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Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 2 of 35

How Did We Start Making Documentaries?


Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 2 of 35

How Did We Start Making Documentaries?


Lesson Info

How Did We Start Making Documentaries?

I am totally self-taught in all of this and so this is a confessional meeting, right? I did show up at the right meeting? Okay. I'm Julie Winokur and I never studied this in school. And so, I'll put that out there as horrible as it sounds to say it out loud, but I hope it inspires you to recognize that there is no barrier to doing this. This isn't rocket science. It's about learning the tools, obviously, but it's about a lot of practice. It's about a lot of mistakes. And I've made plenty of mistakes and something that you create right now you think is the best thing you ever made, and in five years, believe me, when you look at it again, it is not the best thing you ever made. So, I am completely self-taught. I actually started out as a dancer. That was my first career. I'm probably the only human being in the United States with a degree in dance criticism. Not necessarily the most useful degree, but that was my passion at the time and I wanted to perform professionally as a dancer. Di...

d that a couple of years out of college. And then realized that that was absolutely the hardest way to make a living on the planet and my fallback plan was writing, which is the second hardest way, but at least you can do it for a long time. So, I worked for magazines when I stopped dancing after a couple of years. I worked for magazines and that was another passion of my was writing. And that's really important in terms of what I ended up doing because if you can write a story and organize your thoughts, you are leagues ahead of many people who wanna make films. Do not ever underestimate the power of language, even in visual media. So being able to write well, being able to construct story, understand pacing, understand the rhythm of language. When I sit down to edit, I hear it. I cannot look at picture because I really, really, really wanna hear what is being said. And I find picture totally distracting. I know from experience, I'll watch a radio cut, which is no picture, and then I'll watch something that's been edited with visuals. And the one with visuals, I'm always like, "Oh, that seems good." But then if I turn the picture off, I can hear how redundant or illogical the actual narrative spine is. So, I spent several years working for magazines. I was at "Travel + Leisure" magazine, three years on staff there. And then realized that wasn't for me either, fully. I needed to spread my wings. I do think everybody who freelances or works in the way that we do in some way, it's because we are hardwired not to have bosses. Would you say that's right? Not that we're difficult to work with. Quite the contrary. We're incredibly great collaborators. But, I think that idea of the routine of going to an office everyday still wasn't the right set of clothes for me. So I started freelance writing. I did that for a few years. And I've always been a very visual person, but didn't have the tools to express myself visually. And then I met this guy. And we started working together, collaborating on magazine stories. So, Ed was shooting. I was writing. We came up with ideas. And we're idea people too. I mean every phase of my life has been very much about coming up with an idea, creating something from nothing. So, ironically, I think everything I've done is connected. So, even the dance training that I had and learning how to choreograph, was about movement through space. So, what is filmmaking? It's movement through space. You're just capturing it and you have this element of time. So, what ended up happening for me, when we started to transition into shooting video, was all of a sudden, I got this camera in my hands and I swear I did not know how to use this thing. And I discouraged Ed from getting it, even, because I thought, "We've got enough going on. We've got stills and writing and recording interviews on an audio recorder." When I got the camera in my hands, suddenly, like I was dancing again. I was like, I was doing that again. And it was just like it made sense. It all just went, "There it is." And then I should also say that we are a byproduct, as filmmakers, we are a byproduct of the digital revolution. So, we would not have been able to do what we do a generation ago or whatever, 20, 30 years ago we couldn't have done it because the cameras were too expensive. The editing bay was too expensive. So unless you were trained formally, you were not gonna do it. So once the digital revolution made the tools available, it also meant that we were able to experiment and we started to do multimedia first, using stills and audio. We did our first foray into that world with a project called, "Aging in America." And we're gonna share a little bit of that. And produced early multimedia just using stills and audio. And when I saw what was possible with that, I thought, "Well, huh." We've been starting to shoot these interviews now on camera and I've been sort of playing around. We've got this random footage. I might be able to make a film. There's a concept. And the funny thing was I called up a friend who was a real filmmaker, and I said to her, "I've got a hundred hours of footage. I've got this incredible treasure trove of Ed's stills. I'd like to make a film." And she said, "Oh, well, you've transcribed all of the footage, right?" And I said, "No." She said, "Well, you've logged it, though, right?" And I said, "I've what?" And she said, "Okay, the first thing you're donna do is get an intern." It's probably the best piece of advice I ever got. And I got an intern in to take this hundred hours and ingest it, and she happened to have some basic Final Cut Pro skills. And so I said, "Why don't we start to like cut this?" And so sitting with her, we started to cut some scenes and then after months of working, we had an hour-long film, this film, "Aging in America," which ended up going to PBS stations nationwide. And if I tell you that ignorance is your friend, I mean it. Because had I known what a big mountain I was about to climb, I might not have done it. And that would have been a real loss, for me at least. I don't know about the rest of the world. But it would have been a loss for me. So, you can learn these things and teach yourself and this is one of the things I love about creative life, is that this is available for you just for the taking to learn and teach yourself through instructors like us. So this is just a tremendous asset to be able to share with you. We pair interns, by the way. Yes, we do. Don't believe in free labor. For me, the path was in some ways more conventional. Well, as conventional as being a freelance photojournalist can be, because it's a pretty bizarre profession. I went to Syracuse University. Got a degree in photojournalism in the late 70s when there were only a handful of programs that gave you a B.S. in photojournalism. And then I moved out to San Francisco. I was a New Yorker and I decided to move out to San Francisco, start my career, and my work evolved from local work to region work and then to national and international magazine work. And that's really where I was, that was a sweet spot for probably 20 years. I've produced 17 features for National Geographic Magazine, and just was international photojournalist doing magazine photography. And then somewhere around 2000, that's when things changed. This idea of multimedia began, the cheaper equipment, as Julie alluded to, Final Cut Pro, these sort of technological developments, that aloud people who are not rich and who did not work for TV stations or Hollywood, to actually produce really good films. And so we started to dabble in this thing called multimedia. I was a pretty early adopter within my field of photojournalism of multimedia. And, again, I was so fortunate to have a partner who had these other skills so it allowed us to move forward, not only in a more rapid pace, which isn't what's important, but with a certain level of quality and completeness to our work. And then that brings, what's interesting now is more than half of what I do is filmmaking, so I've really morphed from being a print-based photographer, still photographer, to now doing, well, I call myself the hybrid visual storyteller, whether I use my iPhone or a still camera, or a video camera, it's sort of all happening at once. And then going back to the multiple outputs, it can appear in a magazine in print or on all multi-digital platforms that now exist. And, of course, social media being sort of intertwined with all of that. So, well, in brief, that's my path. It's been a very interesting one. The one thing that I think is, the one sort of spine that runs through it all, and I know you'll agree with me with this, is that, and you sort of alluded to it, is that we've always come up with our own ideas. Yeah. We've always proposed our ideas. Even today, I'm mid-career, I hope. I'm in mid-career and I some ways, even though I'm very established and all that, I'm in the same boat as someone who's just getting started, the twenty-something year old. Because ultimately, it's our ideas that are gonna propel us forward. And that gets back to this whole idea of what inspires you. What stirs your passions? Because that's where the great work will come from. All right? And we'll talk about the differences between client work and personal projects. We're gonna dive into that a little later because that's a critically important distinction to be able to make for yourself. Some people don't do any personal work and they have great lives, great careers. They're happy. They make a living and all that. For me, I would be distraught, more depressed than I already am. No, I would be distraught if I did not have personal work. You could give me all the money in the world, all the great projects, but if I do not have a personal project that I am engaged in, I'm somewhat out of sync and miserable. So, and again, we're all different. We all have different needs. We're propelled by different motivations.

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!