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Producing a Documentary – What I Learned about Filming, Interviewing and Editing

Producing your own documentary is a great way to exercise your creativity while conducting research and networking with other people. In a previous post, I explained why I chose to produce a documentary for my UHP capstone project, and listed some steps I took to plan and prepare. In this post, I’d like to share some tips and ideas from my personal experience with filming, interviewing, and editing.

Filming & Interviewing

  • Taking your time while setting up is well worth the investment:
    • Make sure your seating arrangement and lighting are good; if you’re filming outside, consider how the sun (and shadows) will move throughout the duration of your interview.
    • Make sure the person you’re interviewing is comfortable and has everything they need, such as water to drink.
    • Make sure your camera is close enough to the person you’re interviewing. This can be a bit counter-intuitive; I’ve found that the right camera distance often feels like it’s too close up, even if the footage turns out great. You don’t want your subject to get lost in the background.
  • There are some things you might want to mention before beginning the interview:
    • Interviewees should try to answer your questions in full sentences that stand alone (especially if you plan on editing yourself out and only including your interviewee’s statements)
    • In my experience, interviewees should pause for at least 5 seconds before and after the statements they make (this makes for much easier editing – you don’t want to squelch their enthusiasm, but if they jump in and respond to your question the instant you’re done speaking, it’s going to be hard to cut that clip without making the transition too abrupt)
  • For shooting B-roll, there are several things to keep in mind:
    • Will you take still shots, panning shots, or shots that zoom? Variety can be good, but too much movement can be distracting. While editing, I found that I had taken too many panning shots and not enough still shots. Putting too many panning shots together can be a bit dizzying! (And for panning shots, your panning speed is really important. Too slow is boring, but too fast is unpleasant for the eyes.)
    • Err on the side of longer shots, because you can always trim them down. If they’re too short for the space you’re trying to fill, however, you have to slow them down or use additional clips, and that doesn’t always work very well.
    • Avoid the temptation to capture everything “just in case” you can use it later. Instead, shoot B-roll strategically, based on the content you covered in your interviews and the notes you made ahead of time. Otherwise, while editing, you’ll be over your head in excess footage.

Editing

For me, editing was by far the most time-consuming stage. Since sitting at a computer for extended periods of time can be unpleasant (especially if you have poor posture) and can strain your eyes, I came up with a more hands-on approach to editing my interview footage. I wrote a numbered outline of each interview, using a different colored marker for each person.

Editing process 1

I took pictures of these (to refer back to later) and then cut each interview into strips, with each strip containing a numbered point. Then, I rearranged these strips into an order that made sense to me, to create my “storyboard.”

Editing process 2

Later, when I edited on my computer, I would take the clips I wanted to use and arrange them in my video editor, based on the order I came up with on paper. As I edited, I would sometimes come up with a better order for some of the clips and move my papers around accordingly. Whenever I finished editing a large segment, I would take those strips and put them away in a folder. It was very motivating to have such a tangible sign of my progress, and to be able to take a break from the computer screen every once in a while.

Editing in style at my hi-tech editing station (a desk I made out of cinder-blocks and an old door I picked up for free)

Here are a few other things to consider:

  • Make sure you have enough space on the computer you’ll be using to edit. You’ll probably need more space than you think.
  • Decide how you’re going to backup your footage and your edited files during the editing process, so that if something happens to your computer, you won’t lose all your hard work.
  • It’s probably worthwhile to experiment with a few different video-editing softwares before you commit to using one for your project.
  • If you’re not sure what style to go for when editing, it might help to watch some other documentaries to get a sense of how the film flows from one clip to the next, and how interview audio is laid over B-roll. Identify editing styles that you like and that you don’t like, and figure out what style works for you.
  • Be strategic with your use of B-roll. I like to use B-roll for transitions, to break up long segments of one person talking, or to illustrate a point. Don’t just throw some B-roll in for the sake of having B-roll. Have a reason for using a particular clip in a particular spot.
  • On a side note, you can find a lot of copyright-free music on websites like YouTube.

Conclusion

There are many other things to consider when making a documentary, but these are just the ones that stood out to me during my project. In general, planning ahead and being strategic can save you a lot of time and frustration.

At the same time, you can learn a lot through experimentation, and through trial and error, so avoid stressing over getting everything right the first time. When you’re done with your project, what you’ve learned about yourself and your work style, through both your successes and failures, may be just as valuable to you as the documentary you produced.