjust focus, etc


  • We mainly used 2 types of mics: shotguns and lapels.
  • Good audio matters SOOO much
  • Bring tape for when you're micing up people. Make tape triangles to prevent things from brushing up against the mic.
    • Try to hide the lav as much as possible, under one layer of clothing is usually ok. Center it as much as possible.
    • You may have to stick it on someone's bare chest. In that case, just show them where it should be on your own body, hand them the tape, and let them do it.
  • The job of the person doing audio is to listen as much as it is to record
  • Don't forget to wildtrack! This is when you additionally record sound effects live on set.
    • On that note, record the ambient room tone. You can use this to remove the underlying noise in the audio later


  • It's ok to be stressed, but it's not ok to be confused


  • Expect 1 month of editing for every 10 minutes of the film
  • Artgrid for stock videos, Epidemic Sound for audio
  • The Internet Archive has a wealth of archival footage that has liberal Creative Commons licenses. These are awesome to use and scroll through. However before using, double check to make sure the source material affirms the license state, and not just the re-upload.
  • When backing up content, use the 3-2-1 protocol. 3 verified copies, 2 separate copies, 1 separate geolocations. Expect the worst and verify your data after transfers.

Live Action

  • Lay everything out in sticky notes.
  • Transcribe your videos as much as possible.
  • Use sound bridges, also known as L and J cuts to connect gaps between discontinuous footage

Live Action

  • Probably actually take an AfterEffects course. It is so feature rich that it would take years to find out its full capabilities.

Live Action

  • Before you export anything, play it at its full volume, and then its quietest to make sure audio levels are sensical
  • Make audio files of the same type into a compound clip, apply Channel EQ, and go to advanced settings to listen through the waveform for bad frequencies
  • Sometimes raising the audio levels with just Gain can be too much. In that case, use a Limiter! Consider the following settings:
  • Output level at -6dB, release at 10ms-300ms (usually 250ms), variable gain so that reduction sits around +3dB, Legacy mode on, Soft Knee on.

Live Action

  • For this doc, I've been using Final Cut Pro to edit, and Da Vinci Resolve to color. Thanks to the power of an XML based timeline, they are interoperable
  • If in Da Vinci Resolve, start with 4 serial nodes for white balance, prelog, log, and postlog
    • White balance for adjusting basic color
    • Prelog for lighting and contrast changes. Use waveform scopes to help balance
    • Log for main stylistic color choices
    • Postlog for addition grain or posterizing


  • If you're optimizing for film festivals, something to note is the lengths they prefer. Films are categorized into feature lengths, or shorts.
    • Feature length films are typically 50+ minutes. They are harder to make and cost more to submit, but have a high ratio of acceptances. Comedy features are the rarest.
    • Shorts are anywhere from 1-20 minutes, although under 15 is the sweet spot. Every longer short they select displaces a number of smaller shorts, so if you're opting for a longer short film, you're fighting the uphill battle that your film is worth displacing multiple.
  • You'll likely want a lawyer to affirm that everything you're using is copyright friendly.
© 2024 or something like that
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