Skip to main content

Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 4 of 35

Use Visual Language to Tackle a Theme


Making a Short Documentary

Lesson 4 of 35

Use Visual Language to Tackle a Theme


Lesson Info

Use Visual Language to Tackle a Theme

We wanted to share something that was gonna be a little taste. That would fast forward to the present day since sandwich generation is now older. We've been doing a project now for three years called Newest Americans. Looking at immigration and identity. We're just gonna show you a two minute trailer because we have done, in the last three years I haven't even counted how many stories how many films we've created. But we publish an online magazine three times a year, called Newest Americans. We partner with Rutgers University, Newark which is named the most diverse campus in the United States, every year, by US News and World Report since 1997, I believe. We partner up with Rutgers, Newark and we tell stories that emanate out of Newark in some way, shape or form. Get a little taste. Some are in Newark. Some might have a musician who came from Newark and is now out in the world performing and that sort of thing. I would like you to just watch. Again, this is a trailer as apposed to a fu...

ll on story. You're gonna get a little dim sum of stories. I'd like you to also look at the visual language because we have been working across media. It's also entirely different visually than the sandwich generation. You're gonna see where we are now with our visual language. Media formats. We've been experimenting with everything from graphic novels, to stills, to video. This will come up over and over again story versus issues. We didn't really talk a lot about that with sandwich generation but I'm sure it resonates in hindsight. And then, pacing. This is a trailer. It's way more wiz-bang. It's a good juxtaposition to what you just watched in the sandwich generation. All right. Okay. We're in the shadows of New York. The thing with the Newark scene is there's so much good talent it just needs to be recognized. (violin music) (glass cutting) I'm an immigrant. I'm an artist, an organizer, and an instigator. A lot of their parents don't have cars. They don't have phones. They don't have all these basic things. (boxing jargon) 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? Every time I've said I'm going to stop, I can't. ♪ (singing in foreign language) ♪ (violin music) Whenever somebody uses the word illegal they're actively dehumanizing a person. Newark was a place of entry. If you come from some place else you're gonna stop in Newark first. For most of my childhood my father was all over the world traveling, speaking, writing poetry, doing plays. Their grandson is now the mayor of the city. (violin music) My family is from Pakistan. Egypt. Puerto Rico. India. Nepal. I'm the first one in the family to be born in America. (energetic violin music) Makes you wanna go to Newark, right? (laughs) Obviously, a far cry from the sandwich generation but you can see that visually there's all of this incredible camera movement lots of very crisp imagery. There's some drone footage. You name it, we got it all going on in that trailer. Character driven. Every single story we tell is character driven. Even in that little sampler you met a lot of different people and you heard individual voices. You need that human touch. I don't care if you're talking about pollution in the Passaic river. We did a piece about the river keeper. You have a human who gets to take you on this journey so that you can connect. Infinite options for tackling a theme. Honestly, there is no right way or wrong way to do any of this. You could almost pull it out of a hat and say, "Okay, I'm gonna try this." And then, in some way that limitation will give you incredible creative license to explore. We experiment all the time. With this project, we've done everything from an interactive story about a mural where you get to go off on these off-shoots where you can here the artist talk about their work. Or, you can take the drive the length of the mural. You can experiment. The more you experiment, the more you keep it interesting. Ed and I are both really big at breaking down the rules. Ed, more than I. (laughs) He's a total rule breaker, if you haven't gotten that. You clean it up, right? (laughs) Visual experimentation. Keep it fresh, keep it personal. We're all trying to find our style. You can learn something in a text book and say, "You can't break the wall." That kind of thing, where it's like, no, sometimes you gotta do that. People are very sophisticated visually now. They forgive a lot and they're very sophisticated. Play around. Partnerships and collaboration, equals opportunity. We collaborate with probably 30, different people on this project. We have faculty at Rutgers, Newark who have expertise in subjects we know nothing about. We have students who get involved. We have students who pitch stories and we end up collaborating with the students to then bring it to fruition. Partnerships really open up a lot of doors. You don't have to do this in isolation. It's created, for us, opportunity that's financial. It's created opportunity in terms of being able to tell a much bigger stories, than we could've otherwise. And, to grow constantly.

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

    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.

  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.


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!

user 1399904409596125

Great class! I pre-purchased it and I'm glad I did. Great information, great pieces of work shared, and I especially liked how they showed from start to finish the piece "Resonant" . which I enjoyed watching. I'm a professional photographer (since 1985) who has for the last five years been transitioning in film making and I got some great tips from watching this.