Documentary making is easy; telling a compelling story isn’t. But the key is to plan and experiment.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah
6 min readMay 25


A former working colleague of mine who now runs one of the UK’s most successful production companies Raw TV said tthis.

I would say that the distinctions between what is news, journalism, features and documentary, however you want to describe it are utter rubbish and the really interesting stuff happens when you are absolutely disrespectful of those things.

He’s right, but to be disrespectful to develop your own style say in documentary it pays to be aware of these forms and to experiment. How do you do that?

Watch tons and tons of films and documentary, make them part of your DNA. Make shorts, make more shorts, upload them. Make some more. Review them. Make more. Quentin Tarantino never went to film school.

If you’re in a film school or documentary programme, you can short circuit the process through guided knowledge from an expert, but in effect the heavy lifting is still on you.

I’ve been making features and docs for more than thirty years and I ran a Masters documentary programme at the University of Westminster for a decade. I’ve developed and refined an approach to film making, and this year I’m currently looking after a number of young documentary makers.

Here’s ten things you could do to amp your film making

1, Once you’ve come across the subject you’re drawn to you’ll want to create a proposal. Let’s take this one below of now a former student looking at how the US papers reported Brexit. To get to the proposal point, it’s helpful to create a mind map of the topic.

2, Creating a mind map forces you to do a number of things, principally research, such as why and what’s the purpose? That research, and we’ll call it proto-research is the bare minimum to see if the idea might work.

It involves reading up on the subject, watching out for films on it. After this minimal research, you should be able to put together a proposal? What is the story you’re telling and why? The proposal is a couple of paras about your intention.

3, Next comes a more profound write up, based on either a review of deeper media associated with your project and the approach. This often comes together as a treatment. It’s how you intend on treating your project. Feedback here from an expert/ supervisor can be invaluable in building on your approach.

4, That bare minimum research now takes on a life of its own as it’s time to get granular. Your Mind map may have changed, become more refined and the process now requires finding out from potential interviewees. This literally requires meeting and speaking to people who know more about your story than you do. I’ll repeat this, because it’s an area that is problematic in the Social Media age. Meet and speak to people. The experience of the feedback is of a different quality to engaging in text on Social Media,

With the permission of your subject record what they say and with an app like otter transcribe what they say. You’ll require this going forward.

5, As some point you’ll have a batch of transcribed documents. In this is your story. This is the alchemy bit. The feedback from your interviewees is the backbone of your story. I frequently ask young filmmakers to write out the story as a blog. It helps them understand the role each interviewee is playing, and it sets out how the story is malleable.

What you see below is transcribed interviews for a project of mine.

6, The structure from your blog will assist in creating a structure. Here based on your previous watching documentary habits, you should begin to form an idea ( around a favourite film etc) how you want your film to unfold.

7, Next comes an attempt at the key proponent for visualising the doc — the pre-shoot script. The pre-shoot script, based on your research, film watching and interviews is your attempt at saying here’s how my film will work. It’s THE document that will likely go through changes, and hence ready yourself for creative surgery.

8, Invariably a pre-shoot can go through many rewrites and working with an expert ( editor, exec producer, supervisor, lecturer) you’ll gain valuable insight to its structure.

9, Here’s a real copy of that pre-shoot script. It’s a paper documentary of your story, with you visualising its outcome. By now, things like ethics forms and risk assessments will help shape your ideas about what’s achievable. Ethics examines what’s moral and acceptable from your position making the doc. Risk Assessment tries to anticipate all the things that could go wrong that you should avoid

10, Once you’re satisfied with your script, then it’s time to shoot proper the film. Remember you’ve an idea of what people will say and so in many ways based on your patient pre-build up, you’re trying to capture this. Things will change on the ground. They always do, but the more you’ve planned, the more you’ll be comfortable when the story changes, or interviewees drop out.

Notes of caution

Documentary making is about working and experimenting, hence supervision I advise should be well spaced out for the doc maker to find their voice. As a supervisor I see my role as empowering the young doc maker to make their decisions. I shared this knowledge at a Masterclass at Apple, and you can find out more about docs in general and my approach from being included in the Documentary Handbook below.

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah, presenting at Apple, is featured in The Documentary Handbook.



Dr David Dunkley Gyimah

Creative Technologist & Associate Professor. International Award Winner Cinema journalist. Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled Top Writer,