PRODUCTION TIPS: 4 Tips to Develop and Plan Your Doc Idea

It seems like we might be living in a golden age for documentaries.  It's not only that the sheer numbers of documentaries being made has spiked in recent years but also the high quality and breadth of topic has exponentially improved as well.  Doc-loving audiences must be elated. The proliferation of digital media technology surely has a hand in this.  Also, the success of the political (ideological?) documentary, the nature and history channels and the onslaught of reality shows have normalized the viewing of documentaries as a genre and made it as popular as the horror or action film.  And finally the ground Vice magazine has broken with their hip, edgy, relevant and informative short documentaries across a variety of topics on Youtube and HBO has given documentaries further staying power in the mainstream culture. It's a good time to be watching documentaries and it's a good time to make them. 

That's why it doesn't surprise me to now see other media companies stepping their game up.  Enter the New York Times to the stage who since 2011 have invited filmmakers — including people like Alex Gibney, Jessica Yu, and Errol Morris — to make short movies with a point of view.  They recently invited filmmakers to pitch projects and ideas at the Sheffield Doc/Fest's New York Times Op-Docs Pitch to great success. Now, the New York Times is at it again, seeking the next top documentarian and now for the first time they are in North America, at the Camden International Film Festival:
Documentary filmmakers from the United States are invited to submit their ideas for short documentaries that fit the editorial and creative scope of the New York Times Op-Docs series.

Op-Docs is the Times’ forum for short opinionated documentaries, produced with wide creative latitude and a range of artistic styles, covering current affairs, contemporary life and historical subjects. Contributors range from Oscar winners (Errol Morris, Alex Gibney, Roger Ross Williams, [and] Jessica Yu) to emerging filmmakers and artists. View the films at
Selected filmmakers will pitch their ideas on stage at the Points North Documentary Forum. The filmmaker with the winning pitch will have an opportunity to produce an Op-Doc for The New York Times with a budget of $2,000 (USD). Subject to The New York Times’ approval, the documentary will premiere on
So whether now you are inspired to produce and direct a documentary because you have always wanted to do one but couldn't come up with an idea for one or because you want to make one for The New York Times Op-Docs Pitch, here are 4 things to do to develop and plan your documentary idea:

KNOW THE PARAMETERS OF WHERE YOU WANT YOUR DOCUMENTARY TO END UP.  Whether you are making your doc with intentions to screen at a festival or applying for a grant.  KNOW THE END GAME BY READING THE INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE YOU SUBMIT OR SEND YOUR APPLICATION.  There is nothing worse than submitting something to somewhere it does not qualify.  In regards to the Camden International Film Festival, here are the instructions.  And in particular for Camden, heed the following recommendations: the proposed doc should be between 3-10 minutes (most are 5); make sure it fits the tone of Op-Docs (so watch their videos first); don't just submit a scene from a longer piece, it should be standalone film; and, you stand a better chance if you actually show them something visual instead of just a dry verbal pitch.  Ideally, they would prefer to see footage but if you can't get footage for some good reason then at least have some storyboards.

DEVELOP YOUR STORY IDEAS BY GATHERING RAW MATERIALS.  If you're stumped for ideas, consider the following sources for documentary stories (as suggested by Michael Rabiger in Directing the Documentary):
  • Personal Journal - Maybe you're going through personal issues that you can integrate into a documentary like Ross McElwee did with Sherman's March.
  • Blogs, Newspapers and Magazines - Local papers and stories are particularly useful because they would be accessible to you for you to shoot.  Don't just look at the main front page stories, check out obituaries, the culture section, personals, advice columns and the sports section.
  • History - Analyze why someone has given an historical account of something.  All history is subjective in the sense that they are not just a simple objective retelling of facts but an interpretation of an event.  Kind of like what you're doing with your doc.
  • Myths and Legends -  "There may not be any royal road to the understanding of an alien or half-alien culture... but one path which appears to lead into the interior is the study of that culture’s heroes." This quote sums up how a doc based on myths and legends can be revealing; legends are the "fake" history of a people and myths are the underlying epic explanations of an event of a people.  Tap into those sources and your small doc can touch on our ancient desire for myths and legends.  For an example on how this is done, see Mark Rappoport's From the Journals of Jean Seberg.
  • Family Stories - especially if you have an eccentric family member with a vivid story to tell.  Who doesn't love strange family stories?
  • Childhood Stories - especially if they are inspirational or traumatic.
  • Social Science and Social History - We live in an age where studies are being done on just about every aspect of life you can think of.  A source for documentary is waiting for you in the dusty libraries of a research college or in the online database of a government or academic scientist.
NARROW YOUR SIGHTS AND PICK A MANAGEABLE SUBJECT THEN TEST YOUR SUBJECT BEFORE COMMITTING TO IT.  Every filmmaker knows that even a short requires extensive work.  Two hours is not enough to cover a broad topic so don't even think about it for a short.  Be specific about your subject and narrow the scope of your study.  Rabiger suggests asking yourself a couple of questions to truly determine how much you want to make this film. If you assess yourself and your subject ahead of time, you can save yourself the trouble of getting into something before it's too late:
  • Is this an area in which I am already knowledgeable and opinionated?
  • Do I feel a strong and emotional connection to this?
  • Can I do justice to the subject?
  • Do I have a drive to learn more about this subject?
  • What is this subject's underlying significance to me?
  • What do I and most people already know about the subject?
  • What do I and most people really want to discover?
  • What is unusual and interesting about it?
  • What can I show?
PLAN TO CREATE A DOC WITH A STRONG MOOD.  Although you will surely end up recording things you did not expect, you should still strategize, plan and prepare for your doc as much as possible.  Your documentary should not only make an audience think, it also needs to change how the audience feels about something.  Show evidence that will make a strong impact.  Shoot for visual impact and when you come to edit, assemble all your visual and behavioral material first to develop what it suggests rather than start with a speech organized as a paper edit.  Imagine this as a silent film and design a sound composition from there.  As Robert Bresson has said, "The eye sees but the ear imagines."

Whether you plan on making a documentary now or later, these tips can help you make it worth your while and lead to a good piece others will want to watch.

Deadline to enter the Camden International Film Festival is Aug. 9, 2013.


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