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Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 12 of 35

Translate the Idea to Reality


Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 12 of 35

Translate the Idea to Reality


Lesson Info

Translate the Idea to Reality

What are you going to capture? So you've decided you've got this fantastic idea and step one has got to be that you start researching. There's no way around it. So as I said before, you have this idea and you say, "Nobody's ever done this. "Everybody's covering the story in a different way". So we, for example, did a pre-shoot... We did a shoot for this class so we had a one day shoot. But in preparation for that, the first thing I did once we had chosen the subject, the first thing I did was I Googled the guy and I started doing my homework cause I wanted to know, first of all, can I see what... In this instance he is a violin repairman. I wanted to know if he has a violin shop, what does the shop look like? What am I in for cause in my head I can conjure the Hollywood version of the violin shop but is that really what I'm gonna get, right? And it rarely is. So that's step one: research. So then I found out he actually had a short film about himself done. And so then I watched that an...

d then I get a chance to hear him speak, which is also super important. Is this an articulate person? Is he energetic and charismatic? Or am I gonna have to kind of pull his story out in other ways? So so much is in that pre-production phase. Before I do anything is doing a lot of homework and research. So more often than not, maybe you're doing a local story and there or may not be existing material. Sometimes it's print stories. If you're doing a local story, often there's a newspaper article that was written about this person. So become at least a temporary expert in your topic. As you're doing that, you're gonna find out what else has been done so that you don't just repeat it. And sometimes it's intimidating because you see there's somebody who's had a lot of coverage and then you think, "Well why am I doing this?" You know? "This person already has had, "you know, a spot on NBC News, "and the New York Times wrote about them". That's back to, "Well how am I going to "approach it that's different, visually different?" And also the angle I'm taking on. So everything begins with that research component so that you actually know what you're talking about. You're not gonna just dive in with your camera. No showing up with your camera (laughs) before you're prepared. Just an interjection. In the case of Dave Goad, the subject we did the pre-shoot on here in Seattle. Through the phone call and looking at his website and seeing that other short film that was done, we learned some really important things. He's very soft spoken. His shop is incredibly small; it's in an industrial zone. And, ah, but we were able to organize one of his clients, this incredible, young violinist and he's 15 years old, to come and, someone whose violin he had been repairing, to come in as part of our shoot day, okay? So that pre-production was incredibly important. If we had just showed up, we would have got nothing. Yeah. But now we had a situation where a client was gonna come in, there would be interaction, right? Then we started to... Okay, we knew that the space was small, so we were already talking for a few days prior to flying here and once we got here, "How are we gonna handle that?" Okay, we're gonna have to do a lot of details. You know, we're already problem solving before we've actually physically entered the space. And then we started to think about, well we could get, Takumi is the young boy's name. This incredible virtuo violinist who is gracious enough to give us his time and come, that we're able to get him through the pre-production process to agree to play a couple of pieces in the studio. So we not only got him to agree to come to David's shop so we could get some B-roll interaction, but also to tape him playing. It's a very small self-contained story and, you know, there was still a lot of work that went into figuring out, you know, who's the subject? What are we doing? What can we fit into our time frame? Sometimes you're taking on something much bigger and, you know, that's not unusual. We all have these big visions, you know? So for us because we do a lot of geopolitical issue driven work or really taking on kind of big institutions and rethinking, "How do we create films "about the problems and the solutions "to these big issue type of stories?" So we do extensive research. Ed may look like a human being, but he is a human clipping service. For years now our morning newspaper used to literally have Swiss cheese holes in it if you held it up. So we did... Now your email inbox is full. Yeah, right, exaclty. Much to the chagrin of our teenage kids, though. So lots of research and we're constantly... Like right now I'm working on a project with Ed that's about immigrant detention and I am literally, in my hotel room is a book called, American Gulag, about the immigrant detention system in America. So you have got to intellectually take this topic on if you want to be well-versed. If you want to understand the history of this issue, where we are now. And then really, really setting up in your, you know, with your Google alerts, what stories are coming out because there is a lot of local small media telling really, really powerful stories. So if you only rely on a surface level of research, then you're gonna walk into something uninformed. The other thing I think is important we haven't talked about is I will always ask the experts that I talk to on the phone, you know, "Well what is the story people don't understand? "What do you wish was being told about this topic?" You know? And it's a really great base line question to always ask because you're coming from the outside with a pretty naive perspective versus somebody who is immersed and who really understands your issue inside and out. And I wanted add that in terms of your subject interaction, the more research...the more you can familiarize yourself with the situation that your subject or subjects live in, the more they open up to you. That's just human nature, you know? So I just can't emphasize how important this point is is to do the research. And the research can come in many forms, you know? It can be books, it can be poems, it can be fiction writing. It can be magazine and newspaper articles. It could be conversations. You might find a story because you talked to a friend about something. Well just like a couple of nights ago we were out with a friend who works for the paper and she was telling us she did a story about this trend of cat walking. Hiking with your cat. Hiking with your cat. Now, it seems like a silly story, but what a cool little film you could make out of that, right? So you never know where your ideas will come from and the way you research them are multitudinous but the better versed you are, then the more your subject will open up to you? I cannot tell you how many times people, especially when I'm abroad, their eyes will light up or you just see their hearts open up because they see this guy took the time to understand our history, the political situation. You know, whatever it may be. The social issue that my subject is impacted by, right? And so we're gonna share a little bit that I always think being more specific is helpful, cause generalities are sometimes too big. So Aging in America is a case where we were looking for a big theme that would be a multi year project that we felt was really gonna capture a social transition unfolding and this was back in the mid 90s that we started this project. So we were reading newspapers and we kept seeing articles about the demographic shift in America. More people are living longer than ever before. 40 years added on the life span. That's big news. But it's also indicative of a social transformation that's underway. So as journalists we're seeing a trend and reporting and the reporting is about statistics. And so we're wondering, "Well, what does this mean?" You know, we're hoping to be ahead of the curve always rather than reporting on things that already have been told. So the more you talk to people, the more you research, the more you can connect dots that, perhaps, haven't been fully connected yet. Or you see that in print there are stories but you're not seeing it yet play out in the kind of human drama, right? So we did a lot of research and literally I have, you know, filing boxes full of clippings about aging. And we started to then compartmentalize it by different topics. You know, aging prisoners. What do you do about aging prisoners? Oh my, the advent of geriatric prison wards. What do you about all of these single people growing old? And now you have an increase in marriages of people who are in their 80s. You know, every time we come across things and we started to see what proportion of young people are being raised by grandparents. So we clipped, and clipped, and clipped and really just kept building this personal archive of really compelling stories that were about the human drama that was unfolding to reflect the statistical demographic numbers. So this was a decoding of complex issues. It was a super complex issue; lots of tentacles. Where do you begin? I mean that's a huge undertaking and we could have chosen any one of the stories and told one story, but we ended up doing this particular project more as a survey of many different topics. So then we drilled down to figure out, "Okay, geriatric prison wards. "There's a really compelling story." And this is way back in 1995. So where are those prison wards? And you're reading articles and trying to figure out. There are a couple of them in the country at that point. There was a new phenomenon. So then you're starting to narrow it down. So I see all of this very much as an inverted pyramid, or a sieve. You can start on this uber level with your issue and then as you whittle, whittle, whittle, you're waiting to see kind of what distills out the bottom. So we ended up with quite a few of these themes that, you know, lent themselves and then you find a geographic location. And then you find an organization dealing with it. And then you call the organization and you find compelling individuals who fit your bill for how you determine a good subject. So it's very much that kind of from the macro to the micro that you do. So when you're at that macro level is when you feel overwhelmed cause it's too big to take on. And then you read an article and you see an expert referenced and you get on phone, you know? People want to talk. If it's something they're passionate about, I have yet to find a person who doesn't want to talk. And they want to be listened to even more so, right? So if you can just take it and do that kind of filter, you know, filtration system down, somebody's gonna pop out in the bottom, you know? And I don't care what the topic is, it's pretty consistent. So we're gonna show you just a little four minute. I think it's the opening of the film that ended up being the result of what was seven years of field work that Ed and I did. And you'll see this at work. (gentle music) When do you think somebody is old? Well when we were children, I guess 30 was old. I really don't have a definition of old. You know, some folks think 57 is too old. I think it should be like 35. And then when we get to 30, then 50 is old. What is old? More than 10 years older than me (laughs). And then when we get to 50, 80 is old (laughs). And how old do you feel? Probably about 25. I'm telling people 27 now (laughs). I feel like I'm in the fourth quarter and there's no time outs (laughs). I don't feel 87. I don't either. How old do you feel? Me? Oh, say 57 or 60. So what's old now? Well, maybe 85 (laughs). (gentle music) When you get to be my age, life expectancy is going to be between 95 and 100. Are you gonna sit around contemplating if you're enabled between 65 and 95? I don't believe it. (gentle music) It's not about growing old. And I think we've looked at it all wrong. If you want to grow old, you can. But if you don't want to, you don't have to. You can grow up and die but you don't have to grow old and die. With more people living longer, healthier lives, we're able to do things in our later years that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. (upbeat music) I have a hip replacement. I have a prostate removed. Oh man (laughs) don't ask me. But I'm still moving. But longevity is only a gift as long as your health and your money hold out. (gentle music) Do you think if there's a point when maybe we live too long? Oh yes, definitely. Well there's a good example of it. (melancholic music) With the number of people over 65 expected to double in the next three decades, all of society is going to feel the impact. That's why photographer Ed Kashi and I set out to discover what is a good old age and is society ready? (gentle music)

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!