Five Steps to Starting Your Documentary Film

I get asked this a lot: how do I start my documentary film? So I figured the rest of you might want to know, too. So here are five steps that’ll help you get your documentary film started. (Finishing your film, of course, is an entirely different ball game.)

1. First things first: congrats. If you’re 100% committed to making your documentary film, take a moment and pat yourself on the back. Deciding to start is often one of the hardest steps.

Most folks are still waiting, worrying, and thinking about how to do it. So starting — anywhere, right now — is often the best first step. And it seems like a lot of you are doing that, which is totally cool. So kudos to you!

2: Be very patient and be very kind to yourself. Docs often take a lot of time and hard work. Plus, you may find yourself in uncharted territory on a regular basis and that can be stressful. Sometimes you’re learning how to build a plane while you’re flying it — and that’s just totally nuts. (But it’s one wild ride!)

Put together a plan that protects your mental and physical health. Be prepared to revise that plan as you move forward. If you aren’t in good health (ie: getting sick repeatedly because you’re too stressed out), it’ll be really hard to finish the doc you’ve started.

3. Prep your people. You’re going to need a support network that is prepped and ready to love you even more during this time of relative chaos. Tell your family and friends that you’re going to make a documentary film. Tell them you’d really appreciate their support of this endeavor — even if it means just asking about how it’s going. Surround yourself with people who are supportive of your dreams. I promise this little step will make a HUGE difference down the road.

4. Do your research. There are umpteen bajillion books, blogs, workshops, podcasts, networking groups, and more resources that can help you figure out how to make a film — especially docs. Do your homework. Plug in to one or more of those things and start learning. And keep learning. The industry continues to evolve.

5. Ask for help. This is a big one. You shouldn’t go it alone. Filmmaking is a collaborative art form and business. So ask for help from plenty of people that understand the filmmaking process and/or the industry.

But understand that you can only get so much support, encouragement, publicity, and thought-sharing for free. Respect the person’s time, energy, and communication methods when asking for help. If you need a lot of help from someone in particular, plan on rewarding them (ahem, pay them, fortheloveofallthingsholy). And take a note from my mamma: be sure to say thank you, even for the tiniest gestures.

BONUS: keep me posted on your progress. If you’re working on something fun, please let me know about it. I’d love to do what I can to help. If I think it’s a good fit, I might even share it with my peeps.

So there ya have it. Five simple, easy things you can do now get started on your documentary film. They are five things I do on every film I make. There are plenty of other things to suggest but this is just a start, mk?

Wanna know more? Just ask. Use the comments section or hit me up on twitter: @cammicam.


    1. Kathy, great questions. I usually make sure it’s a very trusting relationship. This is a great topic for another blog post. Stay tuned! 🙂

  1. Hi Camden, what a great article. Thanks for sharing! I receive Google alerts about all things documentary film and your article popped up. So glad it did! I just wanted to say hi and give a shout-out to a fellow documentary-maker/blogger.

    Oh, and just to give a quick reply to Kathy regarding how to convince people to be interviewed. Camden hit the nail on the head. It’s all about building trust and making them feel comfortable about you and the project. Most people are flattered when they’re asked to be interviewed and will be excited about the opportunity. Others, if it’s a sensitive topic, might take longer. For my documentary “Briars in the Cotton Patch”, it took me three months to convince one of my interviews to go on camera. If someone turns you down for an interview, politely ask why. I’ve found that if you’re willing to negotiate and help them talk through their fears or concerns, often there’s a simple solution to turn their “no” into a “yes”.

    Gosh, that wasn’t a quick reply after all! Hopefully Camden will write that blog post and fill in a few more details regarding her experience.

  2. Camden & Faith,

    Thanks for your responses! Our unique challenge is that we’d like to interview families 5-7 times over two years….. families who are already stressed. I will be looking forward to your blog post – Faith – do you mind sharing your blog?


      1. Faith, thanks for sharing! I look forward to learning more about what you do. Look for the new blog post on securing interviews this week. 🙂

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