Good documentaries can be short, simple and easy to make. Try these filmmaking tips as a starting point.
The Docmentary Challenge is open to K-12 students from Maine. See the Young Filmmakers’ Contest page for rules and entry information.
It can help to get feedback early in your process so you can revise. To get feedback on your documentary footage, fill out and submit the form linked here through Feburary 1st.
A documentary can be about anything, but the best topics are ones that can be shown with creative, original footage.
- Consider a topic that you can show with your own original footage. In story telling there is a saying that goes, “Show me, don’t tell me.” Film especially is a visual medium. Documentaries tend to work best when they show the subject in an interesting way, allowing the captured footage to tell much of the story. Documentaries that consist only of interviews or rely too much on narrated information and stock footage may not be as powerful.
- Consider a topic that is accessible and not too broad. Topics that are too broad or too far removed from your life may be hard for you to show directly. If you want to tell a broader story, see if you can tell it by showing specific examples. Often the best examples can be found in your own family or community. This student documentary uses personal and local examples to discuss the broad topic of immigration reform. Do I Look Illegal?
- Consider ways of telling the story creatively. Even if you cannot get very much direct footage of your subject, you can still use interesting visuals to tell your story. This student documentary about the national debt uses creative and humorous devices to make the main points: Up to Our Necks
- Consider a documentary that is short and simple. Not every documentary has to be as ambitious as some of the examples on this page. Imagine doing a film of one to three minutes on a subject nearby. It is a fun challenge to capture the essence of a subject simply and briefly but still leave a lasting impression with your audience! This documentary by very young students shows their daily lives learning to speak English. I Speak English Now
Choosing a Documentary Format
In planning a documentary, it can help to learn about some established documentary forms and their elements. Consider these examples, some of which are student films:
- Expository– This classic form consists of visual footage with narration and/or interviews. Examples: Steps We Take, Portland’s Walking School Bus
- Performative- A first person narrator shares their own perspective on a topic they are connected to. Examples: Unknown, A Special Place
- Participatory- A narrator on screen takes the audience to explore a place or situation. This form may emphasize the perspectives of people encountered. Examples: Participitory Documentary, Morocco in 169,920 Seconds.
- Observational- No narrator or interviews, just footage of a place or situation from a “fly on the wall” perspective. Examples: A Bunch of Slackers, Dock Days Galway
- Poetic- Images, music, and words may be used to convey an artistic impression of the subject. Examples: Continuum, Time. A Poetic Documentary , A Poetic Documentary- Water
- Reflexive (Mockumentary)- A comical spoof on the documentary form. Examples: Aroostook County Stereotypes, Our Immortal Educators, The Majestic Plastic Bag- A Mockumentary
See many more examples of student documentaries at C-Span’s Student Cam.
Consider the following points in learning how to shoot good footage.
- It is possible to make a good film with only a smartphone, tablet, digital camera, or camcorder.
- Shoot B-roll footage that sets the scene and shows what the narrator or subject is talking about.
- Use a variety of shots that are framed in different ways.
- Consider the rule of thirds.
- Consider a tripod unless you are going for a motion effect.
- Move the camera slowly and smoothly. Using railings or objects with wheels can help.
- Get more footage than you need. Film each shot for at least 10 seconds and edit to desired length later.
Consider these links to learn more about camerawork.
The Grammar of Film- Part 1 – Learn about composition of film shots.
The Grammar of Film Part 2– More about composition of film shots.
Planning an Interview
Planning Interview Questions
- Ask open ended questions. Encourage succinct answers in full sentences.
- Ask the subject to repeat the question before answering.
- Prepare your questions, but don’t give them out ahead of time.
- Improvise to follow up on interesting themes.
- Ask short questions. Stay quiet while they are talking.
- Give them the final word.
Shooting an Interview
Interview Shooting Tips
- Basic equipment is okay.
- Choose a good location.
- Consider how lighting affects the shot.
- Choose a background that establishes the scene but is not distracting.
- Use a microphone such as an inexpensive lavalier.
- Consider using the rule of thirds.
- Shooting from multiple camera angles can be interesting.
- If the interviewer is in the film, you can film and edit in their reactions.
- Keep rolling after the interview.
Music can be a powerful part of your film, setting the mood you want and engaging the audience more deeply. Learn about copyright, royalty free music, and how to make your own music easily.
About Music and Copyright
As films submitted to the Young Filmmakers Contest are for public display including on the internet, we ask that you not use copyrighted music in your film without permission of the copyright holder. That means you should not use just any song from your music collection in your film. To learn more about copyright, see the website Copyright Kids.
Try these alternatives for adding music to your film:
- Write and record your own music. Need help? Garage Band (for windows, mac, and ipad) is a program that can make it easy!
- Use royalty free music. Royalty free means the copyright holder makes the music available to filmmakers and others to use in their projects. Sometimes there is a fee, but a lot can be used at no cost. In either case, you do have to list the source in your credits.
For example, if you wanted to download and use the song Summer Day from the Incompetech site below, you could pay nothing and simply copy this text from the website and put it in your credits:
Summer Day, Kevin Macleod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License
Sources of Royalty Free Music and Sound Effects
Many of these sites offer public domain or royalty free music at no cost. There are many others out there. Remember, each song may have its own requirements of how you can use it and how you should list it in your credits.
Youtube Audio Library– requires Youtube login
Pac DV- Free music and sound effects!
Freesound– Loads of great free sound effects!
Soundjay– More free sound effects!
Organizing Footage and Making A Script
- It can help to transcribe your interviews so you can easily sort through them and paste them onto a script.
- In your video editing program, it can help to file your footage into folders organized by subject.
- It may help also to cut your footage into usable shots and label each one.
- Then you can have a script that has 2 columns, one for video and one for audio.
- Check out this article for more detail.
You can make a good film with just a few video editing skills.
- Video editing can be easy to learn if you watch a tutorial and start experimenting on your own.
- There are many video editing programs available. Some, such as iMovie or Windows Movie Maker may come preinstalled on your computer.
Additonal Resources on Student Filmmaking
Here are a few websites that show some basic steps in filmmaking:
Vimeo Video School- Lots of movie making tutorials for beginners and experts.
Rob & Jonas’ Filmmaking Tips Youtube Channel– More video tutorials like the ones above.
Coolspotters-– Movie guide for kids. Lots of helpful links.
Kids Vid– Tips about scripting, shooting, editing and showing your film.