I have an idea for a documentary. Now what?Oct 11, 2022
I have an idea for a documentary. Now what?
So you’ve got a brilliant idea for your next (or perhaps it’s your first) documentary. Now it’s time to get to work. But how on earth do you take a concept that exists in your mind and craft it into a living, breathing film?
Taking a project from idea to completion is no mean feat. And if you haven’t been to film school or attached yourself to a great mentor then its a process that can be hard to learn without doing. And in that doing, there will be many times where you have to guess, ask Google it, or just trial and error. So to help you along on the journey, over the coming months I’ll be sharing with you all aspects of the documentary film making process.
I know how challenging this process can be, and disappointingly, Mike and I have seen many people with a lot of talent, give up or simply move onto more stable work. So we’ve decided to share more of what we’ve learned through many years of film making through the Moonshine Moonshot series.
Our hope is to see the industry thrive here in Australia and beyond and we recognise that to do that, we have to be more open with skills sharing. We have to discourage pigeoning holing filmmakers intcategories. Maybe you’ve been a director, does that really mean you can’t be a producer or write your own scripts? Perhaps you’ve worked in feature drama, does that really mean you can’t work in comedy or documentary.
And this little rant has lead us to create this upcoming series of how to develop your documentary film. Which will be followed by pre production, production, post production, distribution and outreach. It’s probably going to take us all year so make sure you subscribe to the newsletter, podcast or Youtube channel so you don’t miss a step.
The first set of blogs are a deep dive into how to develop your documentary or film idea.
And the first topic is how you get to know the story you want to tell?
So here we go. Topic #1
Development: How do you get to know the story you want to tell?
First things first – take a deep breath. Actually, take a few. Because every movie you’ve ever seen started as a pithy idea in someone’s head. Which means your idea can go from something abstract to the silver screen, too.
Honestly, I think everyone – even non filmmakers– has thought about what would make a great blockbuster or documentary. Maybe it was something in your personal life (good or bad) that triggered the idea. Or it could’ve been that wild holiday in South America that your sister-in-law went on and couldn’t stop telling you about. Perhaps you were inspired by a recent story you saw on the 6pm news. Whatever the idea is, getting it into production can leave a lot of aspiring (and even established) filmmakers scratching their heads.
But I promise you that you can transform your concept into a beautiful, moving, impactful film. It just won’t happen overnight. I recently read that the average Hollywood movie takes 871 days (yep, that’s well over two years) to go from idea to screen. Your independent film could no doubt take longer – some of my films definitely have.
So yes, there is a lot of work to be done but if you’ve got the right tools at your disposal, you can bring that idea of yours to life. And that’s what I’m going to help with you today.
While my experience lies more in documentary making, if you’re keen to explore narrative fiction film production, the steps I’m going to walk you through in this post can still be applied.
Let’s make a film!
Get clear on your genre
Pinpointing your idea is one thing – but determining the right genre for your film is often a whole different mystery to solve.
It’s probably the first question you need to ask yourself after coming up with your idea –way before you get into the nuts and bolts of writing the script, determining the location or casting the talent.
While you might think that your concept automatically dictates what the genre will be, it’s actually not entirely true. In fact, almost every film idea has multiple genre possibilities.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic Dr Strangelove actually started out as a serious drama before the legendary film director changed it to a dark comedy.
For example, let’s say your idea relates to the environment. In that case it might fit into a ‘nature’ style genre. But if you’re really leaning into the challenges surrounding climate change, it might be better suited to social justice or education.
Other popular documentary genres include true crime, music, pop culture, historical or biography. It’s worth taking the time to assess what genre your story suits best – as it will help steer you in the right direction and keep you focused as you move into the production phase.
My only word of warning is that you pick a genre that you actually enjoy watching. Because if you don’t enjoy watching it, you’re probably not going to enjoy making it.
At Moonshine Agency, we produce 'impact films’, which is also a genre unto itself. An impact film is designed to turn viewers into active participants in the story, inspiring them to take on the documentary’s message and be part of the solution. Impact films can also be measured and evaluated to assess the positive change made.
If the idea of an ‘impact film’ is new to you, my co host Mike Hill and I speak about it regularly on the Moonshine Moonshot series. You can subscribe to the channel over here.
Define your idea
Once you’ve landed on a genre, you’ll want to do a deep dive into the topic that your idea relates to.
And by that I mean you need to flesh out your idea and figure out the type of story you’re trying to tell.
If you’re telling a retrospective story for example, you’ll need to dedicate several weeks (probably months all up) to the research so you can understand the story – or moment in time – inside out.
I recommend taking some time and asking yourself a few key questions, such as:
What makes this story ‘newsworthy’?
What are the hooks or angles that I can expand on to really engage my audience?
Am I presenting a new perspective on the topic at hand?
You might now be wondering if your idea has already been ‘done’. And you know what, your topic or idea may already have been covered. But don’t let that be a stopping force. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said that, “There’s no such thing as a new idea. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope’.
Which means once the idea goes through your own mental kaleidoscope you’ll bring something unique to the table. So don’t be disheartened – your take will be entirely your own and most definitely worth watching.
I always find speaking to subject experts to be a very helpful exercise when it comes to determining my angle or unique signature – and these experts can range from professionals working in the field right through to participants who have the lived experience of the subject my film focuses on.
So stay curious and always be open to new possibilities and insights. The truth is, your story will develop as you go – yes, have direction and an overview in mind, but don’t be totally wed to one way of telling things.
Often the most compelling part of a documentary comes from scenes that are spontaneously captured. Rarely are they over-produced.
Immerse yourself in your story
Now it’s time for the fun part! Creating a space that you can really lean into and that will keep you inspired. Maybe you have a home office that you can cover wall-to-wall with story notes, visual references, research photos or index cards. This can be a great way to help you really marinate in your story and retain your interest.
Never discount where you might pull visual inspiration from, either. When I recorded the YouTube episode on this topic with Mike, he actually walked viewers through a few of the unexpected pieces that have inspired him in the past - such as a piece of fabric he purchased in the Top End of Australia, a bookmark from Norfolk island, clippings from old newspapers, photos references, a book brimming with beautiful illustrations.
You might prefer listening to music, going out into the world and actually talking to people, diving head first into research on the web or immersing yourself in the location your story is set. All of these pieces or activities can trigger ideas for your set, costumes, props, even the colour grade and go a long way in helping you pull your film together.
Set up your space in whatever way gets your creative ideas flowing. You’ll be spending fair bit of time in there so make it work for you.
Film making is a team sport but depending on where you’re starting, the development phase may be mainly just you. We’ll not ‘just’ you, you’re bringing a new project into the world after all…
Are you feeling inspired?
I hope so! But if you need a little more assistance fleshing your project out, you can always contact me via [email protected]. Y
Over the next several weeks, we’ll be paying close attention to developing your documentary. And next week is all about planning! I know your eyes are glazing over right now but stay with me. It’s such an important part of bringing your project to life. So be sure to subscribe so you can keep on track and work towards turning your movie idea into an incredible feature film.
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