Planning your documentary

Good planning will save you a lot of time and budget. It’s never fun sitting down to do the edit and you realise that you didn’t get enough coverage or you’re missing a piece of the story. Also equally important is defining the purpose of your film so the finished product lands well with your audience.



So here’s some basic questions compiled especially for teachers and students to help plan your documentary film…


What is the purpose you are setting out to achieve?

Why do you want to tell a story? Consider what is it that you want your audience to feel, learn or do when they see your film. It might be an informative or instructional video to give your audience new knowledge or skills. Maybe students are using documentary film as a way to creatively present research findings or classroom discoveries, or are you telling your story to change hearts and minds? Your purpose will have profound effect on how you tell your story and how you intend to reach your audience.

Who are you telling you story for?

Consider who your audience is. How do you access them? How do they usually view and receive video content?

These questions will help you decide the style, length and format you choose to tell and distribute your story. For example, an informative documentary for a classroom experience may be a series of 1-3 x five minute episodes using archival footage, interviews and animation, whereas a shocking expose to encourage viewers to sign onto a petition may be 30 second to 1 minute clip using animation, narration and fast paced editing, to be posted on youtube and social networks.



Consider what existing research and evidence will help inform your story, and what additional research will you need to conduct. Map out what you already know and what you don’t know about your subject. Consider what the key events, people, challenges and conflicts are. Articulate what your point of view on the subject is and consider what other points of view, beliefs and opinions are out there. What interviews or information can you present to show all sides of the story? How can you find out more – do you need to undertake interviews or possibly conduct your own experiments and discovery?

Length + format

How your audience will watch your film and the purpose will really impact the length and format. For example, you’ll notice that most online videos will be less than 2 minutes. YouTube’s default allows video uploads of up to 15 minutes. However Vimeo’s basic plan allows 500MB per week.

If you are showing your film in class, you might choose to show something that’s less than 10 minutes. That way, you can keep everyone’s attention plus have time for discussion and activities.

If you need to present a bunch of different topics or aspects of your topic you may choose to do a series of short films which you might release on a weekly basis. School assemblies or whole school screenings will also have a limit or allow for longer content depending on the format of the event. Similarly if you’re planning on submitting your film into a competition or festival there will be a limit on the length.

Another huge consideration is how long you will have to create your film. If it is an in-class activity then maybe you only have time to create a 30 second clip. It’s good to be aware that it can take years for filmmakers to create feature-length documentary films such as a 52 minute show made for ABC or SBS or a 90 minute film for cinema release.

Content & style

Who is/are the character/s in your film? Maybe its a person or maybe its a thing. What perspective will you tell their story from – is it from their point of view or are you an outsider looking in? What are they trying to achieve – what is their objective in the story? Is there a problem they are trying to solve? And what is at stake for them?

Considering all these questions, you can also have a think about what style you will use to help you fulfil your purpose. Will your documentary be observational, a personal journey, use archival footage, use reinactments or maybe its a comedy. For more in depth learning about style check out National Film and Sound Archive’s DIY Doco.

The team

Who will be involved in making your film and what is their role? If you want some more in depth info on team roles check out Vimeo Video School’s Who’s Who on a Movie Crew blog and video.


What equipment and software do you have to record and edit film and sound? Have you got: cameras, tripods, microphones, headphones, lighting, phones, tablets, laptop or PC, editing software, cords and batteries?


Make sure you have the right permission to film people and places. All schools will have a policy on filming which will greatly affect where and who you can film and subsequently where you share your film. Many schools or education departments will have a template that you should use if you’re filming at school. Also make sure if you are using any archival or someone else’s footage, audio or music that you have the right permission to use it and distribute it. For free images, audio and music check out creative commons.


Consider who your audience is, how will they see your film and how will you encourage them to watch it? Are you holding a school screening at lunch time that you will promote with flyers around the school? Or maybe you could hold an online screening that you will promotion Facebook and twitter.

Partners and advisors

Is there anyone who can help you achieve your purpose? And is there anyone that you should consult and get advice from if you are talking about a sensitive and tricky subject? In some cases, having advisors can help you give your film more legitimacy. Run your idea past them, and show them the rough cut and final edit t make sure you’re on the right track.


Story Structure

You can take a traditional approach and plan out the beginning, middle and end of your story. Check out this great clip of Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories.

But get those cameras in hands as soon as you can – that’s when the magic happens.

We’ve put together a documentary film planner to help you and your students think through all the elements they need to make a great documentary film. Download the PDF



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