How to Become a Documentary Filmmaker

Female documentary filmmaker on the job

Documentaries are not a new phenomenon. And neither are the desire to tell stories, uncover truth, explore dangerous ideas, and produce beautiful and meaningful art. What is new, however, is the availability of documentaries. In recent years, they have exploded in popularity, largely as a result of Netflix developing some really compelling series produced with a cinematic feel that keeps you on the edge of your seat and wanting more.

Documentaries Are Not Merely Informational, They’re Entertainment

In a time where truth is relative – and extremely divisive – documentaries have become a perfect platform for groups and individuals to start a dialogue, to wrestle with topics and ideas, and to share experiences. And their artistic nature is the perfect medium to do all of that.

Like a museum, concert or play, art is meant to be experienced in connection with others, for the purpose of refining and building together a greater more personal truth that can inspire individuals and change the way people think and live. That is why there is an “urgent need for the stories of people’s real-world experiences,” because they connect us, teach us, and inspire us, according to Simon Kilmurry, the executive director of the International Documentary Association.

Through ever evolving cinematic and artistic capabilities, combined with growing journalistic responsibilities, documentaries carry power and opportunity unlike any other medium.

If you’ve ever thought about or dreamed of being involved in documentary filmmaking, now is the time!

And here is the place to start. Below you will find everything you need to know to become involved in documentary filmmaking, the jobs available, and even the type of interdisciplinary degree that can prepare to become a skilled and savvy documentarian.

The Basic Steps to Becoming Documentary Filmmaker

"Doing a documentary is about discovering, being open, learning, and following curiosity."

Spike Jonze

Young filmmaker in desertLike any artist or musician, there are no set requirements for becoming an independent documentary filmmaker other than passion and commitment. If you are passionate about your craft and purpose, if you are committed to the process, the details, to learning the craft, you will learn the ins and outs needed to make and produce quality and purposeful documentaries.

With that said, here are a few guidelines to follow that can help save time, money, and a good deal of frustration if you are interested going indie and producing a documentary film project on your own:

Gain Experience with an Established Company

 Finding work of any sort with an already established company not only helps with funding, it provides you experience, opportunities, and connections. Spending time with those who know the industry will allow you to learn the many facets, nuances, and tricks of the filming/storytelling industry, saving you time and money in your own filmmaking journey and providing you inspiration as you connect with other artists and ideas. Even if you are performing menial tasks, you are learning the business and the process, you are making connections with other filmmakers, and you are funding your own project.

Work Freelance

 To be a quality documentary filmmaker requires time. Time in filming, editing, sound, and in storytelling. To be a quality documentary filmmaker requires gaining experience. Working freelance not only provides you an income that can help sustain your livelihood and future filming projects, it provides you ample opportunities – experience – in finetuning your skills as a film and movie maker. Working freelance also provides you opportunities to make connections with community members, other filmmakers, and a variety of ideas – all of which will be highly beneficial to you in your future projects.  

Learn How to Fundraise, or Hire Someone Who Can

Making a documentary requires money. Whether it is time spent researching, filming, and editing in lieu of working a 9 to 5 job, or buying the proper equipment needed, a lot of money is required up front with little guarantee you’ll recoup any of it, let alone turn a profit. Raising money, therefore, is essential not only to produce your product, but to sustain your livelihood. Not all artists/documentarians are rich and famous – nor do they want to be! But all artist/documentarians are humans. And as humans, we need to eat, sleep, and stay clothed. In short, we need money. Even if only just a little.

What Kind of Degree Do You Need to Become a Documentary Film Maker?

Technically, none. Michel Moore, one of the most iconic names in modern documentary filmmaking dropped out of college after his freshman year, only to receive an honorary degree years later for his outstanding work and impact on the filmmaking industry. And he isn’t alone. Artists, musicians, and filmmakers from all walks of life are finding success in their chosen industry, largely due to the high-quality products available as well as the variety of platforms available from which to publish and share your work.

That does not mean, however, that a degree isn’t valuable or highly beneficial.

A liberal arts degree provides you a foundation of understanding, not only of your craft, but also of the world in which you hope to build your craft upon.

Obtaining a degree creates a layer of trust. It is a tangible piece of evidence that shows the world you know what you are doing in your chosen profession. It is also an indication that you have wrestled with thoughts and ideas, that you have refined the skill of working collaboratively, and that you have at least a baseline knowledge of the world.

Which is why a liberal arts degree just might be the best option for you as a future filmmaker.

Reasons Why a Liberal Arts Degree Can Help You Become a Better Documentary Filmmaker

A liberal arts degree connects you with the stories of the people you will be making films about

 At the heart of a liberal arts degree is the story of humanity. It involves the study of history, literature and writing, philosophy, the arts, and more – all of which provide you a rich and deep exploration of the world, the various cultures and ideas that exist within it, and the of the hearts and minds of the people who live on it. Obtaining a liberal arts degree provides you a foundation of knowledge about humanity, which in turn will provide you a great deal of empathy, passion, and understanding for the stories you make, and people you make the stories about. 

A liberal arts degree with a concentration in film allows you to be a student of the craft of filmmaking

 In order to become a quality documentary filmmaker, you must have a strong grasp of the entire process. As a student, you are constantly watching, practicing, and learning the craft by getting on sets, trying your hands at a variety of tasks, and learning through real-life, hands-on experiences – all from a variety of respected and experienced filmmakers. With a liberal arts degree, not only do you gain access to a wide variety of experiences, you also have the opportuning of gaining those experiences in the wider context of the world, providing you relevance and purpose. 

Obtaining a liberal arts degree puts you in direct community with other artists, filmmakers, and thinkers

 No artist is an island unto themselves. In order to create something that is lasting, our ideas and visions must be refined and inspired by a variety of minds and a deluge of perspectives. It must also have many hands involved in the overall project. Obtaining a liberal arts degree puts you in direct contact with many other like-minded men and women who are skilled and passionate about different forms of art, ideas, and the filmmaking process. These connections will not only expand your knowledge and understanding of the craft of filmmaking, they will expand your range of future job prospects, your inspiration, and your opportunities to be a part of collaborative projects.

Popular Documentary Jobs

Filmmaker behind the camera during documentary Ken Burns believes that nonfiction filmmaking is a gateway for understanding the world, illuminating perspectives, and exploring each other. To do so, however, the documentary must not only have something worth saying, it must be able to express it in such a way that people want to watch, to listen.

To create a documentary, there are a lot of moving parts. All of which require skilled and committed individuals who are passionate about their craft. Not everyone is a director. And not everyone wants to be one. Below is a list of jobs related to documentary filmmaking and the unique qualifications needed for each.

Documentary Producer

 To become a documentary producer, according to the legendary American filmmaker Ken Burns, you need to have something to say. Then, you need to have the strength and ability to persevere. As a producer, you will have to be a jack of all trades, understanding how to do a variety of different things such as being a fundraiser, a showman, a director, writer, and editor, as well as a cinematographer and more. With so much to learn and master, it is often a good idea to find a job working for an established company in a variety of supportive roles in order to learn the many skills necessary for being a documentary producer.

Documentary Researcher

 To ensure the reliability and accuracy of a documentary, a producer will often times higher a researcher to gather the relevant and needed information for their film. To become a reliable and sought-after documentary film researcher, it is therefore best if you earn a bachelor’s degree as it will refine your skills in communications, research strategies and ethics, reliable journalism, culture and media trends, and much more. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree, therefore, will also provide you a pillar of trust for any producer and will connect you with a variety of artists and filmmakers who can easily become resources for future work and projects.

Documentary Cameraman/Photographer

 Like any craft, skills and abilities trump qualifications. The same is true for a documentary cameraman/photographer. That said, at the root of any and all opportunities and success are the ability to capture a director’s vision, accurately (and oftentimes creatively) capture a moment live and without influence, and to produce consistent and timely work. So although this position does not require a formal education, to become a documentary cameraman or photographer, obtaining a degree can be a benefit to you as it not only helps you obtain the proper skills and techniques needed, it produces a layer of trust for any producer. With a degree (be it an associates or bachelor’s) you show that you not only have the required skills to graduate, it is also evidence that you are able to work with others and receive and follow instructions.

Are Documentarians Journalists?

Female documentarian journalist filming It depends. Largely because so many documentarians, although thorough in their research and telling of a non-fiction story, tell their story from a clear and biased perspective (think Michael Moore). Most documentarians, however, behave much the same as any journalist, holding themselves to a rigor and code of balanced, fair, and accurate portrayal of information (Joe Berlinger, for example, in his film Crude).

Most documentarians, as well as news organizations and even judicial courts, are beginning to get on board with documentaries as valid and reliable sources of information. Where the line gets blurred, however, where it can be difficult for documentarians to maintain the same level of respect and trust is in the medium of film. Film carries more of an emotional impact when you add in components like music, artistic filming, and other visual tricks. These elements add more than a hint of manipulation that the printed word does not, blurring the lines between true journalism and artistic expression.

However, as our world continues to move to a visually stimulated society, as newspapers and journalistic writing continues to decline, more and more journalists are moving to documentary filming, bringing with them their expertise, ethics, and desire to improve and expand the world of documentary filmmaking.

Documentaries reveal the world. They tell important stories, bring much needed awareness, and inspire change. And in recent years, as Netflix and other media platforms have gone all in on documentaries, they have become a key source of entertainment. Which is why, perhaps more than any other medium, documentary filmmaking has become such an important industry. Because it has the power and ability to influence our world and create purposeful and much needed dialogue.

If you are interested in the arts, if you are passionate about telling stories, sharing ideas, and inspiring change – if you care deeply about the world and those who live in it – becoming a documentary filmmaker is the perfect career choice for you.