Documentary Film Reviews, Making Documentaries, and Nonfiction Storytelling

Making A Short Documentary by Jim Martin

IMG_2985crpcr2Making a short documentary isn’t much different from making a long documentary in theory. But in practice it can be a lot more difficult.  There are many unique factors involved in a short form documentary or fiction films that need to be considered. For starters it’s easy to make a “long” documentary that will put people to sleep after the first minutes. Making a three-minute or seven-minute documentary presents several issues that involve planning and knowing what you  want to do.

Let’s say there’s some great equipment available (we’ll talk more about equipment later) and an event about which you want to make a short documentary. Someone with little experience might think that all they have to do is get a ton of coverage and then edit it down to make their documentary. Just shoot everything that happens. Maybe use a couple of cameras to make sure they get it all. The next day with twenty Terabytes of footage to edit down to seven minutes where do they start? It’s an overwhelming task because there was no plan, no direction, and no concept about what would really be done with all this footage. No preconceived notion of a story or how it would be told.

Shooting twenty Terabytes of coverage of an event, with no particular story concept in mind, is nothing more than shooting archival footage. The event has been documented but that’s where it ends. Is it possible to pull a story of sorts out of all the footage? Sure, but archival in, is archival out. A documentary begins with the goal of telling a story about the event that gives the viewer a subjective interpretation of what happened. While the archival footage, is also subjective in the end, it’s purpose was to simply record the event. It is like C-Span coverage of congress. The coverage is usually from chosen, locked off, camera positions, lens choices and angles. It’s hard to stay engaged watching this type of video.

The place to start with a documentary idea, is with a concept and treatment  about the subject for the story. What’s the story? Where do you want to go with this story? Who are the characters in this story? Who is the audience for the story?

Let’s say the event is one that happens once a year in an urban community. It’s been going on for a several years as a charitable event, is well attended and participation is high. People have fun and the competition involved in the event is not taken too seriously or is it? Here’s an example.

For the past eight years there has been a “Doggie Derby” held in Baldwin Park, a moderately upscale community in Orlando, Florida. The concept is to put together a short documentary that in a few minutes gives the festive feel of Doggie Derby Day in Baldwin Park and the people and dogs involved. But we still don’t have a story. This is only an idea.IMG_2900fromCR2

That’s where the Treatment comes in. A treatment narrative conveys the story line, beginning, middle and end. Also the style and approach to be used in telling story.

A basic treatment lets the director know what the story is about and a basic approach to telling the story. For a short documentary the treatment doesn’t have to be very long. The idea is to pre-visualize how the story will be told and what it will look like on the screen.

There could be a bigger story here but the goal is to keep it short and still give the viewer a real feel for what goes on at the event. The treatment establishes an opening that includes some establishing shots, background if possible, shots of the people and dogs. More footage of the actual dog racing and how the participants, two-legged and four-legged, react to the proceedings. The style of shooting is intimate which means close-ups of people and action. The story starts with establishing shots of the venue, people and action. Once the action is established a short interview with the organizers; “how did the Doggie Derby get started?” Then show more action, dogs racing, people watching and enjoying the event. Interview couples that have entered their dogs and why they do it. Other interviews if possible. Story ends with awards to winners of the last races.

If a longer more in-depth story was required, the treatment could go into more detail about each area. For example while the interview with the organizers goes on, voice over archival footage of earlier year’s events is included. More interviews and questions asked of more people. Interviews with winners and other participants also possible. Vendors who sponsor the Doggie Derby each year would be interviewed. Show and interview volunteers who help set up the venue. Keep track of each race and interview finalist as they progress toward the Grand Champion race.

The outcome of all the races or what people will do or say is not known. But a shooting script to further develop the concept and treatment could be written. This script is more about what the filmmakers will do than what the subjects will do or say. A full shooting script is not always necessary or practical. It would be great if earlier years were attended or the organizers talked to in advance so that there is an idea of what may be happening. A shooting script for a documentary is in some ways a “wish-list” of what is needed to tell a story. But documentaries are exploratory; things may be very different from what is expected. The pre-production, concept, treatment and a shooting script are a way to get the director out there with some ideas about how to tell the story, whatever it turns out to be.

To see a sample shooting and editing scripts for a documentary go to:  Sample Shooting and Editing Script.

After the shooting is finished and coverage logged and reviewed, an editing script should be written so new information and actual footage may be molded into a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Editing can go ahead without an absolute fixed length for the story. Edit for story and pace not time. Trying to stretch footage to get to a certain length will be obvious and the quickest way to lose an audience. Of course some time constraints may exist, usually it’s a matter of tightening up and not adding scenes. Be ready to throw your favorite shot under the bus if it doesn’t add to the story.

The Doggie Derby Day story was envisioned a few days before the actual event. It was based on the director having attended the Doggie Derby in earlier years. The idea was to spontaneously tell a simple story that gave a feel for the event as described above. This was also a time to test out some lightweight equipment for use in fluid documentary situations using very small crews.

DSC00492crpszIn this case the “crew” was a Director/camera operator, Production Assistant/recorder/microphone holder and a second camera operator, primarily for action and production stills, and some video.


In a earlier post the Canon 7D Mark II and Atomos Ninja Star were reviewed for their potential use in a documentary situation. Doggie Derby Day provided a multifaceted test for the equipment including portability, quality, ease of use and practical field-testing. In addition a Zoom H1 was used as a microphone/recorder to work double system.DSC00496crpsz

The  ZOOM H1 was hand-held most of the time by an assistant. It was also used attached to a heavy-duty photography “L” and flash shoe mount bracket that also held the 7D Mark II. The Ninja Star was attached to the 7D hot shoe. This rig was set up to test one-person operation. A shoulder mount was available but not tested this time around. A tripod was available but not very practical for one person at this type of event (Think doggie POV using a tripod?). A Canon 6D was used by a second camera operator who shot production stills, action stills and supporting video.

IMG_2865JM7dCrpThe Canon 7D Mark II with the Ninja Star mounted on the hot shoe is lightweight. Attaching an “L” bracket to the camera offered two-handed shooting, and one-handed shooting using either hand. The Zoom H1, microphone/recorder is very light and easily mounted to one of the shoes on the bracket. An alternative might be the Zoom H5 with a shotgun microphone. A wireless lavaliere microphone could also be used  with either the Zoom H1 or H5 as there is an input for an external microphone on both, but only the H5 has XLR inputs.

An intimate feel was desired for the Doggie Derby Day documentary. Using a zoom lens was possible and the Canon 28mm to 135mm F3.5 – 5.5 was used for a few shots, but the bulk of the shooting was done with the Canon EFS 24mm F.2.8 STM with its tiny lens 24mm_ef_s_24mm_f_2_8_is_ The EF-S Mount Lens is APS-C   matching the 7D Mark II format (38mm –  Equivalent for 35mm full frame) . This small prime lens performed perfectly for this situation. It focuses quickly and quietly utilizing the camera’s Movie Servo AF mode. This lens allows close-ups to be shot without distortion and wide shots as well. No zooming of the lens all the time to change focal length. Instead the camera is moved closer or farther from the subject (Isn’t that a novel idea?). The  prime lens has sharpness and is lightweight.

Setting up the Canon 7D Mark II to work with Atomos Ninja Star is not difficult but certain guidelines must be followed for settings in the camera’s Menu. Please see for set up instructions. This set up, apparently by default, provided “proxy” H.264 .mov files including picture and sound in the camera, the same footage that was being recorded in HQ4.22, Pro Res on the Ninja Star.  To avoid recording to the camera memory, push the record button on the Ninja Star instead of using the camera trigger. The footage will only record to the Ninja Star.


Zoom H1 and Ninja Star both mounted on “L” bracket leaves hot shoe free. Also may work well with LED viewfinder attachment and shoulder mount.

The 7D Mark II has two memory cards that can be set so that the camera automatically switches to the second card when the first is full. To prevent interruption of shooting, change out the CF card in the camera when it is 90% full and set the camera to switch to the second card when the first is full. In a pinch you could continue shooting using the second card. The camera will not record if the memory cards in the camera are full.

Post production and editing for a short documentary film depends on how well the pre-production and production went.  After importing the footage into an editing program, the first step is to log and review all the footage.  In the case of Doggie Derby Day there were two types of footage plus photographs to import into Final Cut Pro.  All of the footage recorded on the Ninja Star was Pro Res HQ 4.22. This imports in to Final Cut natively, since Pro Res is what Final Cut edits with.  Footage recorded to the Canon 7D Mark II was H.264, but Final Cut Pro has an optimization setting that upgrades the H.264 to Pro Res for editing. The other footage shot with the Canon 6D was also optimized to Pro Res  when it was imported into Final Cut Pro.  So all the footage was compatible and seamless. Photographs can also be imported and optimized.

Editing a short documentary with Final Cut is a subject for another article.  Final Cut Pro, once you understand how the program works, is not difficult. It facilitates editing creatively and quickly. For experienced editors there is an unlearning process that involves track based editing vs Final Cut’s non linear story structure editing.   Whatever non-linear editing (NLE) program you use it’s important to have a plan.

 James R (Jim) Martin, Documentary Filmmaker and Author Create Documentary Films, Videos and Multimedia.


Here’s an example of a short  documentary (Seven minutes) that went on to win a Tely Award.

Like Love Haha Wow Sad Angry
468 ad

No Comments


  1. Writing A Script for a Documentary Film | JR Martin Media - […] Making A Short Documentary article. […]
  2. Canon 7D MarkII & Atomos Ninja Star | JR Martin Media - […]  Field Test Making a Short Documentary. […]

Add Your Thoughts

Website is Protected by WordPress Protection from