You Can Shoot A Documentary In A Day, Here’s How…

by | Apr 24, 2024 | Behind the Scenes, Tips and Tutorials

I recently shot a mini documentary in a day and in this video I’m going to be breaking down all the details that went into creating the short film including finding inspiration, planning, kit, storytelling, and editing and I’ll also be telling you all the things I did wrong to hopefully help you if you plan on embarking on a similar project, which, side note, I highly recommend you do because its a great form of self development and an awesome way to flex your filmmaking muscles.

This video is sponsored by Universal Music for Creators, more on them later.

Hey friends, Will here. Last week I published the short film “Grandads workshop” on my channel. If you haven’t already watched it then I’d recommend pausing this video, going and watching it and then coming back, as this video will make a lot more sense if you’ve watched the short film.

Inspiration

This was a very personal project for me. The idea for this short film came about after being inspired by Philip Blooms heartfelt instagram post after his father died, urging filmmakers to make films of their loved ones whilst they can.

I have a very close relationship with my dad so his post really struck a chord with me and I decided this would be a perfect passion project to fill a bit of downtime in my work calendar.

Side note – I think passion projects are hugely important for any creative professional. They’re an opportunity to explore different styles, and create meaningful work outside of client work. I think this is especially important if your day-to-day work doesn’t quite align with the work you’d like to be doing. It’s an opportunity to create work for your portfolio in the hope of attracting more of the work you would like.

For me that meant tackling a slightly longer form and slower narrative project, rather than the more fast paced marketing content that my portfolio already has plenty of.

Passion projects are also a great time to experiment with styles and techniques which you might not be brave enough to try with a looming client deadline or an already tight budget.

Passion projects also keep you productive during quiet times and ensure your still flexing your creative muscles instead of panicking about paying bills and binge watching The Office *grimace*

Planning

I took a very lightweight approach to planning, and this isn’t something I’d recommend you DON’T do.

I gave some thought to what the story of the film would be, it wouldn’t be a documentary after all,  unless it’s telling a story of some sort.

I’ve spoken with my dad a lot over the years about how he struggled academically at school and how he wasn’t encouraged to pursue a creative career so I felt this could be a great angle for the film, flipping that negative experience into an inspiring story about how he has pursued his craft later in life to become the master craftsman that he is.

I made a few notes and came up with three “cornerstone” types of content which I felt would help tell the story.

These cornerstones were; footage of the workshop, Fly on the wall footage of dad working, and then more intentional interview footage with my dad talking. And of course I knew I wanted this film to feel really intentional and as cinematic as possible.

I figured the workshop is such a cool little treasure trove that there would be no shortage of cool shots and I wanted to think of the workshop almost as its own character in the film.

I knew that if I ticked these three boxes I’d have a great selection of varied footage to enable me to tell a compelling story.

I jotted down a basic shot list in apple notes and headed into the shoot. In hindsight this loose planning approach cost me a lot of time when it came to editing, more on that later.

Kit

I won’t give a complete breakdown of all the kit used to make this film as it would make this video super long but I figure its worth mentioning a few bits and pieces which were important to how this film came out.

I rigged my Sony A7Siii up for handheld shooting, I knew I’d be shooting a lot of hand held shots so rigging to add weight in this way helped me get smoother footage. I’ve done a whole video about my camera rig so I’ll link that down in the description. The only addition to the rig which wasn’t mentioned in that video was adding a V-mount battery for extended power and even more weight.

The whole film, bar one or two shots was shot on the Sigma art 24-70 f2.8 and a fairly defining characteristic of how the film looks was the addition of the Nisi Swift True Tone variable ND filter to manage exposure and the one quarter black diffusion filter to bloom the highlights and generally soften the footage.

Another defining feature of the look of the film was using a ton of haze in the workshop to diffuse the natural light and add a bit of atmosphere. I just use a really cheap smoke machine for this, the kind you would buy for a school disco or similar. Using haze like this really helps beams of light become more visible and the shots with these beams were some of my favourites in this film.

I relied mainly on natural light for this film, with one Amaran T2C tube light to add a bit of fill or backlight as needed. I did attempt to light the workshop from outside with a spotlight but it just wasn’t powerful enough, luckily the weather was on our side for once and the sun beamed through the windows giving the exact effect I was trying to achieve with the light.

Lesson learnt here though, this could have been a nightmare had the sun not played ball, but at least I know for future that I’d need a much more powerful light like an Aputure 600x if I want to fake sunlight in this way in the future.

Finally, I used a cheap generic manual slider to achieve the slider shots in the film. Ive owned this slider for years but not used it much so because this was a passion project I was keen to experiment with it and I’m really pleased with the results I got. Whilst there are much fancier, smoother, electric sliders available, I wouldn’t hesitate to use this for a client project in future.

For audio I used the Joby Wavo Pro shotgun mic on my camera and a Rode Wireless Pro Lav mic on my Dad. A unique feature of the Wavo Pro is that it has an additional 3.5mm jack input so I was able to record both audio sources directly into camera and then select the channel I wanted in the edit. Of course if I’d have shot this project on my new FX3 then this would have been easily achieved with the top handle but I thought this was a neat solution at the time and it performed well.

Production

On the day of the shoot, I roughly split the available time into 3 even chunks to cover the cornerstones I wanted to capture and started working my way through my shot list.

As my shot list was fairly minimal, it was more of a guide than a strict list and as the day progressed I ended up taking a much more fluid approach to things, capturing shots of the workshop when the light was right, then jumping back into conversations with my dad as he worked and just trying to allow my dad to become comfortable with the camera so I could get natural and unforced footage.

Sometimes id be capturing my dad working and he would say something interesting, so I’d ask a follow up question and we jump into a more interview style format before reverting back to fly on the wall style.

I think that working this way worked well for this project because I’m so close to my dad but had this been a client project I think a clearer shortlist would have been helpful.

I also should have kept better track of if I was ticking the right boxes reading the narrative I needed for the edit. Whilst I had a lot of good stuff, it would have been reassuring to know for definite that I had ticked off the key points I needed to for the edit.

Approaching the edit

The edit was by far the most difficult part of this project. I’m not sure if it was because this was such a personal project or because I failed to plan more upfront, or perhaps because I overshot. I suspect it was a combination of all of these things.

I also think I found it challenging because this was a very different type of project for me, and that was of course the whole point of this project. Editing a documentary is completely different to cutting quick marketing videos. This is where the majority of the heavy lifting is required to tease out the story and hit the right tone.

It took me several iterations to reach an edit I was happy with, and even then I kept second guessing myself as to whether it was too long, if it hit the right tone and effectively told the story.

Again, this is where better planning would have saved the day. I should have storyboarded the edit before I even picked up my camera and that way I’d have known exactly where I was heading.

I shared a rough cut of the film with several trusted friends and colleagues to get some external input, and this was really helpful to understand if the film was landing as intended. Getting constructive critique in this way was invaluable, so if you’re attempting a project outside your comfort zone then consider doing the same as its a great way to get objective feedback.

I actually ended up going back to my dad’s workshop after the initial edit and feedback to grab a few quick pick up shots and additional audio to help convey the story more effectively. I’m really glad I did as I think it made a huge impact on the final film.

The whole film was shot in Slog3 and graded with the Phantom LUTS. Big shout out to Joel for creating these LUTS, I used the Arri Film Looks Eastman Remastered LUT for this project and its lovely warm tones are a key part of how the film looks.

Finding the right music

One area of the edit that was NOT difficult was finding the right music. Usually this IS one of the most difficult and time consuming parts of any video project, I’ve lost count of the hours I must have spent over the years scrolling through track after track of sub par options but thanks to the sponsor of this video; Universal Music For Creators, finding the right music for this project was a breeze.

Universal Music For Creators is a new world leading subscription platform offering a brand-new library of over 50,000 claims-free tracks and 200,000 sound effects for YouTubers, videographers, streamers and podcasters, so they can use the best music whilst staying monetized.

As soon as I got hand-on with the platform I was immediately blown away by the quality of the music they have on offer, and the library is really varied so whether your looking for short punchy upbeat tracks for social media or the slower paced more contemplative undertones I wanted for this film, their library is jam packed with options for any taste.

The library is organised by themes and playlists and also features a comprehensive filtering tool so you can really dial in your requirements.

I’ve been especially impressed with the track variants they offer, which I don’t think any other platforms provide. Not only do you have access to all the stems for the tracks but Universal Music For Creators have also gone to the effort of remixing tracks into different versions, from different length edits, perfect for intro stings or instagram reels, right through to versions without vocals, or just undertone versions, which are perfect for doc style work.

All the Music and sound effects on offer are claims free for piece of mind when uploading your videos everything on offer is composed with video in mind, meaning they have great dynamics to suit your edits, with really nice rises and queue points to add great dynamics to your projects.

There’s two pricing options to suit any creators needs and if you decide to give it a go you can get two months free with code WILL2 at checkout.

All the music in my short film came from Universal Music For Creators and I was really spoilt for choice. Using the undertone versions and stems of the tracks meant I could always sculpt the music just the way I wanted it for the film.

In Summary

Tackling this project has been an amazing learning experience for, allowing me to experiment with new techniques, hone my filmmaking skills and capture my dad in a way that will last for ever.

I would whole heartedly encourage you to take on your own passion project, whether it’s capturing a loved one or something completely different, and hopefully you can learn from my mistakes.

Get serious about the planning phase of your project. It’s tempting to crack straight on with the more fun parts but time spent planning will save you double later in the process.

Write yourself a really detailed shot list, or even storyboard the film, again it will save time in the long run.

Know the story you are trying to tell and ensure you have the narrative planned out to ensure you hit the mark.

And above all, have fun. I’m really proud of my short film and I hope you enjoyed it, as well as this breakdown which I hope you found helpful.

As always, thanks for watching and, I’ll see you next time.

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I'm Will Chidlow, passionate about creating visually captivating content that tells a story. Whether it's through video production, photography, or content creation, I'm here to help you share your ideas with the world. Learn more about my work. Follow me on Instagram and don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel.

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