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There’s something fascinating about watching real-life drama play out on the big screen. While the best narrative films are able to replicate these stories, there’s an added element when a film features actual people in actual situations. The human facets of these stories let the viewer connect on a much deeper level.

This is the job of documentary films—putting reality on full display. If you feel like you have a compelling story to tell, whether it’s about a deep social injustice or a niche part of Americana, you may want to take on the role of a documentary filmmaker. 

The good news is you don’t have to take too many steps to make your own docufilm. But, if you want to turn this into your profession, here are a few tips on how to be a documentary filmmaker and director.

What Are Documentaries?

A documentary is a non-fiction film, one with the intent to either educate, provide instruction, or offer some kind of historical record. The films often involve speaking directly to the audience, either through talking-head interviews, narration, or informative on-screen text. 

A documentary can stylistically take several forms. Some can play out like an academic essay, complete with facts and figures, historical images or footage, and expert testimonies. Others can take a much more hands-off approach, just pointing the camera at the subject and recording what happens. 

Documentaries have been around since the beginning of film history. Some of the earliest film exhibitions were just recordings of things happening, like the Lumiére film Arrival of a Train at Le Ciotat Station. 

Longer docufilms like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages pushed the boundaries of the art form. Today, documentary filmmaking has greatly expanded, thanks to modern masters like Errol Morris, Frederick Wiseman, Penelope Spheeris, Michael Moore, and John Wilson, among others.

What Does a Documentary Filmmaker Do?

director talking
Source: Erinc Salor via CreativeCommons (Flickr)
Director Werner Herzog has mastered both the narrative and documentary film.

Above all else, a documentary filmmaker should be dedicated to the truth. They should want to present the facts of the world in as direct a way as possible.  

The documentarian has to develop the thesis for their work—whether they go into a project with one in mind, or they just start filming and find it after the footage is collected is up to them. They often will be responsible for doing all the research necessary for the film, like tracking down interview subjects, accumulating historical data, and clearing usage rights for any stock footage.

The documentarian also must decide on a stylistic format that best suits the telling of their story. For example, filmmaker Errol Morris began his career with films like Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, which took a much more observational approach—letting his subjects speak to the camera with little to no intervention. Later, he made the groundbreaking The Thin Blue Line, which involved many techniques seen in modern true crime documentaries—archival footage, witness interviews, and re-enactments. 

The point is, certain filmmaking styles will better serve a story than others, and the documentary filmmaker must be able to discern between them.

How to Become a Documentary Filmmaker

There’s no right or wrong way to become a documentary filmmaker, but here are a few routes you could take.

The Education Route

Going to school for a film degree is a fine option if you want to make documentaries. Film school is a great way to learn all the aspects of filmmaking—screenwriting, editing, directing, and even producing. You’ll also meet your peers who have the same interests and career goals as you, which can lead to lifelong working relationships.

But a film degree is not the only option for a documentary filmmaker. A journalism degree is equally useful, since it focuses on real-world storytelling. Degrees in English, communications, history, the sciences, or other specialized liberal arts can also translate to a documentary film career, depending on the subjects you want to discuss.

The Experience Route

College can be prohibitively expensive, so it’s not the only way to pursue this career. Many people in the film industry work their way up by starting in lower positions like production assistants. Documentaries need these roles filled as well. 

However, if you live in a place where filmmaking is a rare occurrence, don’t fret. Jobs at places like newspapers, libraries, and local governments deal in the factual world, and a lot of what you would learn there could translate well to a documentary filmmaking career.

Documentary Filmmaker Salary

Unlike larger, union-based film projects, there is no clearly defined salary for a documentary filmmaker. That’s because documentaries are usually not money-making enterprises, due to their niche audiences and smaller distributions. 

Since financing for documentaries often comes from private donors, arts foundations, or sponsorships, it’s extremely important to learn how to budget a film. If you’re smart, you can keep your costs low while still honoring your film’s vision, and you might even find that there’s some money left over to pay yourself.

Documentary Filmmaker Jobs

Finding a job as a documentary filmmaker can be a challenge, but there are a few different routes you can take depending on the kind of career you want.

Standard Documentary Filmmaker Jobs

If your goal is to be a professional documentary filmmaker, the first thing you have to do is learn how to be a great fundraiser. Approaching private donors, writing grants, and perfecting crowdfunding will be the start of any of your jobs. Once you have the financing, you can get started on any project.

Once you complete the film, you can look for distribution. There are distributors out there that specialize in documentaries, but don’t limit yourself to just them. The wider the net you cast, the better the chance is you’ll find the right distributor. Depending on the subject of your documentary, you could also focus on other specialized distributors—for example, if you made a documentary about badminton and there’s a distributor out there that focuses on sports movies.

If you’re lucky, you could have the opportunity to pitch to one of the streaming platforms like Netflix or Hulu. There’s often much more money available here, but you may also have to conform your vision to their corporate interests—a small price to pay to make something that will be seen by millions.

Now that the internet has become a major outlet for entertainment, news outlets and places like Vice are constantly churning out documentaries and info-tainment. Going to them with a portfolio of your work could lead to opportunities to reach a wider audience. Or, just start your own channel—if it’s out there, people will find it. 

Independent Documentary Filmmaker Jobs

Becoming a jack of all trades is the best way to have continued employment in the documentary film business. Familiarizing yourself with all elements of production will make you a valuable resource to any independent film project.

There are production companies out there that specialize in documentaries where you can offer your services. Freelance is the keyword here— whether it’s research, editing, or associate producing other people’s work, the benefits are two-fold: you have a “day job” in your field that can sustain you, and you gain valuable experience and contacts for when you dive into your own film.

You could also reach out to non-profits or other NGOs to offer your filmmaking services. Many places would love to have some kind of promotional video and, if they have the budget, could probably pay you a modest fee. 

Tell Your Story

One of the nice things about a documentary, compared to narrative film, is that they are often significantly cheaper to produce. So you could go out tomorrow with your iPhone and make your very first documentary on a micro budget

Start small—interview your oldest living relative, or film all the different trees in your local park—and edit all the footage together in a way you find interesting. You can upload it on YouTube and then, congratulations! You’re a documentary filmmaker. As long as you’re observant and curious about the world around you, you’ll never run out of material for your documentaries. 

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