A documentary is a broad term to describe a non-fiction movie that in some way “documents” or captures reality. Documentary filmmakers are often motivated to make their films because they feel a particular story or viewpoint is not being adequately covered by mainstream media and they want to bring attention to it. Sheila Curran Bernard, Author of Documentary Storytelling, describes a documentary like this: 

“Documentaries bring viewers into new worlds and experiences through the presentation of factual information about real people, places, and events, generally — but not always — portrayed through the use of actual images and artifacts. But factuality alone does not define documentary films; it’s what the filmmaker does with those factual elements, weaving them into an overall narrative that strives to be as compelling as it is truthful and is often greater than the sum of its parts.”

A micro-documentary is a great way to share your story if you don’t have the time or budget (or need) for a full-length feature documentary. The length of a micro-documentary might be anywhere from 2-25 minutes, and might also be referred to as a short film or mini-doc. Mini-documentaries are a fantastic way to get a message or story across in a limited amount of time. 

Here is an example of a compelling Documentary:

(this is the trailer for a full-length documentary, but it’s a great example)

Getting Started

YOUR PURPOSE:  Define the goal of the film – This stage of the process is perhaps most important of all. A film can only be successful if there is a very clear purpose and goal. Producing a video is like writing a letter You must know your audience, your key message(s), and the desired outcome. Answering the following questions will help you clarify the direction of your film.

  1. What/Who is the film about?
  2. What is the purpose of the film?
  3. Who is your audience?
  4. What are the three most important points this film should make?
  5. After watching the film, what do you want your audience to do and/or feel?
  6. What is the one thing, if they get nothing else, you want the audience to remember after watching the film?
  7. Who are the people/what are the stories that best illustrate your message? What are the opportunities you have for filming these people/stories?
  8. Is there existing footage that can be utilized for this project?
  9. What length would you like your film?

YOUR FORMAT:  A great way to understand and learn about mini-documentaries is to watch them. As you do, make a list of any that represent the style and/or format you prefer for this project. Study documentaries of all styles and genres to inspire your own work as non-fiction storyteller. And while you’re at it, read up on what film scholars and movie critics have to say about how these films are constructed.

In his 2010 classic text, “Introduction to Documentary,” Bill Nichols distilled the many sub-genres of documentary down these styles or modes:

  1. The Expository Mode: The expository mode is the most familiar. Expository docs are heavily researched and are sometimes referred to as essay films because they aim to educate and explain things — events, issues, ways of life, worlds and exotic settings we know little about. Typical production elements include interviews, illustrative visuals, some actuality, perhaps some graphics and photos and a ‘voice of God’ narration track. Scripted narration connects the story elements and often unpacks a thesis or an argument.
  2. The Observational Mode: This form is also referred to as cinema verité, direct cinema or fly-on-the-wall documentary. It strives for cinematic realism. There is no intervention by the filmmaker, no interview questions, no commentary to the camera, no narration. On location, the filmmaker simply records the sound and handles the microphone. 
  3. The Participatory Mode: In this style, the encounter between filmmaker and subject is recorded and the filmmaker actively engages with the situation they are documenting. It aims for immediacy and often presents the filmmaker’s point of view. For example, Michael Moore’s documentaries are primarily vehicles for his social commentary. A dynamic shooting style that captures ‘man in the street’ interviews as well as ambush grillings of the powerful, staged sequences featuring the director and mostly one-sided narration are trademarks of Moore’s point of view docs, including “Sicko” – slamming the health care system — and “Bowling for Columbine” — lobbying for gun control.
  4. The Poetic Mode: The aim of this style is to create an impression or a mood rather than argue a point. Filmmakers operating in the poetic mode typically emphasize cinematic values over content to create visual poetry. Shot design, composition, and rhythm achieved in editing are hallmarks of the genre. The narrative, if there is one, is expressed visually rather than rhetorically. 
  5. The Performative Mode: The performative mode of documentary is where unobtrusive observation of the subject is the director’s aim. It emphasizes the filmmaker’s own involvement with the subject. The filmmaker shows a larger political or historical reality through the window of her own experience. Rather than relying on the expository approach, the rhetoric of persuasion, the performative filmmaker becomes a personal guide who shows it and tells it like it is with raw emotion. In performative mode, the filmmaker gives a strong “what’s it like to be there” perspective on a world, a culture or an event in history that the audience would otherwise never know.

YOUR PROCESS: When you’re ready to get started, the following steps can guide you through the process of creating a mini-documentary:

  • Research: Once you clearly understand the goal of the film, do your research on the subject and figure out the best way to tell the story. Who should be interviewed? What footage do you need? How long will it take to shoot?
  • Script Outline/Project Proposal: Writing a “script” in advance of shooting is one of the smartest things you can do to keep the process moving forward smoothly and manage expectations. Once you’ve done your research, write a treatment or “pretend script” using the types of quotes and/or narration you think might be used. Of course, the script will change after shooting is complete, but at least this is a document that everyone can look at and say yes, that’s the type of video and message we’re going for. 
  • Budget:  In combination with writing the script/treatment, create a detailed budget and make sure to include a contingency line item (usually 8-10% of the budget) to give yourself a safety net in case you go over budget. 
  • Production: Now it’s time to gather the elements of your story. Whether that’s shooting interviews and new fresh footage or gathering footage/photos from the archives. Buying beautiful stock footage is another option.
  • Post-Production: Re-write your script based on the new footage and interviews you’ve gathered and get final script approval before the editing begins. Editing is where it all comes together. 
  • Final Output: Once your project is complete, think about how your mini-documentary will be used. This will determine final output such as whether you will be simply uploading the film to YouTube or producing a DVD.


Resources For Creating a Mini-Documentary

How To Make A Mini Documentary
(Q&A w/Tufts University Multimedia Producer Steffan Hacker)

Michael Moore’s 13 Rules for Making Documentary Films

How To Maximize Smartphone Video Footage For Your Documentary

Best Video Editing Software For Your Documentary Project
(Beginner, Intermediate and Professional Options)

Documentary Crowdfunding Tips: Kickstarter

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