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.


Want Feedback?

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.


Choosing a Documentary Topic

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

Steps We Take from Portland Youth Film Festival on Vimeo.

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:

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.

Shot Types

The Rule of Thirds

The Grammar of Film- Part 1 – Learn about composition of film shots.

The Grammar of Film Part 2– More about composition of film shots.

A Neat Video Survey of Camera Techniques

Make your own smartphone tripod



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:

  1. Write and record your own music.  Need help?  Garage Band (for windows, mac, and ipad) is a program that can make it easy!
  2. 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 (

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.


Free Music Archive

Youtube Audio Library requires Youtube login

ccMixter Music Discovery

Purple Planet

Public Domain 4U



Itunes Royalty Free Music

Pac DV-  Free music and sound effects!

Freesound Loads of great free sound effects!

SoundjayMore free sound effects!


Organizing Footage and Making A Script

You may not need a script if your documentary is short and your footage limited, scriptbut a script can be helpful if you have a lot of material to organize.

  • 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.




Video Editing



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.

Vimeo Video School Tutorial on iMovie

Vimeo Video School Tutorial on Windows Movie Maker

Vimeo Video School Tutorial on Final Cut Pro

Vimeo Video School Tutorial on Adobe Premier


Additonal Resources on Student Filmmaking



Here are a few websites that show some basic steps in filmmaking:






C-Span Student Cam-Past Winning Documentary Entries

C-Span Student Cam-Tips from Student Filmmakers

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.

PBS Lesson Plan: Introducing Documentaries to Your Students

Coolspotters-Movie guide for kids.  Lots of helpful links.

Kids VidTips about scripting, shooting, editing and showing your film.