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Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 20 of 35

Define Your Desired Impact


Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 20 of 35

Define Your Desired Impact


Lesson Info

Define Your Desired Impact

As you can tell we're very much about impact in what we do. You don't have to be that way I just want to say that. That we're very particular kinds of animals but this isn't the only way you succeed or satisfy your needs in making a short film. Cat hiking is totally fine. Totally fine. This particular project I wanna share with you is for me a really nice example. The name of the film is Under Cane. The issue. It's part of now, I'm in the fifth year of looking at, this is a current project, looking at the issue of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin around the world. Another uplifting story. (laughter) This is a case where this issue came to me initially as a small commission from a very very small NGO, La Isla Foundation. They are committed to this one place in Nicaragua where this disease has impacted something like 20, sugar cane workers in the last 20 years. I always say you never know where your next great story or passion project will come from. Sometimes it comes from r...

esearch or things we learn about. Sometimes it comes from an assignment. In this case it came from a small commission. I went down, I saw what was going on. I was blown away by the situation. I could not believe how many people. Something like 67% of the males in this one community are sick or have died and they're sugar cane workers. I then made a few trips down there. Shot stills and then began to shoot video and then decided I wanted to expand the project and did a fundraising, a crowd funding campaign. Thankfully it was successful. I went back with a young filmmaker and then we produced this 15 minute film Under Cane. It appeared on the Nat Geo site and it actually had an impact. The sugar cane company in Nicaragua was one of the largest companies in the country had to pay attention 'cause it appeared on National Geographic. It's not because it was my work. It appeared on National Geographic. This was for me an example. Sorry to continue, I now have extended that work last year to India and Sri Lanka. What I'm trying to do is create a global look at this issue. It's underreported. I'm always attracted to underreported stories because it makes me feel I have a little room not only to create and tell stories but maybe to have an impact that might otherwise not happen. I find it a much more daunting task to go to Syria now. Forget that that's too dangerous for a lot of work. To go and do something where it's in the news every single day is much harder to come up with something fresh or new. What's interesting for me and this is new, I don't think we've ever had this and Julie's certainly has been roped into this, she cut the film, this short piece I'm gonna share with you, is that the goal as much as it is to raise awareness in the public it's actually also about raising awareness among epidemiologists scientists and health care researchers around the world so that international protocols to research the disease and find a cure can be established. A doctor in India who is doing blood and urine samples in a small village and then a doctor in El Salvador and a doctor in the Philippines, in Thailand and so forth and so on, that they will hopefully come together and figure out how do we create international protocols so that we can share the knowledge on the results we're getting so that we come up with a solution? My work is a tiny part of this but it's important. It's important. It raises awareness, it brings people together. I went last year to a conference in India in Chennai where a international group of researchers came together and I watched how when we showed our work these people who are braniacs in this one area of studying the kidney or a nephrologist, it's almost inspiring them. I don't mean to make it sound more than what it is but there was a palpable sense in the room when we shared pictures and stories that almost empowered them to continue their work. I was just gonna say, that's also possible through client work. You saw the piece on Doniece Sandoval, this Lava Mae helping the homeless population. That was for the James Irvine Foundation. It's their leadership awards. They give them every year and they're very strategic about the purpose of this media, where to show it how to use it. They commissioned the videos every year because they have an awards ceremony in Sacramento in front of policymakers. They fill that room with California legislators and they are very purposeful in that these leaders who are getting the awards have track records of success with their organizations. They love showing the videos at that luncheon because they feel that those policymakers viscerally feel that success and proof of the efficacy of these programs. They can leverage that emotional connection to try to move the legislators agenda to support these organizations. It is possible through work for hire. If you do it with that same passion drive to get the story told in a way that you can connect to then it can also achieve what Ed's talking about and what this example is gonna show you on a uber scale. In a gorilla way. To pick up I think something we're both saying here and I kind of touched on this earlier, you can reach 40 million people and not make a difference, you can reach the right 1,000 people and make a difference. Let's play this. This is just a five minute excerpt of the 15 minute film. We're seeing alarming numbers of patients with chronic kidney disease. Primarily in men working in the sugar cane fields. This is an epidemic that's effecting almost 20,000 people. It's not due to high blood pressure, it's not due to diabetes, it's not due to any of the typical causes of kidney disease we see. That's a taste of that film and it has a very clear advocacy message. It's telling you about an epidemic. It's got some expert voices doctors researchers but then the individuals who are impacted by this disease so that you really are informed but also you have this connection to the impact that the disease is having. The goal with the project is to inspire engagement. It's been used extensively by La Isla Foundation to promote their research, their cause to get more support. They've been very successful in getting international funding to do some deep research in El Salvador. Working now in India, Sri Lanka. It has a very clear purpose as a piece of communication for this issue but done in this really artful way. Done in a way that they could not have created themselves because they're not story tellers. They don't have the vision, they don't speak this language. This idea of balancing the information with an emotional impact so that you get to accomplish both simultaneously. I'd add in terms of getting support, as I said it started with a commission. Not a big commission a small commission a couple of weeks. Then I did a crowd funding campaign. Then I started to apply for grants and I got grants. It was published in wherever, The Atlantic or National Geographic. Then a Dutch NGO gave me support to go back and do something. Now I've applied for a big grant that I'm hoping in August to hear about but anyways sorry. I've applied to another big grant that would allow me to go to Peru. That's where I wanna go next. This is a case where this is a long-term, this is again my fifth year involved in this. I'm not trailblazing in terms of the speed of production but every year I'm chipping away, I'm adding more. We've done three films now of this length. My goal is to continue this and to continue to build the content but it isn't like I got one big piece of support that paid for it all and I've put my own money into it too. I guess part of the take away here is also serializing what you do. In a way that was the question earlier from online from Victor I believe, this question of if I do 10 short films can I make one? Maybe it's just a serialization. It's another approach and it's a valid approach. I love the idea of serializing as a topic and bringing people back to it time and time again. If there is a story for it what platform would you suggest hosting something like that? Would it be a website? Would it be a channel or something online that could support it? Julie can probably address this better than me but I'll start. Certainly a website is a way to do it. There are these like verses it's online. It's a platform it's called Verse Publishing. It's a platform. We've done a couple of things with them where you can create a timeline. It's tailor-made for video stills, text graphics, infographics so forth and so on. There's that way to do it. There's also maybe getting a publication or an NGOs website to host it as well. Then there's social media. Facebook Instagram, Twitter to some degree. Less with this. Certainly Instagram and Facebook are ways to have hosts if you like because the idea it seems we're in this link and click click and link world sort of. There's probably a better term for that. I feel we're moving away from it's in The New York Times and it leaves the next day and then it's gone and of course that's a hugely tremendous way to get your work out there absolutely but there are these other ways to do it now that in some ways can be more targeted as well. You can setup your own YouTube channel for your series. Vimeo channel for your series. The beauty of creating a serialized treatment is that if any one of those films gets picked up in a mainstream media outlet you can send people back to your whole series. Some are gonna be more successful than others. Some are gonna have niche interests to different outlets. With Newest Americans we decided to serialize one woman's story. She's an undocumented law student at (mumbles) Law School. She just graduated a couple of weeks ago. The first openly undocumented student to go through the law school and now she will challenge the state bar to see if they will allow her to practice in the state. What we decided to do was for three years we occasionally did a film about her. We just would check in on her and we produced, we're now doing the fifth installment. In the process of creating this we went to The Atlantic and we said we're serializing this woman's story. Does it interest you? They said this is fabulous yes. Every time we produce a segment we put it up on this Atlantic video page. The Atlantic pays nothing and I don't mean a little I mean nothing. It's for visibility, it's for distribution's sake. It lends credibility 'cause everybody respects The Atlantic so as an outlet it makes you look good because you've been vetted. You could approach a publication if you're doing a series. Pitch them one at a time or you can say I'm doing a series, would it interest you? Is there that opportunity? You have to get really creative in where to place these things. There's no one size fits all. Unfortunately placement does not mean income. It just doesn't. Even when places license these videos they don't license them for as much as it costs to make them. That's just the cold hard reality but if you build a beautiful webpage for them then when you do place one or the other then at least there's this very impressive repository that you've created that becomes a destination. One perverse thing that's happened is that you can't any more connect the value that you receive, the compensation you receive from media outlets to the value of what you created and the impact it might have. What you do is you leverage it. If you have work that's appeared in The New York Times or these other publications that have prestige and stamp of approval and all that even though you might of not made any or very little money from it, what it then allows you to do is when you go for that grant or when you go to that NGO or that foundation or that corporation or whatever it may be. Government entity whatever it may be. Wherever the potential funder is you now have the imprimatur, you have the stamp of approval. We had an example last year we did something called (mumbles) on young Muslim women in Newark who were wearing hijab and just talking about their experience. It appeared in The New York Times lens blog and now it's been seen by over 2 million people so that's pretty good. We made $400. In other words there's no connection to exposure and compensation but what it meant is when we go for the NEH Grant or when we go for these other forms of funding they're looking at that and going, wow these people are having reach. I'm not happy about this formula by the way 'cause I come out of the world where you did something for National Geographic and you got paid for it properly and it had whatever impact it had but that's just not the world we're living in anymore. Yes the National Geographic still is that. It is still that but very few are. Being flexible nimble thinking differently. These are critically important skills to have and a mindset to have to survive or to flourish in today's media world. Specifically with these short-doc films as a way to succeed and make the films you wanna make and get them out there.

Class Description


  • Figure out what your story is and create a story arc or narrative.
  • Perform extensive research and gather background information.
  • Prepare for, conduct, and edit an interview.
  • Use B-roll footage to round out your story.
  • Master the post-production process and create a polished finished piece.
  • Find partners and funders through pitching and trailers.


Documentary film is an incredibly powerful way to tell a story, but it can also be a daunting project to undertake. How do you figure out your story, theme, and vision? What’s the best way to interact with your subject? What about all the technical aspects—from lighting to audio to editing? And of course, how will you get the funds to complete your film?

If all these uncertainties are causing you to rethink your idea of making documentaries, then this class is a must for you. Award winning documentarians and photojournalists Ed Kashi and Julie Winokur will give you all the information and inspiration you need to tackle your project and see it through to the finish.

In this class, you’ll learn how to:

  • Identify a great subject and define your vision.
  • Research your subject thoroughly and find other work that’s been done on it.
  • Choose and gather the equipment you’ll need.
  • Prepare for your interview, including formulating the right questions.
  • Conduct an interview, including setting up your lights and capturing the audio.
  • Create a post-production workflow.
  • Write a compelling pitch and create a trailer to gain funding and support.
  • Generate a variety of end products, including videos for social media and still photos.

Whether you’re looking to create shareable videos on social platforms or hoping to gather funding to produce a bigger project, this class will help you simplify the process and begin creating documentaries for clients or to fulfill your own artistic vision.


  • Photojournalists and photographers wanting to get into video to expand their capabilities and explore new ways of telling stories.
  • Budding filmmakers who need the knowledge and inspiration to get started on their project.
  • Those who want more technical information and skills on how to develop and produce video and film


  1. Class Introduction

    Ed Kashi and Julie Winokur, a husband and wife filmmaking team, offer an overview of this class on how to make a short documentary.

  2. How Did We Start Making Documentaries?

    Ed and Julie describe their backgrounds, explain what has led up to their careers as documentary filmmakers and talk about how to start making documentaries.

  3. Universal Themes Through First-Person Storytelling

    See some of Julie and Ed’s early work and listen to them discuss the importance of first-person storytelling, the integration of stills and video, and publication across media platforms.

  4. Use Visual Language to Tackle a Theme

    Julie and Ed show a more recent project to talk about how to structure a documentary and the infinite options for tackling a theme.

  5. Issue Driven & Non-English Story Development

    Ed shares his documentary about young Syrian refugees and discusses documentary story development. He talks about what it’s like to create an extremely personal project that is both emotional and newsworthy.

  6. Translate a Theme Into a Film **Warning: This lesson contains scenes of graphic violence**

    Learn about the differences between themes and stories, how to translate your concept into an actual film, and what goes into the documentary storytelling process. **Warning: This lesson contains scenes of graphic violence**

  7. Turn Failures Into Lessons

    Look at an example of an idea that didn’t pan out and learn about the mistakes documentary filmmakers make.

  8. Finding Your Subjects

    Your subjects are your collaborators. They’re with you throughout your journey of making a documentary, so it’s important to learn how to find a documentary subject.

  9. What is Your Motivation?

    Discover what your motivation is for telling a particular story and learn about finding a documentary theme.

  10. Follow Your Passion & Invest in Yourself

    Sometimes you need to invest your own time, money, and energy to do a project. Julie and Ed talk about getting started in documentary filmmaking.

  11. Client Work Vs Legacy Work

    Learn how to bring your documentary filmmaking skills to short videos for clients.

  12. Translate the Idea to Reality

    The first thing to do once you have an idea is to do a lot of research. Learn about researching a documentary so you can understand the issue inside and out.

  13. Create Multiple Products from One Idea

    Sometimes you can create smaller pieces that focus on a particular story from larger projects. Here you’ll learn more about documentary storytelling techniques.

  14. Pre-Production Plan

    Before you start shooting, get on the phone with your subject to talk about logistics, background information, and other essential aspects of the documentary production process.

  15. You Just Have to Dive In

    At a certain point, you need to just dive in and get to the work—there’s really nothing to lose. Here you’ll go over the steps to documentary filmmaking.

  16. Time & Cost for Projects

    The harsh reality of trying to get films made is the difficulty of raising money to get the job done. Ed and Julie help answer the question of how much do documentaries cost—from person hours to equipment to travel.

  17. Writing a Strong Pitch

    Learn how to pitch a documentary idea so you can clarify your vision, get others excited about your project, and propel your idea forward.

  18. Develop a Fundraising Trailer

    Creating a documentary pitch video will help you showcase your idea and raise money for your project.

  19. Identify & Approach Partners

    Learn about finding documentary partners who might be interested in working with you or supporting your idea and how to approach them.

  20. Define Your Desired Impact

    Finding a topic for a documentary means you’ll have to think about what you want to accomplish with your work, whether it be a personal goal or something more far reaching.

  21. Introduction to Working in the Field

    Get an introduction about working in the field and location scouting for film.

  22. Shoot: Interview Set Up

    Learn about documentary interview setup, including doing a pre-interview, coming with the necessary equipment, and knowing where you’ll be placing your cameras.

  23. Shoot: The Interview

    Here are some interviewing tips for documentary filmmaking, including how to prepare your subject, figure out your questions, and allow your subject’s voice to truly come out.

  24. Different Types of Interviews

    There are many different documentary interview styles. Some have a formal set-up with artificial light, some are more casual with natural light, and some are done on the go.

  25. Shoot: Capturing B-Roll

    B-roll is everything you shoot outside of the interview and is used to establish a sense of place, put your character in context, and tell more of your story through visuals. Here are some things to consider with b-roll.

  26. Shoot: Detail Shots

    Detail shots allow you to focus on something small and particular that helps to illuminate your story. Here’s how to create a filmmaking shot list.

  27. Shoot: Capturing a Scene

    A scene is an opportunity to watch your subject interact with someone else, offering further information about their life and character. Learn some key documentary film shooting tips.

  28. Shoot: A Set Up Shot

    Creating a great set-up shot involves thinking about the lighting, the background audio, and the camera angle. Here you’ll learn about some filmmaking shots and angles.

  29. What Video to Keep in The Edit?

    The film post-production process workflow is an intensive process of figuring out what to keep, what to toss, and what to polish for your final product.

  30. Identify Strongest Audio as Starting Point for Edit

    Learn about audio post-production techniques, including starting with your strongest piece of audio so you can begin with something powerful and compelling.

  31. Use Audio to Guide Narrative

    Ed and Julie discuss the importance of sound in documentary. Listen for the narrative spine, the unfolding of information, and the integration of multiple voices.

  32. Transform Raw Content Into Finished Piece

    The quality of your final cut depends on your visuals, music and ambient sound, and the editing rhythm. Here you’ll learn about documentary post-production editing steps.

  33. Building Scenes in Your Edit

    One way of creating a short documentary is to focus on building your scenes and try to create some drama within them. Find out about some key drama film editing techniques.

  34. Short Doc Created from Pre Shoot: Resonant

    Watch the final cut of “Resonant,” the documentary that Julie and Ed created for this course, and learn about finishing a documentary film.

  35. Final Thoughts

    Ed and Julie talk about why they work on documentaries and provide some filmmaker inspiration.


Elisa Correa

wow, wow, wow! what a amazing course! I learned so much, I was inspired so much... congratulations, Julia and Ed, you are excellent teachers and do a really wonderful and powerful work. thank you!

a Creativelive Student

OUSTANDIING COURSE, congratulations creative live for bring Julie and Ed in teach about documentary filmmaking. I have watched and bought a fair few courses on this subject and not one of them comes close to this. You can see the amount of work Julie and Ed have done to make this course amazing. The best bits for me are the real teaching opportunities when Ed and Julie are making their violin documentary. I have never seen this before in any course. Thanks Ed and Julie for an amazing course and letting us see inside there work that you do and sharing all your experience with us. I've never really written any feedback for most courses, so this must be a good one :)

a Creativelive Student

Ed & Julie provide so much insight & knowledge into the documentary making process. This is a high-level class that gives you a wonderful overview of what goes into making a powerful and interesting documentary film. It was so helpful to watch them work on an actual short film from start to finish, and to hear their workflow. You'll need to learn the technical nitty gritty elsewhere, but this course will help you dive into how to tell stories on video. I particularly loved the segment on doing interviews, and Julie is an absolute pro at this! Also really nice to see Ed & Julie working/teaching together and how their different skills complement each other. It was a pleasure to learn from them!