5 Essentials for Creating a Documentary

Kaila Mathis

CLLCTVE hosted CLLCTVE University: The Ultimate Creator Accelerator for 10 Weeks of Spring 2021. Each week came with its own upskilling workshop hosted by a CLLCTVE Creator.

Megan Long, American University Film and Media Arts Major with Music Performance and Audio Production Minors, hosted her workshop on Documentary Tips: How to Tell a Meaningful Story.

Megan was excited to work with creators across mediums and career paths, as the lessons learned about storytelling can be applied to all content creation.

“I’m so excited to have a chance to work with so many talented people and share what I have learned throughout my time in college,” said Megan. “I can’t wait to get people excited about documentaries.”

Megan has filmed multiple documentaries while attending American University for Film and Media Arts with Music Performance and Audio Production Minors, and using her experience; she gave us a preview of what she’ll cover in her workshop.

5 Essentials for Creating a Documentary

Pre-Production Research

“With documentaries, you should know the topic inside and out. Researching the topic before interviews allows you to obtain more in-depth answers from the subject. Holding pre-interviews is also key to learning more. Pre-interviews helps you write those in-depth questions but also gives you a feel for how the subject talks and answers questions, so you can navigate your on-camera interview so you can get as much information as you need out of the subject for your doc. Pre-production research also helps you become passionate about the topic, which will come out in the final product.


“Contracts are important in all filmed content, but especially a documentary. All subjects on camera need to sign a contract that states what your goals are for the project. I recommend having contracts stating that they consent to be on-camera and being edited, that they have no creative say in the final product, and to specifically state how the documentary will be distributed. Giving the subject limited to no creative say allows you to tell the story you want to tell, without having the person who is on-camera want you to cut some information out.


“You can tell a meaningful story even with an iPhone. But if you have some equipment, a list for a small documentary would include one DSLR camera and one lavalier microphone. Having good quality sound during an interview makes a documentary stand out, so don’t shy away from the audio equipment! A phone can also be added to this to get extra audio and footage when pulling out a camera is not an option. An equipment list should always stay small if the documentary needs you to travel or walk and follow subjects.


“You always need to be prepared when working with a subject. If you are meeting with them for an interview, know exactly how you want the interview to look before you get there. If you are taking b-roll, have a detailed shot list of what you need to film. This will help you look professional, but your future self will thank you when you get to post-production and you aren’t missing any shots you want. Use the knowledge you gained from pre-production research to tell you what shots to take.

An Open Mind!

“Because they are not scripted, documentaries can end up completely different in the final edit than you imagined when you started the project. An open mind allows you to go into the post-production process with no solidified way of telling the story. While filming you might have the subject open-up about something you didn’t know, or you might catch footage that twists the story differently. Use this to your advantage.”

Kaila Mathis
Kaila graduated from Villanova University in 2021 with a B.A. in PR & Advertising and Journalism, with a minor in Spanish. She is now the Growth Manager at CLLCTVE and a Freelance Writer for Adweek.
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