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Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 3 of 35

Universal Themes Through First-Person Storytelling

Ed Kashi, Julie Winokur

Making a Short Documentary

Ed Kashi, Julie Winokur

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Lesson Info

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.


  Class Trailer
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1 Class Introduction Duration:13:55
7 Turn Failures Into Lessons Duration:13:46
8 Finding Your Subjects Duration:15:07
9 What is Your Motivation? Duration:02:10
11 Client Work Vs Legacy Work Duration:17:51
12 Translate the Idea to Reality Duration:16:25
14 Pre-Production Plan Duration:09:32
15 You Just Have to Dive In Duration:30:40
16 Time & Cost for Projects Duration:28:21
17 Writing a Strong Pitch Duration:11:38
18 Develop a Fundraising Trailer Duration:12:28
19 Identify & Approach Partners Duration:06:35
20 Define Your Desired Impact Duration:21:21
22 Shoot: Interview Set Up Duration:34:38
23 Shoot: The Interview Duration:32:08
24 Different Types of Interviews Duration:13:35
25 Shoot: Capturing B-Roll Duration:21:54
26 Shoot: Detail Shots Duration:18:09
27 Shoot: Capturing a Scene Duration:27:02
28 Shoot: A Set Up Shot Duration:24:03
31 Use Audio to Guide Narrative Duration:09:33
33 Building Scenes in Your Edit Duration:03:41
35 Final Thoughts Duration:03:01

Lesson Info

Universal Themes Through First-Person Storytelling

I think we want to share with you the first piece here, Sandwich Generation, and this is an example. We did this in about 2006 or so, and this is an example. Well, actually it was between 2004 and 2006, and this is an example of what I would look at now as rudimentary multimedia where we're mixing stills and motion and of course captured sounds, A-roll interviews, interviews with the main subjects which in this case happen to be me and Julie, and then of course ambient sound and music. And, again as a still photographer entering this new world it was like, oh my god. My world just blew open, you know? And, I'll tell you what's interesting. After I started to work in multimedia, when I'd be out in the field just as a still photographer, I realized I had started to develop my sense of sound in a way that I'd never used before or appreciated. So, what we want you to look at here are the narrative voices which, we're showing you just a short clip, but that would be Julie and myself, and th...

en well Julie, do you want to describe this? Because this is a very personal story, in brief. Right, this is a story that we actually turned our cameras on ourselves, so one of the things I would like you to think about as well with this narrative voice question. We were approached by MSNBC, and we worked with Brian Storm of MediaStorm to produce a film about the Sandwich Generation. Do y'all know what that is, the Sandwich Generation? It's a more commonplace term now, but it's people who are taking care of their parents and kids at the same time, so they're sandwiched in the middle. So, we were approached to do it no coincidence because we were going through it, and at the time we were pretty stressed out. At the time I basically, when Ed said, "What do you think? "Can we handle this?" It was like, I can barely handle my life at this moment let alone making a film. Just to back up, literally in the same week that we moved her 82 year old father who is now in end stage of dementia and Parkinson's into our home, and we had two kids who were about eight and at that point, we get this call from Brian Storm at MediaStorm saying, "Hey, I have a gig for you to do something "on the Sandwich Generation," and I think we looked at each other, and we thought well there's no way we have the wherewithal to cast that net out into the world as you can imagine. Finding a family that would agree to let you come into their home, taking care of an elderly person with kids, you know? So, we were caught in this moment. What a great gig, but there's no way we can do it unless we turn the camera on ourselves, and we had never done anything like this before. We're not naval gazers. That's not our work. In terms of narrative voice, to be mindful as you're watching this in terms of who is telling the story, who is telling what parts of the story and why just so that your heightened awareness for that. As I had mentioned with the media formats, this is one of the earlier films that we did, and we were still using a lot of still photography as a driving visual element for the films that we were doing, so I'd like you to pay attention to the media formats being used, and also transitioning between stills and motion, when stills or motion tell the story, so really watching it with a more critical, analytical eye that way. And, back to this idea of stories versus issues. What is the story you're hearing, and what is the subtext of the issues being addressed? So, there are two parallel threads going on this film, and just to be thinking as an editor in that way and really listening to the narrative. And, then pacing. Pacing is everything, so look at where it moves, where is there spoken word versus just visuals, where is there music to keep things going, does it speed up, slow down, and why at these moments. So, what we're gonna share with you is just a seven minute excerpt. It's a half hour film. We did it in two parts because the initial assignment came, and we did what we could do within that couple of months window, and then a year later we decided to revisit and see where were we a year later, so the finished film is covering a larger time span. So, you're just gonna get a taste of this seven minutes. (cheerful music) My name is Julie Winokur. I am 42 years old. I live in New Jersey, and I am a filmmaker. Hey Isabel? Did you find the clips? Yeah. Okay, you want me to put 'em in? Come here. I'm taking care of my 83 year old father. I have two children, and they are eight and 11 years old. My name is Ed Kashi. I'm 48, and I'm a photojournalist. We lived in California. We lived in San Francisco, and my father was living in New Jersey. We uprooted our lives, our children, our business, and we moved it 3,000 miles in order to be there to support my father. It's a primetime of my life, and I basically gave it away. I'm doing yoga in the living room. You gonna come do yoga? Oh, you got that Einstein look going. (laughing) You didn't tell me you were a mad scientist. I am part of the Sandwich Generation. It's people who are taking care of their children and taking care of their parents, and apparently I'm one of something like 20 million Americans who find themselves in that position, and it really wasn't part of our plan. My father is 83, and we has dementia. He has good days, he has bad days, he has days where we have the old Herbie back and he cracks some jokes. Do you notice I can? You guys, I'm teaching him how to duck and weave. They're swinging to hit me. Yeah, exactly. And, then we have days where he just rambles incoherently, and nobody has any idea where his mind is. If you're up to it, we'll go take a walk again okay? (Herb mumbling) My husband, Ed, and I did a long term project called Aging in America. It gave us a lot of insight into what the aging process is about. In one way I can see all the gifts bearing fruit from what I learned as a journalist in terms of how to care for him, how to touch him, how to react to ways he might behave. Now I'm comfortable with that stuff 'cause I understand it. Maybe it's also because I'm a parent. Ed and I really thought we knew what we were doing. We really felt like experts, quote-unquote experts. We'd seen a lot of aging, but I think until you're having to deal with it yourself and set up all of the support services yourself, nobody's prepared. Okay, go ahead. You can sit down. (thudding) Oh, are you okay? Yeah. All right. (razor buzzing) My dad needs help shaving, bathing, dressing, getting his shoes on and off. He has to be given pills twice a day. His meds needs to be managed, so we get the right pills at the right times. Do you have it? I want you to do it yourself. As much as you can, you do yourself. Good. He's a lovely man, and he's an unassuming person, and he's a great presence in the house, but it has added a layer of noise in our lives. Listen to me. It's about I need your help. (sighing) My mom and dad have been much more stressed out 'cause there's more things to do in the house. And, I think that Poppy's a lot of work. It's pretty cool having my grandpa in the house with us, but it's a little stressful for my parents. I'm always struggling with the feeling that I don't have enough time and attention to pour on the children. I'm really scared that they're gonna feel like the day Poppy moved in is when they lost Mommy and Daddy. There's not a single minute of the day that somebody doesn't need something from me. So, if I'm not careful I'm gonna get run down. Last night in the middle of the night he got up to go to the bathroom, and he fell down. So, this morning when we went downstairs we found him on the floor. We're right now at a loss as to how to deal with his medical condition. He's clearly in a state, and he's not making sense, and I'm feeling that we need to deal with this. And, I'm a little at a loss of what to do, and where to take him. (somber music) Herb has gone into a free fall since he went into the hospital. It is very clear that the hospital does not actually really care about him. He's very low priority because of his age, because of his condition. It's become startlingly clear to me. All I'm thinking is get him home, get him around loved ones, make sure he eats, make sure he's stimulated. Who cares what the diagnosis is? I just, I don't know how long we will be able to handle it at home, quite honestly. I don't know how we're gonna function and maintain our lives as he slips. We're in the period now of tremendous tumult. I'm hoping that once the dust settles that we are in a position where we have the care we need for Herbie, and then Julie and I can get back to some semblance of our lives. There is a part of me that thinks wouldn't it just be easier if he passed now? But, you know, every time I'm around him when he shows the spirit to live that's all I need to see, and then it's like the parents part of me kicks in where it's like whatever you need, whatever you need. (water running) All right, you get away this morning. That was good, right? Damn right. (laughing) ♪ Holidays are here again ♪ ♪ Does nobody know ♪ You in the back! (laughing) Definitely got the music in him. I've already told my kids, "I'm gonna move in with you someday. "I hope you don't mind." I will let you guys move in into a big, humongous bed, and then you will press this button, and then I will wake up and help you. I feel that this period in a way is this hidden gift. You would never think it at the moment 'cause it's so traumatic and stressful and sad, but in the long run the kids are being given this lesson, this life lesson in what it means to care for someone, what it means to come through for someone else. Okay. We haven't looked at that in a long time. A long time. (laughing) So, I know it feels like a lifetime ago. So, what are the takeaways before we start sobbing? To that point I would like to say one thing because I know when we were putting together this course we debated, "Should we show the older material?" 'Cause it's not high def and, you know, the exports we have aren't as crisp as you can see in terms of the images. It's funny that that used to look good. That's back to that. 10 years is a long time for something to hold up, but the story holds up, and so I think part of the takeaway in this moment and with this course is that the tools are gonna change, the cameras are gonna change, things are gonna look more beautiful. At some point it's gonna be in your 3D glass whatever, and you're gonna feel like you're in the room with the people, but the story is the story, and that's really what this all hinges on. So, I think that the emotional resonance is still there even though the wrapper isn't quite as slick as what you would do today. Actually, I have to say that sometimes with all the new gear and the super smooth silky camera work that, at least I feel, and I think we share this feeling that sometimes it's too slick. It's like a Hollywood film. It's overproduced, and in some ways the emotional pitch is muted or destroyed, quite frankly, and sometimes it's better to be a little more raw depending on what you're trying to say. It gets back to that whole thing. What are you trying to say? What are you trying to accomplish? And then, what are the right tools to do it? Anyway, carry on. So, I'd love to talk a little bit about some of these takeaways for you guys thinking now that this is fresh, this particular short film. The intimate, first-person storytelling. As we mentioned before we decided to capture our own lives because of the circumstance that we were in, and we had a reason to be in the film. This is a very pronounced example of that, but a lot of the time when you make films there's that question of am I the disembodied filmmaker, is my voice in it, what should I do? Those questions, I always feel like you have to have a reason to be in your film. If it's your journey that you're going on, then yes, you need to be in your film. I saw a wonderful film called Sonita which is about a young Afghani rapper, this young girl who lives in Iran, and the filmmaker is making a film as the director, producer, and it's about this young rapper. And, as the film transpires this young rapper would really like to go to America, and she gets into some program, and the family back in Afghanistan wants to sell her off for her bride price. So, there's crisis moment as you're watching in the film of oh my gosh, her family, legally they have every right to have her come home. They're gonna sell her off, and they need the money 'cause they're pretty desperate, and the filmmaker ends up intervening and saying, "We can't let this poor young girl "be married off to some guy she doesn't even know, "and she's got this bright future potentially "where she wants to pursue her musical career "and there's an opportunity." So, the filmmakers intervenes and about halfway through the film the filmmaker is in the film. And, I'm sure that was a bit of a crisis point where you're making a film, and it's unfolding in a way that you just can't sit on the sidelines. Also, that you care about your subject. So, it was a really seamless and fantastic pivot in the film that was done really successfully, so I think it's one of those things as a filmmaker this is a question that has to be answered in terms of first-person, what is your role in the film, outside the film, that you have to be able to flow with and also understand why would you be in the film. So, in our case it was first-person for us. You'll also be making that decision in terms of your subject and in terms of who is best prepared to tell this story, and what other characters? In this film we had quite a few voices, and if you see the whole half hour our kids both speak. They're on camera, they're critical components of the film, but it's ultimately our story. It's really not my father's story, so there's a very clear, intentional narration going on. It's the Sandwich Generation. It's not Life With Dementia. It's the Sandwich Generation. It's not Growing up With Grandpa. It's back to that. Now, when you have too many voices it gets really distracting and confusing. And so, you also have to be very judicious in terms of how many people get to tell the story. I'm harsh. If you guys ever got into an edit room with me. The folks who work with me do a rough cut, and they just sit back and they know how to surrender 'cause it's like you're gonna break it up and throw all the pieces on the floor, and then we're gonna put it back together. I do that a lot because I don't want anybody saying the same thing someone else said. I don't want one person repeating what they just said. And, a lot of the time because you think it's so well said by three, four people you want to get them all in there. It's like no, no, no, no, no, you know? You've got to really be disciplined. Each soundbite that's in there... I'm sure Ed and I said the same things in interviews, but it's like well who owns this sentiment and who expresses it the best? It was also a challenge 'cause we felt we had to interview the kids. Especially our son, wow, that was a challenge. (laughing) He was about 11? It was an interesting case where one day you'll work on a film where you have to, maybe it's not your own kid, but you have to interview a young person like that, and it was hard. Yeah. I mean, there was a point where we were like okay, what's more important? Our relationship or getting a good interview with him? And, I loved in the second installment of the film a year later. It opens with our daughter saying, "You know, last year I didn't tell the truth." It was one of those moments where it was just oh my god. My heart broke when I heard her say that. Well, what didn't you tell the truth about? And, then we inserted the clip of her last year saying, "I think it's great having Poppy in our house, "so there are people to take care of him," and then we go back to her a year later, and she says, "Since he moved in everything changed." And, you can't script these things which is also, for us, one of the incredibly exciting parts of doing this work. I think, in general, just doing journalism, reportage, storytelling. Even with David, the violinist that we did this short piece on this weekend. There's just this moment. It's a simple little film about a humble man who repairs violins in West Seattle, and there was this moment where we were almost brought to tears where you start to embed or engage in that person's story. And, it doesn't have to be something that's depressing or even emotional. A violin maker is not a very emotional story, but yet I was touched by it. So, we're all different. Again, we're all wired differently, but that's a critical element is this engagement. Go ahead. There's one thing I wanted to say too. Also, it's about having your camera running when things are awkward and uncomfortable. There are a lot of very uncomfortable moments. I'm hoping they were uncomfortable for you because they certainly were for me, seeing us in this compromised place where we really are in over our heads. There's that shot where Ed is trying to help my dad sit down, and I mean, that could have gone much worse than it did, but it was bad enough that you have a moment of (gasping). That could have been really awful. Well, and it showed that I didn't really know what I was doing in caring for an elderly person. On some level I wasn't trained, I didn't know. Anyway. But, it's having the presence of mind in that moment to be shooting, and it's also as an editor saying the moment you cringe there's something there that probably belongs in the film. 'Cause as a human being part of you is like, "Oh, that does not make these people look good. "Let's not put that in," but if you are going to make a documentary film then that's a moment where everybody felt something. So, uncomfortableness, that's not a word right? No, discomfort. Discomfort, discomfort, wordsmith. I always have that feeling. It's like the more uncomfortable, the more valuable as a storyteller 'cause it's hitting a raw nerve, raw emotion, something real. As you're working, thinking about that. Don't turn your camera off when somebody starts crying. Let it roll. And, you've got to get comfortable with emotion, so that you can say this is in the spectrum of emotion, and it's real, it's genuine. So, this is not the time for you to say, "Oh, I should probably turn my camera off," or, "I should probably cut that scene." As long as you're being respectful of your subject as well. I mean, this gets into a whole other super important aspect of this which is the ethics and morality of how you work with people, especially when you get into intimate situations where they're either vulnerable or compromised. When do you stop? When do you keep on going? But, that's another class. (laughing) And, bring your Kleenex for that one. Is it client work or personal work is the other thing. Exactly, 'cause I wanted to talk about that. How often when we're doing client work where you realize they don't want us to go there. They're not showing people in their underwear. And, they don't want anybody to, let's say cry or to fall on the chair. If we were doing for a Pharma company. Let's just try to morph that. This was about how to people in the Sandwich Generation take care of kids and adults. I can't think of what drug they might be selling. Oh, a sedative for us. (laughing) In which case he would have completely missed the chair. But, then it's so different 'cause you have to make it more tidy. You can't have too much of those rough edges. Now, in terms of the stills and video, the integration, and actually it does get into in this particular film how we got some of those moments 'cause I was not shooting, Julie was not shooting. If you saw the credits our au pair was shooting. I think our daughter shot some. What I basically did was, 'cause of the nature of this kind of a story, now this is a very unusual one in terms of teaching moment. I literally put the few cameras we had, stills and video cameras, I put one on each floor, and I said to everybody, "If you see something, grab a camera and shoot." I knew that I'm gone a lot, and I can't be there for everything, so that was an interesting experiment. We've never done that. That was the only time we've ever done that. In terms of the still video integration, there's one moment which I hope you guys will remember where Julie's doing yoga, and she comes up and then Isabel appears. That was not choreographed, and I was shooting with the 5d in this case, so I was able to do stills and video. Which is interesting 'cause if I was shooting that now I would only have a dedicated video camera. We wouldn't have a still moment of it, but anyway in that case we were working in that multimedia form. So, she comes up, and then all of a sudden Isabel appears. I had the mind, the wherewithal to make a still picture of it, and I thought that was a really nice example of how you can mix the two. And, for me, especially coming from the world of photography, what I love about still images in a visual narrative form in video is it's like an exclamation point or it's a marker of some kind. One of the still inherent, amazing qualities of still photography in this crazy world we live in where we're oversaturated with imagery is ideally it makes you stop, and it makes you look, and it makes you think. It doesn't wash over you. Although, I did learn a great term last week when we're looking through Instagram or on our phones, to be thumb struck. (laughing) Right? And, that's a thumb stopper! Okay. All right, and then talking about the publication. Well, Julie you can talk about that, how this work was used, how it appeared. So, this is a case where as we mentioned, it came in as an assignment round one. We produced the first half of the project, and it ran on MSNBC, got tremendous attention clearly, and it continues to. It struck a nerve. People still find us because they'll be looking for resources or they're part of the Sandwich Generation. So, a year later then we pitched to AARP to do a follow up because they were commissioning a lot of multimedia, and that was a logical audience to reach out to, so we got the second half commissioned as well. Once we did it, then MSNBC said, "Oh, can we run the second half? "We would love to 'cause it's a natural for us "to do the follow up." We then put it together into the complete half hour film, so you could actually have it start to finish, and then I took that into educational distribution. So, there is a big market in education for short films, and the beauty of short films is you can show this film in a 50 minute class and have time to discuss. A 10 minute, 15 minute film, perfect for a class. Ironically it's very hard for education to do feature length films which is what everybody's aspiring to do ultimately as the big opus. But, there's this fantastic market for compelling social issue short films, and what I love about that market is it means that you have people in a setting that is designed for them to analyze, discuss, and grow, to be informed. The discussions are robust, and I always feel like we can put our stuff on broadcast, and I don't know if somebody was getting up and going to the bathroom to take a pee while my film was showing, or if they were having a fight with their roommate. Who knows what's going on? Just because it showed, and you can get some metrics doesn't mean you impacted anybody. So, when it goes into an educational setting I know that people are really ruminating over what was in that film, and what does it mean to me, and they're processing that information. And, we'll get essays that students write. Sometimes teachers will reach out to me. We've had work Aging in America, even. It's an older film, and literally a year ago I had a teacher who teaches in a women's prison asking if she could use it in a women's prison, and then sent me all the essays that the inmates wrote. We've had people reach out to us of someone who became a social worker because they saw this film. Again, it gets back to what impact do you want? You can't control it either. You think you have the cover of a major magazine, or you get on broadcast media. Obviously that's great, that's a beautiful thing to accomplish, but it's hard to know, as Julie said, what is your impact, and there is something quite beautiful when you can create media materials that actually impact people and change their minds or even change their course. Not to give too much credit here, but you know, change the course of what they decide to do with their lives. That is change and that is impact that is incredibly exciting for us. And then, on the commercial side we got approached by Mutual of Omaha who said, "Well, this is great, "and we're trying to sell long term care insurance." Who knew that it would be useful to those folks? And then, I cut a four minute piece that they ran on their site and they licensed for a decent amount of money for three years in a row. You don't really know. You have to think really creatively about who might be out there, who might be interested, and then on top of that, so we haven't really talked at all about Talking Eyes Media which is our company that we founded 13, how many years ago? 15 years ago. 15 years ago. And, Talking Eyes is a nonprofit media company, so the mandate is really to use visual media to impact positive social change, so I work very very hard to partner up with folks for whom the media we create is valuable. So, we worked extensively with aging organizations, caregiver organizations, on our website we listed all kinds of resources, and those organizations then used the film to help educate their clientele. It's also been used to help to try to influence legislation to the degree of paid leave for family caregivers, so there are many many different homes and uses, and you can recut material like this, short, long. The stills ended up running in National Geographic, a whole stills essay. There were many uses of this project, but it's just being aware that you're not limited to the one cut you made. You can't be an artiste. You don't get to say, "No, this is perfect, "and I'm not changing a thing." If you want to put it to work, you want it seen, you want it used, sky's the limit.

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


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!