How To Make a Documentary

Keaton Robbins | December 5, 2022

cameraman films an iceberg in antarctica

Documentary filmmaking is a highly-skilled and specialized art. Technical considerations, creative choices, and legal limitations are all crucial to how to create a documentary. This guide goes through all the crucial elements of how to make a documentary.

Documentaries: What Are They?

In this article

  1. Documentaries: What Are They?
  2. When Did They Become Popular?
  3. Who Produces Them and Why?
  4. Popular Documentaries of Recent Times
  5. Nature
  6. Our Planet
  7. Political
  8. Fahrenheit 9/11
  9. Al Gore’s Climate Change: An Inconvenient Truth
  10. Health
  11. Financial
  12. Inside Job
  13. How To Make a Documentary
  14. Topic
  15. Tension
  16. Point of View 
  17. Investigation
  18. Evidence
  19. Call to Action
  20. Getting It Narrated
  21. Types of Narration
  22. First Person
  23. Second Person
  24. Third Person
  25. How To Hire a Narrator
  26. What To Look For?
  27. How To Provide Artistic Direction
  28. Wrapping Up

A documentary is a non-fiction film that poses questions and seeks an objective response, making it as interesting for viewers, as it is for the subject. Its goal is to inspire the viewer to learn more by offering many different angles and views, increasing their capacity for critical thinking about the topic.

The documentary maker has the freedom to create a story out of whatever they find attractive but must be careful not to stray too far from their main point or purpose.

Technological advances in the Eclair self-blimped camera and the recording sync improvements allowed filmmakers to follow the action with immediacy in the 1950s. Documentary filmmaking became widely used after World War II during the Cold War and was popular in the 1960s and 70s. 

With the advent of video technology and a new generation of filmmakers and audiences who grew up on television documentaries, documentary filmmaking has seen a resurgence in popularity.

Who Produces Them and Why?

Filmmakers often produce a documentary because they want to entertain, teach, persuade or affect social change. 

Non-profit groups also use documentaries to educate the public and raise awareness about social, political, or economic issues. People enjoy watching documentaries for entertainment and education.

Let’s look at some of the recent popular documentaries.


Nature documentaries focus in on the world’s ecosystems and wildlife. Documentaries about nature use footage of animals, wilderness hikes, or other natural elements. A nature documentary is usually about a specific animal, place, or rare moment in time.

A nature documentary often shows footage from unique places. For example, there may be footage from someone hiking in a remote area of the Pacific Ocean, Glacier Bay, or Antarctica. 

Our Planet

‘Our Planet’ is an Emmy award-winning Netflix original documentary that looks into natural wonders. The documentary also explores wildlife species and the factors that threaten their existence.


Political documentaries aim to inform viewers about the impacts of political decisions on their society. They may explore how a political decision affects different people within a geographic area.

Fahrenheit 9/11

This Michael Moore’s 2003 documentary describes the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and President George W. Bush’s response. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was ultimately voted the best documentary of all time by Premiere magazine readers in 2003.

Al Gore’s Climate Change: An Inconvenient Truth

‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is an Academy Award-winning 2006 documentary by Al Gore. It goes beyond explaining global warming and climate change’s scientific causes and effects to address possible solutions.


Health documentaries use footage from interviews, research, and medical studies to show how one disease impacts a person’s health. These documentaries tend to be more narrative than the other categories. They are usually about a particular illness or medical procedure and show how it affects the person’s life. 

Food, Inc.

This documentary takes an in depth look at the way food has been produced and the dramatic shift in how we eat over the past 50 years.


A financial documentary explores the economy. It often deals with visual storytelling because it aims to explain the complex subject matter to help people understand. The most common themes of a financial documentary are the financial crisis, the global economy, or stock market trading.

Inside Job

Inside Job is a documentary that explores the causes of the 2008 financial crisis. It is an excellently written and extensively researched exposé of the greed that has taken control of the financial world.

How To Make a Documentary

Documentary filmmakers have the freedom to create a story out of whatever they find appealing. They must be careful not to stray too far from their main idea or message when trying to develop a storyline for their film. 

A good documentary will show the viewer something that makes them curious and wants to learn more about it. Here is an outline of how to make a documentary and what you should include to impact your audience:


Make your documentary film about something you find interesting. It could be a historical event, something that happened to you, your family or friends, a place or object that interests you, the lives of people in another culture and how they live, a topic in science or nature, or the world around us. 

The key is to choose a topic that engages you so much that it motivates you to learn more and then determine if your audience might also be interested in learning about it.


Documentary films should have tension, a feeling of suspense, and anticipation. The film poses a compelling question or problem at the beginning, which then gets explored in detail. If you don’t have any upfront, add one that reflects your opinions and feelings about the topic.

Point of View 

The filmmaker has to be honest in their choices, but at the same time, they must be fair and even-handed when presenting the information. They must be as objective as possible so that your audience has the best view of what you are trying to tell them. 

Think about what you believe about the topic, what questions you have about it, and how those things relate to your life or someone else’s life who knows more than you. A documentary film has to move in a certain way; It needs a narrative arc and must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

Every documentary film needs a protagonist. The protagonist is a character or person whose perspective you’re advocating and acts as the mouthpiece for your thoughts.


Researching a topic for your documentary film is essential. Think about what you already know about your topic, and then see if there is any information or data that tells you something different. 

Learn as much as possible about the subject and interview those more knowledgeable in the field. Look at other documentaries surrounding the same topic to see how they’ve approached it and how that worked out for them. Then decide on your method of investigation and where you will get additional information.


Evidence is the ideas, facts, insights, and information you find in your investigation. In a documentary, you must choose a point of view that makes sense. Use only the most vital, compelling, and highest-quality evidence. 

A documentary is a form of proof, and its information should be accurate. When collecting data for your documentary film, try to get as much material as possible from different sources to verify the information. 

Try to use first-hand evidence and not second-hand information, such as what an expert source or scientist says about it.

Call to Action

What happens at the end of a film is as important as any other part. The audience should have a sense of what to do next. 

For example, your documentary might have some people trying to make positive changes in their lives based on what you have seen in the documentary, then advise on what those people should do next. The advice can be an effective way to inspire people to take action and get involved.

The art of filmmaking is not just about creating content but also about promoting awareness and encouraging change through stories.

Getting It Narrated

Narrations add depth to your documentary film. Finding the right voice can take some time and effort on your part. The narrator should be an expert who understands what you want to say and how. 

Also, they should respectfully speak the language in which you are making your documentary film. The right person will infuse the right accents and intonations into their voice so your audience can clearly understand what they are saying.

Stories in a documentary film have to have a beginning, middle, and end like any other type of story. But with documentaries, there is no natural way of knowing upfront what will happen when filmed.

Types of Narration

Narration in a documentary film is not the same as in a narrative film. Narration should be concise and avoid unnecessary expository detail. The best narrators will provide insight into the content without distracting from the images on the screen. Here are the types of narration available.

First Person

First-person narration lets you in on inner thoughts and feelings as the narrator experiences them. It’s about being honest about what it’s like for them instead of being objective and explaining things from an alternative point of view. 

You want your audience to see everything from your perspective. It should be as factual as possible while remaining true to the narrator’s voice and perspective.

Second Person

Second-person narration is more formal and less personal. The narration is when the viewpoint is directed right at the audience. It occurs when a speaker explains something to their audience professionally. You can use this format for personal observations or facts about a topic.

Third Person

Third-person narration is when a narrator explains something about a character, plot development, or situation but does not involve themselves in the conversation. 

The narration is a guidebook from an outside perspective that helps explain things that an audience can understand even if they haven’t lived through the same experiences as your subject.

How To Hire a Narrator

The narrator of your documentary film will need to be skilled at choosing the right moments in which to speak. They should understand the situation well and anticipate when a certain point needs to be emphasized by their narration.

You could also use a casting director or a specialized website like Voices to find the right person to narrate your documentary film. They have relationships with voice actors and are familiar with the goals of documentary filmmaking as it relates to narration.

Listen to the start of the narration in Sans Soleil (1983), one of the most revered first person documentaries.

To find a documentary filmmaker who can make your film a success, you can use online platforms like Upwork. Also, go to meetups, networking events, and conventions where you can find film professionals in your area. Be sure to have a formal contract signed before any work gets done.

What To Look For?

A narrator must be able to read and interpret scripts with clarity and professionalism. The narrator must have a good understanding of speech rhythm and pacing and an excellent grasp of intonation and inflection.

The narrators should have experience in filmmaking because they will understand what information to cover in the documentary film. Most importantly, they need to have good communication skills and the ability to work independently.

The narrator must have a pleasant vocal presence, including a smooth narration delivery when it’s time for the performance. A friendly and warm company in their voice allows listeners to feel comfortable with the narrator’s delivery style. An audiobook narrator must also be able to capture emotion in their narrative with honesty and openness.

Before you hire someone on your project, interview them about their experience in public speaking or acting classes, whether it was formal or informal training.

How To Provide Artistic Direction

One of the most important aspects of documentary production is providing artistic direction. This factor involves communicating what you want your audio to sound like and how it should be produced for the audio to achieve this vision successfully. 

Write clear copy with simple sentences and paragraphs. Using straightforward language allows the narrative to be easily understood. Additionally, the voice talent will be more comfortable with a script, which often results in a better performance.

Consider the emotional depth and timbre of the voice required for your project. Pronunciation cues are essential, particularly if the talent has no previous experience with the subject. Also, the subject of your documentary may have a name that can be difficult for non-natives to pronounce.

Wrapping Up

The documentary filmmaker’s job is a unique and rewarding form of storytelling. Documentaries are an informal but powerful way to expose the masses to important topics, events, and ideas to spark social change.

If you’re interested in the industry, the above guide walks you through how to make a documentary.

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