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Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 6 of 35

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


Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 6 of 35

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


Lesson Info

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

The big question, what is your story? So I know a few times this morning we talked about themes or issues versus story. They are quite different. And so what you're trying to figure out is. It's almost a question of plot. Right? Versus thesis. You do need to figure out, if I'm going to tell a story, and you know we gave a few examples this morning, which are-- If I'm going to tell a story about Syrian refugee kids, and emotional distress, psychological distress. So there is my thesis. There is my issue I'm tackling. How am I going to now figure out my story? So as you think about the ideas that are in your mind about-- You've always had that burning desire to make that short film about x, y and z. So it is a story or is it a person, a place or a thing, right? So there is a big difference between the profile story, the profile documentary, versus like how does that story unfold. What is that character doing? How am I going to tell a bigger issue? And how am I going to find the people, t...

he individuals that I can have carried that story forward? So what is worth pursuing? How to take a theme and translate it into a film. So usually, what we do is we'll begin with, doing our homework and figuring out on that theme, where is the best place to tell that story. Where is it unfolding? Becoming more informed about the topic. So you're not just jumping in and you're really naive about the topic. I cannot tell you how many times also I hear somebody say, oh nothing has been done on this. I hate to disillusion you, but something has probably been done about every story that you want to tell. So how are you going to tell it uniquely? How are you going to find that vector point, where you can really personalize and do something that has not been done before. So, I'd like to walk you through the genesis of our project that we did called "Notes From my Homeland." So this is an example where-- So we decided that there is a traditional form of music called Waslah, from Syria. Came out of Aleppo, and it's a form of music that is performed by Jews, Muslims and Christians. Great topic, right? So we felt that, well this is a really interesting story that is the counter narrative to what's going on in Syria right now. So some of what you should be asking yourself is, what are all the stories out there on this topic I want to do my film about? And let me, try not to do the predictable route. One of the challenges we have all the time, is if you're getting your story ideas because you read something in a newspaper, it means that somebody already told that story, perhaps not in film, but you're looking at third hand information, as opposed to something that's right in your own community that you really have an immediate connection with. So you have some authority to tell that story. So we had stumbled on what is really a theme, Waslah music. It's also about shifting the narrative about Syria because Syrian culture is incredibly rich and deep and it's got so much beauty to it. And yet, the word Syria right now just immediately It's a negative. Yeah, it's negative. It brings you ideas of war and suffering. So we said, we want to do this film about Waslah. So we started to kind of figure out. We even went to a couple of Waslah performances with an oud player that we know through Rutgers University. And unfortunately these performances are done almost like in a restaurant and everybody is eating and it's not very visual. And it was sort of like. Yeah, it's alive and well, but it is not going to translate into a great film. It doesn't look good. Really unimpressive. Okay, so that's not going to work. So, it may be cool that all these Syrians are traveling around the country and even the world performing within the Syrian community, but it's just not going to translate into something visual. As an example we-- The oud player who we were focusing on. His group was going to play at a Jewish synagogue in New York City. So we thought great, cross sectarian and all this stuff. It was a lovely event, but pretty bad footage. Yeah. Fluorescent lit. It wasn't like some ancienty synagogue. It was like a fluorescent lit rec room, essentially in New York City, right? And so, again to pick on what Julie is saying, you might have an idea that you think is great. You might have an idea that you're really excited about and then you start to delve into it, and you kind of realize, you know what, if I do it just straight sort of speak based on the way what you imagine I'm not going to get anything captivating or visually interesting. So we ended up then through this oud player we know. He said, well you know I have a performance coming up with a Syrian composer who is very well known. This fellow Malek Jandali, he's written a new symphony that we are going to perform at Carnegie Hall. Boom, okay. Good angle. Right. So, some of what is your story is that moment too where you're listening and something that is just said in passing is really a gem. And so, the biggest piece of advice that I have at least is that you set out to do something that you think this is it. I'm going to tell this story. And if you are not paying attention, there is a very good chance you're going to miss the story. You're going to spend all your effort trying to force things to fit into the story you chose, as opposed to using your instinct, trusting your intuition and being able to fluidly shift where the current takes you. Because that's the gem. That thing where your ears prick up and it's fascinating and then you go home and you tell your spouse or your roommate or whatever. I heard the coolest thing today. That's like to me, that's like bing. If I go home at the end of the day and I have something I want to tell somebody, there is the story. So in this instance we say, well that's fascinating. And it only got better from there. Because not only was this guy going to premiere at Carnegie Hall, but how own personal journey to get there was really, really compelling. So we're going to show you this film. And as we've been talking about, it's this question of a unique angle to get at a heavily covered issue. So what started out as Waslah, you're going to see what it morphed into. And even though this is a very new film. I think it's only about two years old, it was going back, not to the multimedia sort of platform if you like, but it required this rich mix of media where-- I've been to Syria eight or nine times, so we had this archive of still images to work with. So it worked out in this case. Not every country we might do something on, I would have that or we would have that. Then we shot some new video of course, the A roll interview of Malak. Malak and then a couple of the other characters. And then, we shot a rehearsal of them, and then you worked for months acquiring all this citizen journalism archival cellphone footage from Syria of demonstrations and so forth. So it's this really rich mix of archival material. Let's say older archival material. Current archival material. And then, new material we generated. (calm piano music) (speaking in foreign language) I started looking for my identity as a Syrian from an American perspective. Frankly speaking I don't think a composer like me would have existed in Europe 50 years ago. I'm not mixing east and west. I'm taking my heritage as is and putting it in a symphonic form. And bum, I have never played a classical music in 10/8. That gives you the sophistication and the level of intellect that composers in the levant had before dictatorships. Coming from 49. Did you do that? Ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta. I met Malek Jandali in 1992, at the Music Academy in Damascus. This is a genius guy. Smart. And he has enough energy if he activated, will really change our cycles, our time to different dimensions, specifically in the middle east. (soft oud music) I discovered that my ancestors invented the musical notes in Ugarit 1400 B.C. And just a few years ago, before the revolution, I went to Syria to present my project Echoes from Ugarit, and they blocked me. I was forced to meet with the dictator commander-in-chief to give me the greenlight to perform music. (soft piano) I presented it. But I presented it under so much pressure. I experienced dictatorship. And I said to myself, oh my God I can't survive. And that was the same reason I left Syria. (people screaming) The strategy of the dictator was to destroy the human spirit. In 2011, I heard about the children being tortured and dying. I said oh my God. That first lady and her husband arrested those children and tortured them and when the parents went to the police station, they told them "oh go make other babies. Your babies are gone." I said, Oh my God. What can I do? All I have is music. And I came up with this tune in F minor. (soft piano music) I didn't have words. I didn't have lyrics. And that's a song writer. And I said, I am my homeland. And my homeland is me. My love for you is fire in my heart. When am I going to see you free? That song is Watani Ana, I Am My Homeland. I consider this is the most important song since 1907 because for the first time we sing from inside our heart about the type of country that we would like to see. Not someone else imposing it on us. I had an invitation to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington D.C. They said you can play any music you want except this one. Said oh, really? We are in America. Is there censorship? Oh excuse me, I am a citizen. I have rights. When they banned Watani Ana and my song in Washington D.C., we managed as a community to organize an event a few steps from the White House. And they premiered my song Watani Ana. 72 hours after this performance, across the oceans, the dictator made an executive decision to send his thugs and his police force to my mother in her bedroom and beat her. Same thing with my dad. Handcuff him and beat him, and beat my mother in front of him, because of music. (foreign language) After that incident I witnessed the people demonstrating in the streets of Syria chanting peacefully and the dictator was giving them death of all kinds. One particular Syrian touched my heart. He was a firefighter. He mobilized all those people. His name was Ibrahim Qashoush. And he said, "Go away Bashar." (piano notes) (speaking in foreign language) We heard that they killed Qashoush. They cut his neck and removed his tongue. Many cared about that story. And then wrote part of his symphony about it and called it The Qashoush Symphony. I eliminated all the lyrics, I said, you guys keep the lyrics. I'm just going to take the music and have an elegant symphonic work to be the bridge between the people there, and the people here. (soft piano music) I used to play Mozart and I played Rachmaninoff and piano concerts of Tchaikovsky, but I didn't really realize firsthand the power of music. The concept of citizenship. To you it's normal, but in the Arab world, or the middle east, there are no citizens. There are consumers and there are consumed by dictatorship, but they are not citizens. Only America gave me that space and that ability to be the bridge between the people there and the people here. (soft piano music) So I just-- Brief comment before I hand it over to Julie who is really the maestro of putting this beast together. Literally, the only new things we shot were this rehearsal in a space in New York City, where we also did the A roll interview with Malek, and then the A roll interview wit Mohamed. That's the only new material we actually generated to create that. Right so that if you think about it with whatever story you're hoping to tell don't ever-- Don't self impose obstacles to accomplishing it. Back to this question of finding your story. We found a story which was this phenomenal composer. There was something happening. So there is a timeliness that we are able to capture within the production cycle of the film and we released this within the few days before he performed at Carnegie Hall, premiered the symphony. And this was picked up by National Geographic online so. It got distributed widely. Right, right. Extensive viewership. And you can see this juxtaposition between the issue which is the Syrian revolution and the story, which is an individual who is a musician who never intended to dive into politics and conflict. And really despite his desires, ended up being dragged in, and he took personal agency to push back, and it took a toll on him and his family. So there is your story, which has an arc to it. And what's interesting is you also are seeing that story which much of it happened in the past, but we're able to reconstruct it so that as a viewer you go on that journey with him. So if you think about it, this is not a case where you saw things playing out in real time. You have one narrator-- Well one narrator and there is a secondary voice who is kind of validating this main narrator's story and he is able to editorialize a bit around the main narrator's story. So he can say things that Malek can't say about himself, like this is a genius. So he's validating Malek's existence and his experience. But Malek is going to take us on that journey and then visually it's been reconstructed through found footage. If that found footage did not exist there is certainly photographs that could have been used. I was shocked going online and delving into the YouTube videos that were available. They were unsanitized. And you saw just enough here to understand the suffering, but if I tell you I had nightmares for weeks. I cannot unsee some of the imagery that was widely available because we tend not to share that in our own media. Once I started looking and I was looking at YouTube channels that were all in Arabic. It was all out there in detail. Had it not existed we may have had to film suggestive visuals to get at the psychology of the story he was telling. But once you latch onto what the story is, then it's on you to get really creative on how you're now going to problem solve telling that story. So, everything starts from the story. So don't worry about all the other things as you're in the early stage of creating your film. I think the key is what is that burning story you have to tell. Now I'm of the mindset that stories choose you, you don't choose them. And so, you guys everyone of us in this room, has a story that you're constantly thinking about and someday you're going to make it, and you're in the shower, and it pops into your head, and you can't believe you had the same conversation with yourself a year ago and you still haven't made the film. And all the same excuses come back into your head. You really cannot help yourself. This is like falling in love. You fall in love with that story. And probably nobody else is as in love with it, as you are. That's why it's yours. You know. It is your mate. It is your narrative mate. So, a lot of finding a great story is, thinking about what is the conflict. What's at stake, And what question needs to be answered. What's the conflict. What's at stake. What question needs to be answered, because these are really that rich zone, where all the drama plays out. And then you get to in film form, answer those questions. If there is no tension. If there is no question resolved, you're still going to be struggling to have a great story unfold. I will preface. One caveat on that, because we're gonna cover the gamut here. You will do client work, and so it's a lot different. You're not looking for the same tension. You won't have the time to shoot and see something transform. But you're still going to try to find those things as much as possible within even the client work. So a good story, involves some kind of transformation, right? This is a dramatic example, but this is a profile of a musician if you think about it that way. But it was able to go places that are much richer than I started playing violin when I was five. I went to xyz conservatory. We have all that in the interview, if anybody wants to see the transcript. It was a long interview. But, it was really trying to kind of winnow in on those-- The tension points as opposed to the kind of everything going smoothly, happily seamlessly, right? I might add, one of the very important aspects of your A role interview, your primary interview, with whoever you're main subject or subjects are is that it's a great place where you learn more about their story. So whatever, shot list you had or ideas you had, about what you were going to film with that subject to tell his or her story, once you do that interview, which is why we like do it early on in the process, if not the first thing, is that you just learn a bunch of things that you didn't know. And it was really in that interview where this particular film sort of sprouted out of it. Where he told us things we couldn't have possibly known prior to the interview about his family being beaten, about so forth and so on. So super important, in that A roll interview, with your subject not only to get a great interview and get something out of them but listen. You'll get ideas for things to shoot.

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!