Film & TV

How to Make a Documentary

Authored by Ken Burns

Director, Filmmaker

As a documentary filmmaker, you’re here to be an emotional archaeologist, not to excavate the dry dates and facts of the past. Your documentaries will take the audience by the hand and show them the drama of history, and these tips from Ken Burns will show you how.

Part 1 of 10

Don’t choose the documentary topic; let the topic choose you

You might have lots of ideas in your head, but you’ll know which one is worth pursuing when that idea leaves your head and goes down to your heart. It will literally take years to make this film, so when you say yes to something, make sure it really speaks to you.

Did you know?

Never choose your documentary subject based on marketing or potential profitability—there’s no such thing in the world of documentary filmmaking.

Part 2 of 10

Research, research, research!

Accumulate thousands of sources: photographs, newspapers, footage, internet articles, paintings, etchings, sketches, letters, journals, diaries, etc. Keep researching and investigating until your film is finished, because at any point you could find something that entirely changes your perspective or inspires a new chapter in your documentary.

Part 3 of 10

Write a compelling narrative arc

Poorly written documentaries are like lessons that taste bad. The laws of storytelling also apply to documentaries. Create an arc with a beginning, middle, and end that is filled with details, not summaries. Saying, “By 1866, the Confederate amy’s supplies were almost gone” means nothing, but including a description of sloosh—a mixture of fried cornmeal and bacon fat that starving soldiers ate off their ramrods—makes that fact memorable and affecting.

Part 4 of 10

Let your narrator speak with the voice of God’s stenographer

Your narrator is one of the most important forces in your film, and hopefully one of the most invisible. Their voice should tell a story without shouting or sounding like an advertisement—they must speak with all of the importance of history but none of the ego.

Did you know?

Never record voice-over to picture. The imagery should be added much later in the editing process, and matching the narration to the picture will result in rushed pacing that’s unfit for the words.

Part 5 of 10

Keep your interview questions simple and general

They’ll lead to the most detailed of answers. For example, in the documentary Jazz, the question “What is jazz?” led Wynton Marsalis to reenact the entire Count Basie Orchestra. This could never have happened as truthfully if you’d asked, “Can you reenact what the Count Basie Orchestra was like?”

Part 6 of 10

Record the music early on

This might seem antithetical to filmmaking, as music is traditionally added once a film is done. Your music is one of your directors, and the emotion it evokes can help determine which images to use and the pace and rhythm of those scenes.

Part 7 of 10

Begin the editing process with a blind assembly

A “blind assembly” is a rougher-than-rough cut with only scratch narration, rough edits of your talking heads, no music, and—most importantly—no visuals. With only dialogue to focus on, you’ll find the shape of your story. You can add imagery on the next pass.

Did you know?

Editing is the most important part of making a documentary, as you’re synthesizing every other aspect into one whole. It’s your time to weed out the extraneous so that you get a smooth narrative arc within the context of each scene, chapter, and episode of your documentary.

Part 8 of 10

Your source photos are your story; the camera movements are how you tell it

Of the thousands of photos you’ve researched, maybe 1 in 40 will make it into your documentary. To give them impact, hold on the photos or move the camera to convey the story. For example, a photo of a Civil War soldier might start by focusing on two revolvers, then tilting up to see the soldier wielding them is an angelic, baby-faced kid.

Part 9 of 10

Make your sound design so realistic that it’s startling

Your supplemental sounds will add life to your narrative. It’s not enough to add soldiers marching or cannons firing. Think about what you most want to hear and how many individual components make up that sound. For example, if you’re showing a house, do you include a dog barking and a screen door slamming, or do you also include cars passing, light traffic, and birds?

Did you know?

The Gettysburg sequence in The Civil War used 26 audio tracks, and the Tet Offensive sequence in The Vietnam War included 160, and both were built from scratch.

Part 10 of 10

Get feedback from your historical advisers and interviewees

Once you have a rough cut, hold a screening followed by an energetic and complex discussion during which the people involved in your documentary can provide feedback. Use this feedback as you complete your edits.

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