Friday, February 26, 2010

Creating an Inspiring Documentary

The right planning in each phase of production can make the perfect video. [article]

NOTE: This article appears in the resource Telling True Stories with Video.

Short documentary videos have become the replacement for Aunt Hilda's two-hour vacation slide show: Interesting for the first 30 seconds, but then nothing but pain. This is because these videos are often created for the people being filmed, not the viewing audience.

A typical example is a 12-minute summary from a mission trip that includes an audio track of indigenous peoples singing, with long quotes about how important this trip was with all sorts of images that give small glimpses into what the team actually did. This video may serve the participants in the trip, but please don't subject me to it—it's lazy communication and could be so much more.

This article will help walk you through the processes of pre-production, production, and post-production as you make a short documentary that will engage your audience and serve your church.


In most church settings, conflict is a negative word. We think of people arguing or churches splitting. But in film and video, it's what keeps a viewer's interest and it need not be defined so parochially. By giving some careful thought in pre-production to the topic of conflict, you can communicate much more about your chosen topic.

Let's use the mission trip example again. Filmable conflict can be found in the internal tension people feel as they leave their own culture and enter another one. Conflict can be found in the assumptions that team members had about the trip. Conflict can be found in the team's reaction to an unimaginable situation. Conflict can be found in the story of a young girl your team meets who was forced into bonded labor. Conflict is all around us and it is what keeps our interest as we watch any piece of visual communication.

When I begin a new project, I outline what I think are the potential conflicts that I want to communicate. At times this is very easy to translate to screen. One project involved documenting the reaction Americans had while visiting Kenyans who lived in a slum. This was fairly easy. I interviewed the Americans about what assumptions they had, I followed them as they traveled through the slum, and then I interviewed them afterward to get their responses. To make it complete, I should have also interviewed the Kenyans who hosted the Americans, but time did not allow for that.

Other conflicts are not as easy to capture. Take the assignment of traveling to Bangalore, India, to create a short piece on globalization. Globalization is a word that elicits all sorts of conflict in people, but how do you capture that without just having people say, "I like globalization" or "I hate globalization?" I decided to try to embody the conflict in the stories of two women, both of whom lived just outside Bangalore in a rural community. One talked about how globalization has helped increase property values. Another woman took us around her farm and explained how the growth of the city meant less water for her farm and while she might be able to sell her land, that money would only go so far. I had my conflict.

As you begin to develop your documentary, your task is to identify the potential conflicts and figure out a way to communicate them.

If you get a group of filmmakers together, the conversation at some point will turn to equipment and technique. After arguing about 24p and 60i frame rates, one participant will boldly proclaim, as if it is an original idea, "It doesn't matter what equipment you use, just how you tell the story."

While there certainly is truth to this sentiment, sometimes this idea lets people off the hook. Technique matters. Audiences are too versed in visual communication to just "let things slide." Besides, if visual technique didn't matter, why not just write an article?

This does not mean that being a professional is a prerequisite for creating compelling documentaries. However, it does mean that we must treat carefully the images we put on tape or disk.

Here are some pointers to give your documentary more technical weight:
  • Use a tripod. Your hands are not as steady as you think they are.
  • Spend money on good audio. The difference between an $800 camcorder and a $1300 one is not as great as the difference between using the onboard mic and a nice wireless unit.
  • Think about lights. $40 spent at a hardware store to buy shop lights to bounce off the ceiling can go a long way.
  • Keep shooting. When you think you have enough footage, shoot more. Tape is cheap.
  • Learn to use your camera in manual mode. This might take some time, but by taking control of focus, iris, white balance, and shutter speed, you will find that you produce more consistently good images.
Production is not just about technical concerns. It also involves making creative decisions that will serve your message. Here are some pointers to help you make good creative decisions:
  • Try to avoid multi-tasking. If you are the director, audio mixer, and camera operator, your work will probably suffer. If at all possible, try to get people to help you so you can focus on developing the story of the documentary. Besides, filmmaking is most fun when it is collaborative.
  • Think about your interviews as you shoot. If the subject talks about the opening of 10 new Starbucks in town, make sure you get some footage of a new Starbucks.
  • Don't try to remember it: Write it down. I have been burned too many times by this. I always carry a pen and a small Moleskine notebook.
  • Mix up your interviews. Do some sit-down traditional style interviews, but also consider doing some on-the-fly interviews. As you leave an event, quickly ask someone, "What did you just experience?" or "How are you feeling about it?"
After you've identified your conflict and captured your images, you can begin to piece your story together. After transcribing all my interviews, I start to highlight useful quotes. I look for two things: quotes that are descriptive ("We walked 2 miles through the slum to our new friend's home") and quotes that are interpretive ("I couldn't believe that a family could live in such a small shack"). As I begin to piece together the timeline in my editing software, both types of quotes serve me well.

As I edit, I try to think musically. If you listen to a great melody, it's not all fast notes. There are pauses and rests, moments where notes are held and then moments where the music soars. That is my goal as I edit. Ultimately, editing is helping the story to rise to the surface. All editorial decisions about music, style, and graphics must first serve the story and the goal of the documentary.

So there you have it. By doing some careful planning in pre-production, committing yourself to technical development over time in production, and thinking creatively in post-production, you can begin to develop short documentary pieces that will inform, challenge, and maybe even inspire your congregation.

— Nathan Clarke is a filmmaker and consultant. He works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's twentyonehundred productions. He also runs his own filmmaking outfit, Fourth Line Films, and is interested in creating films about what happens when faith and culture collide. He can be reached at—feel free to contact him with further questions or check out his blog on filmmaking at

  1. How do we meet the planning criteria Nathan lays out? How can we improve?
  2. How can we make sure our videos don't become "Aunt Hilda's vacation slide show"?
  3. Do we think "musically" during post-production? What lessons can we draw from Nathan's examples during post-production?

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