What it Takes to Make a Documentary

man kneeling next to a camera during filming

If you enjoy filmmaking and have never tried to make a documentary, now might be the time to change that. Film students often create dramatic fictional movies, however documentaries are extremely popular with audiences these days. This may be because people feel that documentaries represent truth and are more journalistic than other types of popular media. Let's look at an overview of what documentaries are, the types of documentaries and how to make a documentary.


Films that strive for a factual and balanced presentation are documentaries. They are named for the fact that they document an aspect of life. As a type of film, documentaries are a mix of making art and presenting facts.

They may follow certain people, explain certain events or share the history of something unknown. Part of the popularity of documentaries is that people come away knowing a lot more about a topic than they did before they watched it.

Types of Documentaries

There are six primary types of documentaries:

1. Expository Documentary

This is the most well-known. An expository documentary includes a lot of research. It aims to educate and explain things. It includes interviews and visuals, as well as narration that supports the argument.

2. Observational Documentary

The observational documentary is known as the fly-on-the-wall documentary. It is shot without intervention by the filmmaker. There are no questions, commentary or narration and the viewer is left to interpret things on their own.

3. The Participatory Documentary

The participatory documentary is one where the filmmaker and subject are on screen together and participating in the activity.

4. The Reflexive Mode Documentary

A reflexive mode documentary leaves viewers to wonder how real what they are watching is. There are scenes that seem more like a film or more staged than real life. Mockumentaries fall into that reflexive mode category.

5. Poetic Mode Documentary

A documentary in poetic mode focuses on expression and feeling. It values cinematography over heavy content.

6. Performative Mode Documentary

A documentary in performative mode shows the filmmaker’s involvement with the subject. They share their views through their own experiences. The performative mode gives viewers the perspective of what it is like to be there.

How to Make a Documentary

If making a documentary is something you are interested in, get started by watching a lot of documentaries to figure out what style or type of documentary you would like to make. Then there are a few key steps to follow when you make your own film.

1. Choose the Right Topic

When you create a documentary, make sure you are sharing a story that you love. If you do not care about the topic, that will come through in the movie. When you are passionate about a subject and you make a documentary about it, people will react to it positively to the film and get invested in what you are sharing.

2. Do Your Research

Preparing to create a documentary means that you need a lot of information from all sides of the topic. You will need multiple storylines and points of view. You will have to do a lot of digging and follow a lot of leads. These may ask require you to interview people, read a lot of texts and watch other films. As you are doing your research, you are likely to come across characters and people that you want to include in the film.

3. Write and Storyboard

Start creating an outline from your research and decide how to tell your story. Make lists of the people that you want to include and start reaching out to make sure they are willing to be involved in your project. Storyboard different shots and decide how to put the information together in a narrative format.

4. Script and Shoot

Start filming the parts of your documentary that you are able to. Get your interviews scheduled and completed. Get cinematic and outdoor shots done. Once you have all of your footage, write the narration and consider how you will edit the film.

5. Edit and Release

Edit your film together and get the narration recorded. Check to make sure that you have not included any copyrighted or trademarked items in your film, and if you have, be sure to get clearance for them. Add music and other production elements. Then get your documentary out into the world.

If you are an aspiring documentary filmmaker you can learn a lot through the Grand Canyon University Bachelor of Arts in Digital Film with an Emphasis in Production degree program. Join us to learn filmmaking basics and expand your production knowledge.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.