This page will guide you through the process of producing a micro-documentary from start to finish.
- 1 What is a micro-documentary?
- 2 What is the process?
- 3 Step 1. Develop
- 4 Step 2. Plan
- 5 Step 3. Shoot
- 6 Step 4. Edit
- 7 Step 5. Share
- 8 Step 6. Reflect
- 9 Step 7. Repeat
- 10 Resources for further study
- 11 Acknowledgments
- 12 Copyright
What is a micro-documentary?
If we examine John Grierson’s classic definition, “the creative treatment of actuality,” there is no specific form of the work implied. While there is no doubt that historical factors have influenced documentary makers to follow particular conventions and forms, these are not pre-ordained and documentary continues to evolve. A micro-documentary differs from a traditional documentary in terms of length, structure, and quite often, purpose. While most long-form documentaries tell a story with a narrative structure, shorter documentaries require a different set of strategies for structuring the viewer’s experience. Most often a micro-documentary will be 2 to 3 minutes in length, though some can be as long as 6 or even 10 minutes. From the standpoint of a narrative arc, you don’t have enough time to establish character, develop conflict, and reveal backstory the way you can in a longer work, therefore, alternative editorial strategies must be considered.
For a discussion of structuring strategies for micro-documentaries, see Four approaches to structuring micro-documentaries which also includes some examples of micro-documentaries.
What is the process?
Producing a micro-documentary is not a linear process, in spite of what the following steps may imply. You’ll find yourself revising, reshooting, adapting, and moving through these stages throughout your experience producing your video. This process can be used for both planning your documentary and collecting process documentation.
Canonically, the steps may be thought of as:
1. Develop => 2. Plan => 3. Shoot => 4. Edit => 5. Share =>. 6. Reflect => 7. Repeat
Below are some guidelines to help you become more proficient at each stage of the process.
Step 1. Develop
Some questions to ask yourself:
- What is my idea?
- What research have I done (or need to do) to become familiar with the topic?
- What are my goals for making this micro-documentary?
- Who do I expect will watch it?
- Why would they watch it?
- What do I want the audience to take away from it and/or what do I want them to do after watching it?
- Can I convey this story visually in under three minutes?
- What elements do I need to assemble this story?
- Is there a character I can build this story around, and what is their motivation?
- Is there a place or event I can build this story around, and what is unique about it?
Answering these questions will help you when not if, things change. Understanding your idea lets you imagine what the audience needs to see/hear to experience what you intend. Stating your goal clearly and reviewing it during production will help you make trade-offs and notice opportunities. Addressing the visual limitations early prevents costly mistakes, especially in terms of time.
Brainstorming elements generate the list you will use to prioritize (remember you can’t shoot everything so get your most important shots early in the process). Finding a character with a specific need or an interesting personality/quirk will carry your micro-documentary. Good documentaries, even those about ideas, are always primarily about specific people. People convey their character through their actions.
You have to focus on conveying ideas visually. For example, even if you’re using interviews, you have to think about what’s in the frame and the role it plays in your visual storytelling. You have to be very focused on your choice of images to tell the story and editing that keeps the viewer engaged and wondering what’s next since the viewing context is usually in a browser or mobile device with many other media options simply a click away.
- Present an interesting person to entertain or enlighten, provide viewers with a feeling of having met someone
- Provide viewers with a sense of being at a particular location
- Advocate for a particular cause to elicit a particular action (e.g. make a donation, contribute to a Kickstarter campaign, etc.)
- Covey the mission and activities of a student organization so that prospective students understand why they might want to join
- Describe an academic program so prospective students understand its value
Examples of a character’s motivation or need
- Stopping an activity they feel is wrong
- Encouraging people to participate in an activity they feel will benefit the community
- Figuring out the solution to a problem
- Making something
- Explaining why something needs to get done
Exercise: Write a short treatment under 500 words
How would you describe your micro-documentary as a one-paragraph description of the story written using present tense? Describe events as they happen. Imagining how the film could play out before you start will clarify your ideas, and help you prepare for when not if, things change.
Step 2. Plan
Some questions to ask yourself:
- What do I need to make this happen and how will I obtain it?
- What are the possible pitfalls?
- What questions need to be asked/answered?
- What research do I still need to do?
Even the smallest, no budget, micro-documentary has resource needs and planning helps you get the most out of the resources you have. While planning, think about who, what, and where you’ll be shooting. Consider both technical and story-related things that could go wrong. Talking with your fellow students and teachers at this point is extremely helpful.
Some research on the topic is most often helpful. Interviewees understand the audience does not know the topic and their work, but you should do some research in order to gain basic knowledge of the topic and your interviewee’s work.
Plan your interview questions around eliciting stories, not descriptions with facts and figures. You want to find the dramatic aspects of the story. Prior to the shooting talk with interviewees to learn more about how they can fit into your story as well as how articulate and animated they are and what they are passionate about.
Let this interaction trigger new or different questions, and don’t be afraid of going off course, as your interviewee’s passion should drive the story, not a pre-existing agenda. The exception to this is when you start off with a specific agenda, in that case, you’ll have to do more directed guidance of where the interview goes.
Example planning questions
- What kind of releases will I need?
- Do I need permission to shoot in any of the locations?
- What human, logistical, and natural/weather problems could I encounter?
- What equipment will I need?
- Am I familiar with the equipment I will be using?
- Do I have enough batteries and media storage for the shoot?
- Will I have access to power for lights (if used) or to recharge batteries?
- Do I have backup gear (microphone, camera, lights, etc.)?
- Am I ready to improvise when, not if, things change?
Step 3. Shoot
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Do I have a variety of shots/angles/establishing shots and details?
- For cutaways, keep shots short, at least five seconds at under ten seconds for each, though it depends on the type of shot and the nature of your piece. Variety with angle changes (30-degree rule) and shot size (close-up, medium, wide) changes will go a long way to make it easier to edit together your piece. If shooting a conversation, am I paying attention to the eye-line matches and the 180-degree rule?
- Do I have enough interview material to tell my story in different ways?
- Do I have notes on what, where, when, and how I shot?
Shoot for the edit
To compress time you need a variety of footage, but too much can become overwhelming. Consider you’ll want flexibility when editing, so make sure you shoot a variety of shots including establishing, dialogue, close-ups, and cutaways.
Shoot interviews early on and let them suggest visuals you can shoot for use as cutaways as you learn more about your topic. Always schedule a time to shoot both the interview and the cutaways you will need to tell a visual story!
Keep notes. You are not going to remember everything when you get into the editing room.
Develop good workflow habits, e.g. make sure you’re always transferring media to the right folder and come up with a naming convention for your media assets.
More shooting tips
Follow the rule-of-thirds when composing your frames. Are you close enough? Are you too close? Avoid the zoom, consider moving the camera closer (or farther) rather than zooming, it looks better. There’s more magnification in telephoto shots, so you increase the amount of camera shake. Avoid the use of digital zoom in your phone or camcorder. Hold your shots still. If the camera moves, your moving shot needs a starting and ending position that makes sense. Focus on the salient details of the scene. If something looks interesting, shoot it. You are a good proxy for your audience. Follow your interests and you’ll probably have enough variety of shots to edit. Even more, shooting tips are available in the Shooting Guidelines (PDF) handout.
Step 4. Edit
Some questions to ask yourself:
- Do I know where my audio, video, and image assets are?
- Do I have a backup of everything?
- Do I know how to make it easier to find specific footage using the description field in the Project pane (you can click and drag column names so they appear in the order you want)?
- Have I prioritized my media elements using the log notes and description fields in the project window?
Transfer (a.k.a. ingest) your media assets from cameras and audio recorder SD cards to media folders in your project folder organized by date or some other system. Import your media into a Premiere Pro project. Make sure you have a logical workflow that results in backup copies of essential elements and makes it easy for you to find things when you need them without having to constantly scan through your video. Remember, importing in Premiere Pro simply creates a reference to the location of the original media asset on the server or your hard drive.
Organize as you log your footage. Use the Description and Log Notes fields in Premiere Pro to identify your clips and pull out the best material. You can also use the Labels column to place clips in specific categories (and you can rename what each label stands for). A good system of description and consistent use of keywords will make it easy to find the pieces you need. Even though this is a short, concise project, it’s a good idea to develop these habits from day one. At this phase, you would also sync your video and audio clips as needed if you are doing double-system sound (recording sound and picture separately and bringing them together during the editing process).
c. Rough assembly
Assemble your video, think sketching during this phase. You can work with multiple Premiere Pro sequences (timelines) within the same project, and copy/paste clips between them. For example, this allows you to have different versions of your piece, maintaining access to prior edit configurations. Don’t worry about effects, transitions, or tight timing at this point in the editing process, simply bring clips into the timeline in the approximate order you want them. Assembling your interview audio first can make the edit go faster (this is often called the “radio cut”).
d. Rough cut
Once you have a solid story structure that works, it’s then time to perfect it. This phase will probably include a mix of:
- fine-tuning picture edits
- rough sound editing as needed (finesse will come later)
- simple dialog editing
- adding some music as needed
- Make sure you have a cohesive story
- perform color correction using Lumetri to fix exposure and color balance problems, at this stage, focus on problem correction (you will color grade for an overall look during the fine cut phase)
- less is more!
e. Fine cut
- fine-tuning picture edits with finesse
- ambient tracks
- clean up audio edits
- fine-tuning dialog edits
- placing the final music
- audio sweetening (Audio Effects => Equalization so clips sound richer, fuller)
- noise removal (Audio Effects => DeNoise to get rid of some background noise, don’t overdo it)
- compression to limit peaks (Audio Effects => Dynamics, Compressor, 1.85:1 ratio to start), this is good when you need dialog to “cut through the mix” without excessive peaking, a little goes a long way
- mixing (adjust all the audio levels with just the right fades in and out)
- perform color grading using Lumetri for a pleasing overall look
- add transitions judiciously
- add titles if needed, keep them simple and to the point
- less is more!
f. Export edit master and upload master
When you’re done and you don’t have any more changes you want to make, you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to export your edit master of the final cut of your micro-documentary. You should end up creating two versions of your edit master:
- Upload Master (a high-quality, yet compressed version intended for upload to Vimeo or YouTube). Follow Vimeo’s guidelines for producing the uploaded master. Premiere Pro makes it easy to save your most often used formats as presets that will appear as options when you Export. Suggested Premiere Pro export settings: Format: H.264; Preset: Vimeo 1080p (or Vimeo 2160p if you are working on a 4K project).
- Edit Master (best quality) this is your master copy for long-term archiving, with minimal, visually lossless compression added (so it will be much larger). Suggested Premiere Pro export settings: Format: QuickTime; Preset: ProRes 422 (the frame size and other settings will be set automatically based on the sequence settings)
Archive your original media if the materials warrant it. If you anticipate re-editing in the future archive everything. Regardless of whether you archive your camera and sound recorder originals, make sure you have an accessible copy of your Edit Master saved somewhere safe.
Time to share your work. Along the way, you should show rough cuts to your fellow students and friends. Once you are done, you may want to share your micro-documentary with your intended audience. Vimeo and YouTube are both good ways to share short videos. Specific upload instructions will be provided if you are taking a class with me.
Step 6. Reflect
Reflect on your experience. What worked? What didn’t? What was most surprising? What were some of the most serious challenges? What skills would you like to hone for future shoots? What did you learn? Collect viewer feedback. If you established any metrics connected to the goal of the film, how did you measure up?
Step 7. Repeat
And of course, repeat the process as often as possible, the more you make, the better you get at it! The best way to learn video production techniques is to make videos, reflect on the process, do some readings (mostly in the subject matter of your piece, with a little sprinkling of documentary craft), and repeat the process. A class is only a starting point and like any craft, you will become more proficient with visual storytelling through the process of practice. Even if making videos is not your primary interest, how might your incorporate video into your studies or work?
Resources for further study
Available on this site
Take a look at the Reference pages and resource guides page for a list of related resources on this site and the Documents page to see a list of documents you can download from this site like release forms, camera logs, sound logs, and selected handouts.
The video tutorials available through LinkedIn Learning provide a good foundation for further study, I recommend taking a look at:
- “Premiere Pro Essential Training”
- “Foundations of Video: Cameras and Shooting w/Anthony Q. Artis”
- “Video Production Techniques: Location Audio Recording w/ Anthony Q. Artis”
- “Video Production Techniques: Location Lighting w/ Anthony Q. Artis”
- “Foundations of Video: Interviews w/ Anthony Q. Artis”
- Andy Lawrence, Filmmaking for Fieldwork: A Practical Handbook, Manchester University Press, 2020, Amazon
- Sheila Curran Bernard, Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen, 4th ed., Focal Press, 2016, Amazon
- Nancy Kalow. Visual Storytelling, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University, 2011, Download PDF
Thanks to Jason Salzarulo (a Lowell, Massachusetts-based media artist) and Alette Schoon (Lecturer in Television Production, Rhodes University, South Africa) for their contributions to this handout.
© 2014, 2022 by David Tamés, Some Rights Reserved. This document is shared under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) License.