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Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 8 of 35

Finding Your Subjects


Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 8 of 35

Finding Your Subjects


Lesson Info

Finding Your Subjects

This next piece is going to be about a boxer, someone who opened a boxing gym in Newark. This is also part of the Newest Americans project, and Julie, why don't you talk about that? So, I think I'd like to talk a little more generally first about finding your subjects, what makes a good character. So, they come in all shapes and sizes, but there are, they have to be watchable. I have to want to live with this person on tape. So, I think it's really important to have, to have a real assessment of who your subjects are. We've been talking about a number of things like looking for your complex characters. It's gotta be somebody who's willing to collaborate. To my point, in that last example, it doesn't do you any good to have a fantastic subject if they are not gonna return your phone calls. They've gotta be driving the bus with you. It's a collaboration. Mm-hmm. That's something I've learned over the years, With your subjects, you need to think of them as collaborators, which mig...

ht seem a little weird 'cause you're trying to tell their story or might even want to show aspects of their lives they might not be comfortable with, but there is a collaboration there. Right. Even with photography, I always think of this idea. Like, you make pictures, you don't take them. Taking pictures always seems to me like I'm here to exploit you, so I feel like also for the film, this is a journey you're taking together. You get very attached to people you spend a lot of time with also, and you want to make sure you're making a film that they are gonna feel is true to their story. So, can you tell that story and respect them and their story because you're not putting yourself on the line. You're not vulnerable, they're vulnerable. And so finding that relationship so it's not just a good story, it's a good relationship. You want somebody, also, who can articulate themselves well so that they can speak for themselves. I'm gonna speak in generalizations because you might have someone who has mental illness and can't express themselves and the other characters in their world will, or they will on camera, you know, their stories will translate. Their struggles will translate. So I'm gonna speak in generalizations, you hope that they can articulate their own story well. The other thing is how complicated is their story? So, a lot of times, you go to tell a story and you find somebody who personifies this issue you wanna capture, but then the more you talk to them you realize that it's not so straightforward. There's other stuff going on there. Or you might kinda, you know, peek inside the closet and find out that they're not what they appear to be. So, some of it is also determining, is this the right subject to convey your message, or is part of the story a bit of that expose? That, like, being on welfare isn't necessarily a black and white issue, or you know. You understand what I'm saying, where it's like sometimes life choices make for very complicated outcomes, and so you really do need to be eyes wide open when you choose your subjects, about how much are you gonna reveal? Now, if you're doing something that's in the journalistic realm, documentary realm, not talking client work 'cause it's entirely different, you also have the integrity, your own integrity to protect. So if you go and you tell a story, as an example I spent many years working on the uninsured in America as an issue. And with a real sense of advocacy behind it, wanting to influence health care reform. And so I did a short film about a woman who had breast cancer, got kicked off health insurance when her husband lost a job and ended up panhandling just to make ends meet. Cancer metastasized and she ended up dying. Now, she has other stuff going on, like she made choices in her life. Like, she couldn't get public assistance because she had too valuable a car. And so, she didn't let the car go in order to get the health care. So then you have to say, "well, do I include that in the film?" Because that's kind of an interesting choice if I'm trying to build empathy for this character, to say "you lost your health care 'cause "the system is really screwed up," but then you make a life choice that's your own death sentence, do you share that? Or does that muddy up your film? And, if and when that information comes out, does it undermine the story I did tell? The integrity. The integrity. Does it undermine, yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I think the key element here is that, especially connected to this course, which is short form. A lot of what Julie is talking about now could actually translate into really interesting narrative threads if you're doing a 90 minute doc, where you have that room, you have that time to explore some of these subtleties. And in some ways, maybe you don't know where the film is going, you know, where the story is going. I know I find that when working on these shorter pieces, and I dunno if this, maybe you could say it's a limitation of this form, but it's just a practicality that you need to sort of be able to maintain control over the narrative to some degree. And then in terms of your subject also, another thing to think about is how comfortable are they on camera. 'Cause some people are just painfully uncomfortable on camera, and so it reads. I mean, you know it when you see it as a viewer, you know it. And so, if they're a great subject, and you are determined, even if they're not great on camera, then it is that much more pressure on you to make them more relaxed on camera, and to spend more time with them so that they get more acclimated. Because eventually, almost everybody forgets that a camera's on them. But it might take longer with some people. So walking in, you know, I think everything we're talking about is having an awareness. So don't allow the obstacles to ever get in the way, but being fully aware and in charge of what you're doing and how you need to work it in order to make it successful. To have a fighting chance. A fighting chance. Fighting chance. Did you like that? Yeah, I liked that. A little lame (laughs). So here, this is an example of just a great character. Choosing a subject. So I'd like you to be thinking about what makes him a good subject. Why would we bother with this guy? And then also this idea of introducing more than one voice. This is a film that ultimately had two main characters. So, then, last but not least, what's at stake? (instrumental music swells) (mellow electric guitar) It's like bein' in a different world when you're inside those rings. There's only one person in front of you, who's not budgin'. And he hit hard, and he's faster than you, and stronger than you. And then the bell goes off, and then you go back to the corner. At that point you can either quit, or you can push through. Ladies and gentlemen, your winner of 175,000, and now three time (crowd drowns out voice) (crowd cheering) (mellow electric guitar) (applause) First and foremost, I just wanna go ahead and thank everybody for comin' out to show support for us today. When me and Gary first moved in here, there was water on the floor. I mean, there was none of this, everything you see here was not here. Come on, come on, let's go. One, two. Three. Woo! It's broken. No, it's not broken, it doesn't do that. Ready, set, go. (grunting) It was an abandoned space in the back of a leaky rec center, just above the hockey rink. Nobody had really been back here in years. But most people see an abandoned building as just waste, we see it as opportunity. My partner Gary Blor and I came in here and got to work. (saw cutting) (Aerosol can spraying) (chains jostling) We created this whole Ironbound Boxing Academy, as a vehicle to teach these kids that coming from tough circumstances is actually an asset, not a liability. You don't wanna hit it down, you wanna hit through it. So I'm goin' through it, do you get what I'm sayin'? Just last week there were four kids shot just up the street from here. With the robberies, the guns, the violence, you can't live in this environment, or come to school in this environment, and not be exposed to the realities of Newark. I'm not gonna get it, Coach. You gotta, it's gradual. So where you see yourself five years from now. I dunno, I don't think that far. Hopefully alive. Why wouldn't you be? I could die tomorrow. I served five years in the Marines, completing two tours; one to Afghanistan, another one to Japan and the Philippines. I've been mortared, I've been shot at, stepped on an IED, it didn't go off. Through my time in the military, I've lived a lot of different places. There's no place that compares to livin' in Newark. (singing) ♪ I always wanted to be a hero, ♪ ♪ Hero! ♪ ♪ Now I gotta be a hero, ♪ ♪ Hero! ♪ While I was at Annapolis, I had a internship at the Saint Benedict's Preparatory school here in Newark. I fell in love with the place instantly. I just was fascinated by the fact that, in this environment, there was an elite prep school that targeted young men of color. And I could only imagine where I could've gone, had I had that support when I was younger. One of the things I think about when I look at you, is "what are you gonna have to suffer as you get older?" You'll give your life away if you're not careful. So the advice here today is make the best of what you have today. My mom raised me. I've never even met my Father. When I was at Annapolis, my mom suffered a stroke. She's been bed-ridden ever since. All right, that's good, let's go! To just keep my sanity, I started to really lean heavily on boxing. It's something I wanna share with other people to help them become mentally stronger. Now everybody's favorite, jump rope. What it takes to be a good boxer, it would take to be a good marketer, would take to be a good accountant, and that's really what we're trying to teach. Four, three, two. Seven, three, two, come on. One of the reasons we call it the Ironbound Boxing Academy is we don't work out, we train. We ask them to commit to us like we commit to them. Remember how we used to have to find you for practice? Yeah. Like, you weren't consistent. Why are you more consistent now? Like, why do you try and find me now? Like, there was a time where like, I was just tryin' to find what was gonna make me happy and-- I tried the whole girls thing, and that's not really gonna make me happy. But I find that boxing actually does make me really happy. And that's when I started being more consistent, finding you, finding the guys. Even when you weren't able to train, I trained by myself. So, great character. Great character, not just a great character, but a guy who would phone us and say "hey, we got XYZ goin' on, you might wanna come." "Oh, you need me to pick you up? I'll pick ya up. Don't worry about it, you can leave all your stuff at my place." You know, "hey, thought maybe we should go home with one of these kids, and I'll reach out to the kid's parents." You know, it's rare you get somebody who's that proactive, but I gotta say, not only was he a great character, but he was an even better collaborator, which made this all a really wonderful experience. We ended up, as you see here, introducing the second, the kid in this film, and so you get to know this kid in the course of the film as well. And the funny thing that unfolds is the dynamic between the two of them, 'cause the kid starts kinda parenting his coach. So, it kinda takes this interesting morph in the course of the dynamic as you watch it unfold. So, you do watch, and you know, you got this taste, but again, you see that you're immersed in their world. You've got a driving force of a character, and it's unfolding. You know, bit by bit you learned a lot in that four minutes. We took you to the opening day of a gym. We took you backwards to the work being done to create that gym, then we took you to Afghanistan. Then we took you to a prep school in Newark, New Jersey. You know, so if you think about how much ended up happening within that short time span, how much was introduced in this story. And in the full film, which is 15 minutes, you also go to the young man that he's training from Peru, so he's from a Peruvian, you know, immigrant family. So you've got this, sort of cross-cultural thing just happening within the story. These kinds of characters, and these kinds of stories and subjects are, you know, you hope you get things like this all the time. And it's relevant, it connects to so many different issues that are in our country right now, and in our society. Mmhmm. So, and I think the overarching question is, you know, "how do you help young men succeed?" "Is he gonna really help these kids succeed?" So, I think in terms of what's been established here, as what is the question, the question is overcoming adversity. Personal agency and empowerment.

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!