What is a Documentary?

A documentary film is a film production that aims to observe and depict real-life events, people, or issues in a fact-based and informative manner. Unlike narrative films, documentary filmmakers typically have an observational approach, often using interviews, first-hand accounts, and footage of real events to tell a story or convey a specific message. Documentaries aim to engage their audience by providing an immersive and educational experience, often shedding light on important social, political, or environmental issues. They can also focus on individual experiences or historical events, offering a unique insight into a particular subject matter. Through the use of interviews, on-site footage, and in-depth research, documentaries present a closer and more personal look at their subjects, creating a compelling and informative viewing experience for the audience.

Types of Documentaries

There are 6 conventional styles that filmmakers use is documentary filmmaking. Each of these styles is like a subgenre of the documentary genre.


Instead of following a common timeline of continuity, poetic documentaries are more artistic films. They typically follow associations, patterns, and rhythms with exceptional cinematography. One great example is Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. Although they are artistic in nature, these types of documentaries can still tell a meaningful story.


This is the most common form of documentary. Expository documentaries use a spoken narrative to inform the audience on a specific subject matter. 


In observational documentaries the filmmaker follows what they are documenting without ever interfering. The filmmaker stays out of the way while events unfold.


In participatory documentaries, the filmmaker participates with the film. They may provide a voice-over or even appear on camera for an interview. 


Reflexive documentaries focus on the making of the documentary itself. The audience should be aware of the filmmaking process because the documentary specifically highlights that.


In performative documentaries the filmmaker has first-hand involvement with the subject matter of the film. These films are usually about the filmmakers experience while making the film and interacting with the subjects in the film. 

What Does This Mean?

Each of these types of documentary styles can be used to elevate your documentary storytelling. They can also be mixed within one another. Consider creating a documentary about making a poetic documentary, it would be a reflexive poetic documentary, almost like Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera.  Knowing what type of documentary you want to make is a great way to get started in documentary filmmaking.

If you’re interested in making a documentary about the best way to brew coffee at home, check out this blog post. 

What Equipment Do You Need for Documentary Filmmaking?

If you want to make a documentary, the best equipment to have is what you can afford! If all you have is a cellphone you can still make something amazing. However, if you want to take it up a notch here’s a list of equipment you should look into.

First of all, you need camera equipment, unless your making an animated documentary. Almost any camera will work but if you want your documentary to look as high quality as possible you’re going to have to spend more money. You ideally want a camera that would be able to film for a long time period, for that I recommend a Camcorder.

Second, you should invest in a good microphone. A shotgun style mic is great for capturing many subjects, as you just point where you want the audio to be captured. Another great option is a Lav mic. Lav Mics are tiny microphones that typically clip onto the subject’s shirt. This allows you to capture what the subject is saying, no matter how far away they get. Microphones are crucial for interviews and voice over narration.

You might also need headphones. Headphones are great because you can listen to what the microphone is picking up and whether or not it is too loud or too quiet. 

The last thing you definitely need is a computer that is capable of running editing software. There is plenty of free editing software that are easy to learn. such as DaVinci Resolve. What you really need is to make sure that your computer is able to run it!

BONUS: Be sure to always have extra batteries and memory cards for all of your equipment. You can never be too safe. 

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area and interested in developing 35mm film check out our blog post on The Top 10 Best Labs for 35mm Film Developing

Do You Need a Crew?

Documentary filmmaking doesn’t necessarily require more than a one person crew. It is nice to have extra help especially if you’re making a big production, but at most all you really need for a basic crew is two people. Someone to work the camera and someone to work the audio equipment is the essential for you to make a film. If you want to make a solo documentary that is totally do-able like Agnes Varda’s, The Gleaners and I.

Filming Your Documentary

When filming your documentary an important thing to remember is to film as much as possible. You want to have a surplus of footage just to be safe. This will make it so when you get around to editing you have as much footage at your disposal. So, keep the camera rolling!

How to Interview Your Subjects

Once you know what your documentary will be about you might have to do interviews. When interviewing your subject for a documentary you want to inform them of a few things before you get started. You want to let your subject know that they don’t have to answer right away. Let them think about what they want to say so that they feel more confident in what they do say. Another thing to tell your subject, depending on the type of documentary, is to try to rephrase what you ask them. What this means is, if you ask them “How was your day today?” they would reply, “My day today was good”. This allows you to tell the audience what you asked them without the audience hearing you ask it. 

Take Advantage of Archive Media

Depending on the premise of your documentary you may want to make use of archive media. There are tons of resources online and there are even physical resources that you can use such as newspapers, magazines, or photos. One great online resource is Archive.org also known as The Internet Archive. This is where you’ll find hundreds of thousands of hours worth of archives available to the public. 

If you’re interested in learning about video game movies, check out our blog post: Video Game Movies – Past, Present, and Future

Editing Your Documentary

Once you have shot your documentary it is now time to start the editing process. Documentary editing typically lasts much longer than the filming process. Editing is where you really find where you are going to take the story. The first thing you need to do is watch back all of your footage at least TWICE. This makes it so you know exactly what you are working with. Next you want to build a very basic timeline structure. Once you get your basic timeline done, then you should know if you need to shoot more, do more research, or if you have everything you need. From then on, the process is simply fine tuning the documentary so that it flows exactly how you want it to. 

Publishing Your Work

Once you have finished with making your documentary you will want to show your final cut to the public. There are many ways of going about debuting your film. You can upload it straight to Youtube or Vimeo for the internet to see. If you want to do a formal cinematic premiere, you can contact your local theaters and invite everyone you know. If you want to try to submit your film to a festival you can take advantage of sites like Filmfreeway.com where they allow you to submit to all kinds of different film festivals. Either way you will be able to show off your documentary to the public and highlight the story that you want to tell in your documentary filmmaking journey.