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Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 7 of 35

Turn Failures Into Lessons


Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 7 of 35

Turn Failures Into Lessons


Lesson Info

Turn Failures Into Lessons

Not every story that chooses you is necessarily gonna pan out. So the next thing we're gonna talk about are failures, which are that beautiful, uncomfortable spot, and again, we've already established that No, it sucks. What are you talking about? Ed and I are just gonna let it all hang out there so that you guys can see. 'Cause I have to say, I hate when I watch other people present and it's like, they're fabulous, and look at everything they did is fabulous. Well, it is so not like that for anybody. And we'll be the first people to own up to things that don't work out, things that weren't as great as they could've been, should've been. You're limited by your own skillset. So a great film today for you will not be a great film for you five years from now. So we're gonna take a look at a beautiful failure. So this is a story that chose me, despite Ed telling even, "You sure you wanna pursue that one?" So I had heard about this Valentine's Day land sale in Newark. So for Valentine's...

Day, this is two years ago. Also, it's not a failure, it just didn't pan out. Didn't pan out. There's a difference. It'd be one thing if you did it and it failed. It's more like you went into it, shot a bunch, were really excited, seemed to be going somewhere and then it just didn't pan out. Right. Anyway. So it's a Valentine's Day land sale, so I want you to sit in my shoes for a second. Valentine's Day land sale in Newark, New Jersey, which has all the decrepit abandoned buildings and the major's office decides on Valentine's Day we're gonna sell 100 lots for 1,000 bucks each. And they have to be couples, gay, straight, mother, son, we don't care, couples. We just want to repopulate the city. We don't wanna be landlords, we want this city, this is, we're gonna kickstart this rescue of pretty decrepit neighborhoods. Awesome, right? And on top of that, they only get 18 months to build and I'm thinking as a filmmaker, this is perfect. It has a timeline, some of choosing a good story, is thinking about, am I gonna shoot for a week, a month, a year, or might this be one of those 10-year projects? And once you do one of those, you're like, bullet through the head, never again. So I'm thinking, finally, this story found me. I love it, it's inner-city rehab. It's about some interesting characters, 'cause I'm already picturing, there's gonna be some great folks out there who line up to buy these 100 lots. They only had to pay $1,000 for the lot and then they had to build almost immediately, so I'm thinking, nice, tidy, I can shoot for just that timeframe. Awesome. Feature film. I'm on it. Feature film. So. I'm assuming everybody gets why it seemed like the perfect film so what I'd like to do is, we'll show you just four minutes, 'cause I jumped in, started shooting, and then started cutting a few scenes to show proof of concept and also just start to fundraise, 'cause now there's that heavy lift, if you're really gonna do a film like this, you need a lot of resource. And there's a lot in an 18-month timeframe. Imagine how much shooting you should be doing, 'cause you can't recreate any of that. So I'm thinking, all right, I gotta get it all moving simultaneously. You're gonna see a little taste of what jumping in looked like. So, great narrative arch, that's connected to an issue that maybe not everybody cares about, but a super important issue that many cities around our country are facing. Narrative arch with a timeframe. Great characters, and it's local. Yeah. No travel costs. Parking and gas, all right? All right. There ya go. So, let's watch. Lemme ask this simple question. When you heard about this Valentine's Day sale, what did you actually think about? I'm just like, wait a minute, is this real? This can't be real. When I first got the text, I didn't really believe it. The intent of the program was to identify couples that wanted to build a home here in the city of Newark so they can reside here. There'll be 100 lots for sale in Newark on this Saturday, all similar in scope and size to this one here in the North Ward. For $1,000, anyone, singles and couples, can buy a city-owned vacant lot. Who does that? Hey, here's a lot for $1,000. Come and be a part of developing and evolving the city. This was like the Black Friday sale at Walmart. It is a dream opportunity. It's gonna be a little painful. The dream is gonna be tossin' and turnin', that kinda dream. When you hear about a Valentine's sale, usually flowers, cards, gifts, you know? I said, I know this is a lot, this is a property. It was unbelievable to me. Yeah, maybe we can do something with this, like big. I mean, it was one, two, three. When I got the text from him, I recognized what it was already. You sellin' land for $1,000. If you're able to get that, what kinda opportunity is that? You gotta jump on it. So we ended up going out there like 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, and camping out there. And we was actually like number 70. Well, it was starting at 8:30. We didn't know people had been camped out since the night before. So we were already late to the party, but we got there around eight o'clock. There was a line that was around the block. Had to have been 600 people in front of us. At this time, we're going to start allowing people into the building. We strategized, we were thinking, okay, this is Newark, like, let's keep it real, people gonna be out there maybe fighting for these spaces. Yeah, yeah. Like, how we gonna really do it? I get outta the car and I walk past the first person in line. The first person in line had a tent. I called my wife, I said, "It's serious out here." Yeah. People are lined up, people have tents, they have blankets. People are like, sleeping bags, people are camped out. So I stood in line and I called my wife again. I'm number 46. I was pissed off. I was totally pissed. The cool this was that Marlin had his tablet. Oh, my iPad. Yeah, he had his iPad, so we didn't know what Newark looked like, so we are Googling the addresses on Google Maps and actually looking at it. And we also looked at names and I was like, "I think that Red Man mentioned that in his song." We like, oh, we don't want that, we don't want that. We really didn't know anything about Newark accept for what we saw on Google Maps and what we heard in rap songs. (rap music) The only thing you knew about Newark was the movie "New Jersey Drive" that came out in the 90s. It was real violent, yeah, there's a lot of carjackings. And that's kinda, still only know about Newark. (rap music) Let's be honest, Newark had not the best reputation for quite some time. In the last seven to 10 years, it's really gotten better. Even the crime, ya know, it has gone down. Newark has become a safer city than what it was. It's not perfect, but when you compare downtown Newark now compared to downtown Newark in 2010, it looks like a completely different city, in just five years. So. Why didn't you do that film? It looks really good. And this is a rough cut to, so you see, obviously there's some jumpy footage that hasn't been transcoded properly and it's not color corrected, but I wanted to share with you something that is clearly was still in the molding, crafting phase. So I did jump in, I shot, a fair amount just to get it off the ground, because also, something you're going to experience, where there's this great story unfolding and you can't wait to figure out if it's gonna pan out or not. You gotta just dive in, right? So this was happening. I had already missed the actual day of the sale. But again, if you haven't guessed already, I'm rarely deterred, so it wasn't like, "Oh, woulda been great, if only I had been there. "Lemme think about it." And then another month goes by, two months, three months, and then you really, now your excuses have overwhelmed your opportunity to succeed. So I jumped in even though I'd missed the sale. Clearly there's found footage in there, news reports, a lot of interviews, because the first stage of figuring your story out is going to be interviewing, certainly establishing interviews in the can. What I love is doing establishing interviews, because I know I can reinterview along the way and it's in real time, so I don't have somebody saying, "Well, when we started this, I thought XYZ." I'd much rather have them in the moment telling them what they expect so that when you come back, they can contradict themselves later. So a lot of... The highest bar for me is when I can capture a film that is unfolding in real time to some measure. Where you're watching discovery take place on camera. And when the viewer gets to have discoveries in real time, as opposed to telling them what they're supposed to think and feel. Hopefully you can plant enough of those suggestions that they come to their own conclusions without too heavy a hand. So, ya know, this was going to be the logical plotline. Well, reality never behaves. I'm gonna jump to that last point. Reality never behaves. So what seemed perfect ended up being really imperfect. Of the people that you saw, they were great characters, but there's a couple in there, one guy's wearing a baseball cap, that couple broke up soon afterwards, so they were, now it wasn't gonna work out. We knew some people wouldn't. I was hoping that that would be part of the plotline. Who's gonna make it? Who's not gonna make it? That couple broke up and she is an EMT driver, she drives an ambulance in Newark. She was the hardest one of everybody to stay on top of and have her respond. When they split up, he let her take the property, so that was like, "Okay, two great characters now out." The couple that we ended up staying with the most was the one with the headscarf on. But she ends up being a professor at Howard University. In Washington, DC. In DC, and we're up in Newark, and so I just was on them all the time, when are you comin' up? When are you checkin' on your plot? "We don't know, not sure, nothing's happened. "Yeah, we'll get there when we can." Ya know, and then MIA for long stretches. And they had a great story to tell, because they were using their plot as a reentry program. They wanted to have two pre-fab houses on their lot. They'd live in one and the other would be for a woman who was coming out of prison, who had a kid or two, who could live in the other house, and they could help her get reestablished. So it was a great story, but again, it was like I had subjects who would only respond when it was convenient to them. A lot of being able to tell a story is having full and complete cooperation from your subjects. So they liked the idea, but they didn't really come through. And then the city started to fall apart with the program. "Oh, well, 18 months, most of these people "can't get their mortgages, "so we're gonna make that looser. "We're gonna work with people." And the next thing you know, this whole thing is starting to unravel. So what looked like it had every perfect element, ended up really becoming almost impossible to manage. And then you're supposed to also raise money in the meantime to make sure you can keep shooting and be on top of it. So at some point, I cut three segments, actually, of this film. And then just said, "You know what? It beat me." You just beat me. Thought it was gonna be the jackpot film and ended up, it just breaks my heart, ya know? I watch these segments, and I'm like, "Damn, I wish I coulda finished that film." So. All right, so it doesn't always work out. But I think another takeaway might be that sometimes you need to be careful of how much you bite off, in terms of time, resources, and access.

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!