Documentary Production

A program that prepares individuals to produce nonfiction film and video. Includes instruction in film and video writing, directing, and production; film studies; history of the documentary; research techniques; videography; editing; and business aspects of film production.

Careers in documentary production focus on capturing real stories on film. 

Documentaries have a somewhat unfair reputation for being boring or serious in contrast to narrative films. However, the scope of what constitutes documentary film is wider than most people expect; any film that documents some aspect of reality without imposing a fictional narrative onto it might fall under the umbrella. Nature shows, recorded interviews, and to some extent, reality TV are all examples of documentary productions. Experimental documentaries may utilize real or found footage but superimpose narrative elements or vice versa; there are endless forms a documentary can take, but the process tends to follow a specific path.

The art of a documentary film lies in the combined effects of its composition and concept; anyone can film the world around them, but it takes a strong framework and a thoughtful eye to get something that can be recognized as a cohesive film. Many directors start their process with an idea that leads them to film specific things, places, or people, but documentaries are unique in the way they begin to take shape during the editing process. Unlike scripted work, which has a predetermined structure that informs what gets shot, documentary filming comes with all the surprises of reality; there's no way to predict what someone might say or what might happen on camera. The editing process for documentary is one of discovery; moments form into story elements, and eventually, with judicious cuts and other post-production add-ons, an arc emerges.

Documentary production crews almost always consist of a director, cinematographer, producer, and editor, and each of these roles may have additional team members they work with directly, such as camera assistants, sound recordists, or animators.

Short films or long-term independent documentary projects may have a director who fulfills all of these roles - planning, shooting, and editing an entire project themselves. This requires more time, energy, resources, and skills than any one person tends to have, so most formal, festival, and commercial projects involve at least a small crew.

Work in documentary production may include...

  • Conducting interviews and filming in real spaces
  • Uploading and editing footage
  • Searching for stock footage
  • Splicing together footage and recorded audio
  • Securing funding and distribution

Finding work as a documentary film documentary filmmakers may be sought after by nonprofits or even commercial advertisers who want to present a more naturalistic lens. Well-connected documentary filmmakers may seek funding from executive producers who may have a hand in developing, promoting, or distributing their work; grants from film companies or arts foundations can be another financial resource for prospective filmmakers. Increasingly, filmmakers crowdsource production funds from prospective audiences; this can be a great way to gauge interest in a project.

There's no one path to a career in documentary production; some aspiring filmmakers start young, making informal projects with friends and simple recording devices. Others take a more structured route, jumping into a documentary film program and completing an array of learning exercises. Film school may not be the best route for someone committed to documentary work; some schools offer filmmaking programs geared toward documentary production to journalism or communications majors. However, documentary film is a big world, and it can be beneficial to learn a subject's foundations before attempting to make a film about it - a student who wants to make scientific documentaries would probably benefit more from a science education than a foray into film school. Graduate programs offer opportunities for production and specialization that aspiring documentarians may want to take advantage of; however, the best way to get a handle on documentary filmmaking is to make a few very small documentaries and work from there.

If you're both a truth teller and a storyteller with an interest in visual media, a fantastic career in documentary filmmaking might be in your future.

The International Documentary Association supports the vital work of documentary storytellers and champions a thriving and inclusive documentary culture.

Doc Society is a nonprofit committed to enabling great documentary films and connecting them to audiences globally.