Skip to main content

Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 5 of 35

Issue Driven & Non-English Story Development


Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 5 of 35

Issue Driven & Non-English Story Development


Lesson Info

Issue Driven & Non-English Story Development

This next piece that we want to share with you in a way kind of embodies and encapsulates all we've learned up to this point. This was shot a few years ago and is about Syrian refugees. I had wanted to do a project about so this is a personal project. This is a great example of how I had an idea that I wanted to do. I wanted to examine mental health among refugee children. And I was thinking I'd go to the Gaza Strip and then one thing led to another, and well, unfortunately, the Syrian crisis. And then, it became clear that the partner organization which in this case was International Medical Corp based in Los Angeles, huge American NGO that does frontline medical and health corp, so many different things. Anyway, I knew that if I had an in with them that if I came up with an idea that they liked, they would fund this project. And it all worked out, so I went to Northern Iraq and to Jordan to make this film about basically Syria's lost generation. You know, the way this crisis was impa...

cting more than half of the people that have had to leave Syria are under 18 years old. So this is a case where this was an idea I cared about, I had a passion for trying to figure out how can I tell a story about this issue? It happened to be a newsworthy issue, we don't always work on newsworthy newsy things, that's not our our shtick, if you like. But sometimes it does intersect in that way. And then, I shot this on my own, in this case, the collaboration was when I came back and had Julie, Talking Eyes Media, to do the post-production on it. This is a case where I was this was actually one of the last films that I shot on a 5D. 'Cause I also wanted to produce still images so ultimately this work appeared in Time magazine, on Time Life box. And so then it reached many, many people. The film did. And then this still has been published all over the world. So, what I want you to look at here is again how individuals tell the story and the narrative arc, this is of course a short, it's not a trailer, but I think it's just about eight minutes out of a 16 minute film. You know, the way I use the visual language. What's interesting here also is working in a foreign language that there's a couple of scenes that when Julie showed me the cut, I did not realize what they were saying. And I literally began to cry when I saw her rough cut. I was like, I had no idea that he just made a call to his father in Damascus and found out that a neighbor had been killed in a bomb so it's that kind of thing. But, thankfully, when I was in the moment, and they're on the cell phone and they're in their tent, I realized, there's something going on here. They're super emotional all of a sudden, the women are starting to cry, shed tears. So, anyway, look for some of these things. And then, let's play this and then we can talk a little more about it. (light dramatic music) (speaking foreign language) (speaking foreign language) (speaking foreign language) (male voiceover, foreign language) (female voiceover, foreign language) (speaking foreign language) (female voiceover, foreign language) (male voiceover, foreign language) (speaking foreign language) (light dramatic music) Okay, so This started out issue-driven so the idea was, we want to tell something about the youth of Syria and we want to look at the psychological damage being done by this war. And so, in order to do that, this to my point of story versus issues. So the issue, we knew we wanted to capture, so how do you do that without making it a bunch of experts telling you that war causes irreparable psychological damage on young people. So in order to do that without being so dry, we found, or Ed found rather because Ed was in the field, and when he arrived there, he was working with international medical corp personnel who had a bunch of different cases they were working on. So you're completely beholden to your fixers on the ground, but they've also done some vetting and figured out who'd be willing to be filmed. You're talking about young Muslim girls on top of that, so it's that much more challenging to find a family willing to allow their daughter to go on camera. And so I'd like to interject right here because it's a really important point. Because I had two weeks in the field, okay? That's a long time, it's not really a long time, in reality, to go into people's lives in this situation, but so what I did was I had multiple Skype calls with International Medical Corps staff, personnel, who were directly dealing with these families. Because, again, this is to pick up because I knew, we knew, we wanted to do it intimate, first person. Not this big survey, here's the camp, here's how many people in the camp, a bunch of the kids are not feeling well, you know, we wanted to I wanted to find subjects. But I also knew that in reality for film that we imagine would be roughly 15 minutes or in that range, can have too many voices. So this was, again, very important point is this is pre-production and we will get into this later, but I want to touch on it now because it's specific to this project. Because I'm going far away, I'm going to places that and I'm not there for like, months. So I don't have the luxury to show up spend a few days to find out what's going on, I need to hit the ground running. So that prep was really important. Emails, Skype calls, talking to the actual counselors on the ground, in these camps. And they and trying to explain also and there was pressure on me 'cause I had to explain what the heck did I want to do? What was the story I wanted to do? I also had to show that I was being I was gonna be sensitive 'cause a lot of NGO workers and people in the field, they're burned out on media people! And I heard that when I got there. You know, that New York Times crew came and they in, they stuffed their cameras in these people's faces and then left. And, so I'm always trying to be very mindful 'cause that's also just how we work. That's how we roll is I don't want to hurt and disrupt my subjects. Even if I hate them and disagree with them. Obviously not in this case, you know. I still want to work in a respectful manner. So anyway, so that was really important, that prep work. So that when I got to Jordan, when I got to Northern Iraq, I not only knew exactly where we were going, we knew the three or so families that I would interview. Right? 'Cause I also don't want to meet a lot of people and then I decide later that night at the hotel they're not interesting. You know what I'm saying? It's a tricky one. You don't want to intervene in people's lives who already, in such a messed up situation. So And to that point also, it did film, the finished film has two different families, the one that you see, and then there's also a family that's young children who have come without their parents. In Jordan. In Jordan. And they're working in the fields, and so we wanted to juxtapose an intact family versus this really much more desperate situation where they're living out in some barren place, picking vegetables during the day and going back to a tent at night. The visual languages for a moment too, you see that tent. You see where they're living, and there's a claustrophobic feeling that is conveyed without saying it. So, you're visually self contained. There is dialogue that doesn't need to be spoken because you can see. You understand from the narration that they used to live a middle class life! And so on some level, I'm hoping that what you felt also was imagine myself if I lost everything and that was the scope of my universe now. I know I felt that watching the footage, so when I edit it, I was hoping that some of that would come across like imagining your life paired down that basically. In terms of the verite scenes that unfold so I know it's a slow and kind of the pacing of this edit is kind of methodical and also largely because I wanted to immerse you in their world in that camp. So you watch this scene unfold with the phone call coming in and the heaviness of heart that Jihan has and that she's saying to her mother, why can't we bring our grandparents here? And the mother is just trying to make this all make sense for her daughter. So you watch that unfold. And so, that was allowed to play out with a lot of breathing room, in film terms. And certainly, in a short film, there's an expectation things are gonna move. So, this was not a three minute film. We could do a three minute version and it would be sort of much quicker and you would kind of get the key take away points but they'd be told to you. The hope is that if you can slow down with the pace of the film, that you're gonna live through that scene that's unfolding, where you realize how inescapable the suffering is for this family. So that's a lot about determining in your edit what can play out in realer-time, obviously it's still condensed time. And that has a lot to do with what what you are deciding is the length of the film you're making. Some of it is who is it for? Who's gonna watch it? Like, in an instance like this, we're showing you eight minutes, not 16 minutes. So you never met the other family. There were characters he filmed that never made it into the film because we had probably five voices. So when I sat down to edit, I said there's just no way, we're not gonna meet five people. Because it'll be a little numbing and confusing. And sometimes, like a few of the people, I decided to follow when we got down to actually working, it was hard. There was this one young woman in camp in Jordan. Sorry, a young girl, 16 year old. And I could never be alone with her, because of the cultural custom, so it made it very hard in the short amount of time I had in that place to do anything of any significance. Because the father or the brother had to be there. So, there are different, these are very particular and specific limitations in this case. But, you'll always find things like that. Even in your own culture, there'll always be something that you need to be mindful mindful of. And also I just want to point out one other thing in the verite scenes, if you noticed I think I knew what I was doing but where I was switching from Jihan and her mother talking to tight shots. You know, so again this is after being berated for years by Julie. (laughs) When I would come back not with that stuff, like why is it a 10 minute shot where you never moved? (laughs) So I know now, even though I didn't understand what they were saying, that I had to make sure I got tight shots of each person, overall and then if they suddenly moved, figure out what the heck do I do so then in the right it's very stressful actually. Obviously, if it's in a foreign language it's more stressful 'cause I don't really understand. And then I do have a fixer, an interpreter with me, but he can't be talking, so these are the things you need to be mindful of. Yeah and that is where you're reading body language versus verbal language. And letting the camera run because, as an editor, if I have the audio and the audio is clear, as long as you did some of those cutaways at some point, then I can glue it together because all kinds of magic can happen after the fact but if you don't come back with the raw goods, then you can't make the magic. Yeah. And also in the edit, when you work in a foreign language, the shots are longer than you might normally have. Because think about how much it took your brain to process reading and taking in visual. So I make a point of not changing shots mid-subtitle because I don't think your brain can process. Because your brain needs to first go to subtitles so if I change the shot, you're going to miss the shot shift because you're reading. So, the end result is that the shots used are also accommodating the spoken word as opposed to when you edit in English you don't need to do that. You know so it's an added layer of And the last point Demand. In this segment is this is a great example of kind of where I see the profession is going and has gone where I didn't get Time magazine to commission me to go out in the field, 'cause they would never it would be very hard to get them to spend that money. So I got an NGO to do it, right? But I didn't have to shill for them, they did not want I did not need to have their logos or none of that, right? They believed and financed me as a story teller. Knowing that if I did the work I am capable of doing, it would advance what their goals and desires are. Which is A, to raise awareness about the issue. Right? 'Cause they need funds so they can pay their local staff to help take care of these folks, these kids. You know and then so, then once it was produced, there's no embargo, there's no restriction. They want me to get it out there! That's the other reason they're willing to invest in me, is because I thankfully have a track record that I can place my material in big media, and newest Americans is another example of where that helped us. So anyway, so then once the film is done, I pitch it to Time, and they pick it up. Okay? And then now it's being seen by, whatever, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people because it's on Time Life box. And then it went on to other lives, it won some big awards and was shown at festivals and so forth and so on. So, this is an example where I had my own little well it's not a little idea but my own idea, I had this inspiration. And I found the path to get it financed, no one's getting rich from this. This is just good solid middle class work here. But you know, I was able to get it financed, and then have it go out to the world and have impact. Alright? Time for one quick question. And this is from Moore Cow (laughs) The name is Moore Cowbell. (laughs) Put together, you almost got me. (laughs) So, the question is, the traditional documentary dream is an hour long feature film. And this person named Moore Cowbell, right? Moe Moe Roccobell, right! I was told by a current working filmmaker that because of the internet, people's attention span is short. And so to save the bigger picture stories once you are established, would you recommend cutting your teeth on something shorter, less complex, to get improve your skills and get exposure? Yes. Hands down, yes. I also feel like most stories don't need an hour and 20 minutes to be told, so just to be a little bit realistic about can you sustain an hour and 20 minutes with this story and what would that look like? And so I think it's really easy to lay blame on this short attention span. But the reality is, most of us don't have an hour and 20 minutes that we want to invest in a story unless it's really, really compelling. It goes through some sort of transformation over time, that hour and 20 minutes, I better see some some drama play out. Many stories can be told in less time, so I think it's a bit of an artificial construct to think that the best stories are told in an hour and 20 minutes. I mean, there were a lot of sniffles in this room showing an excerpt that was eight minutes long. So, something happened in that eight minutes that didn't take an hour and 20 minutes. So I think it's, we're in an era also that you can play to the strength of the story and let that dictate the length as opposed to the other way around. You know, because you're not trying to fit a format. You don't have to do a broadcast hour either, you don't have to obviously yes, if you want to go into film festivals, you're gonna have to determine are you in the short form or feature length category? And I've seen plenty of films that I think stretched material to qualify as feature, not because all of that material needed to be in the film. I would also add that we're in a very sort of sweet moment, where yes people's attention spans are definitely diminishing, but, from what I've heard, people are sticking longer online with films than they were four, five, six, seven, eight years ago. Where you couldn't get someone to stay more than three minutes. So I think and at the same time, feature length, 90 minute documentary films are there's a renaissance! So we're actually in a moment where the three minute film is super exciting, has a huge audience because of the web and the internet but the 90 minute feature film, that doc is also being celebrated and disseminated in a way that I believe it never before. So in that sense it's very exciting. And then to specifically address her question, I assume it's a her. Who knows? Cowbell. Okay. Moore's question, is that (laughs) doing a short film is such a great way to cut your teeth. Yeah. Such a great way to cut your teeth.

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!