Crafting A Documentary

In Uncategorizedby tfwm


A documentary is a useful medium in church ministry. There are many stories and testimonies of life change and transformation that could be used to impact your congregation. You may be surprised by the number of interesting and instructional stories that can be found in your church. The question is, how do you find them?
Use your relationships to discover documentary material on topics like salvation experiences, forgiveness, family relationships, marriage, sacrifice, tithing, vision, missions and recovery from addictions and obsessions. Use the resources around you to build your network of intelligence. Look to small group leaders, staff leadership, counselors and team members for information.

Tune in to the life of your church by paying attention when people share testimonies and prayer requests. Communicate to leadership teams that you are a clearinghouse for stories of life change. When your staff meets, ask each leader to share an account of life change. Leaders always have the latest scoop on people’s lives.

Don’t be afraid of controversy or serious matters. Most people are willing to share their life struggles if they know it will have an impact on others. However, proceed with caution and wisdom. Potential interviewees may not realize the ramifications of appearing on the big screen or a DVD that can be purchased in the bookstore. Be especially thoughtful with young believers who have not yet established a strong spiritual character. Here are some important preparatory thoughts to share with a prospective interviewee:

-Be prepared to answer questions and receive sentiments.

-Everyone will know your intimate details.

-Prepare your family or others who may be affected by the project.

-Be spiritually fit.

The purpose of a gathering interview is to fully understand the details of the story so that you can craft a functional treatment. Prior to the interview, have the participants write their story and email it to you. This will familiarize them with expressing their thoughts and give you a sense of direction.

Conduct the interview at the participants home or logical location. Travel with a digital camera for shooting reference shots of the location, props and B-roll opportunities. Take a notebook or laptop for documenting the interview. Begin the interview by praying with the participants, emphasizing the impact that the film can have on the audience.

Use the interview to gather as much information as possible. Here are some potential questions.

Tell me your story from the beginning?

How did you feel? What sticks out in your mind?

How has this event/situation changed your life?

Where was God in all of this? How did this effect your faith?

Who else played a role? Grandparent, neighbor, etc. Could I interview them?

What object(s) relate to this story? Show them to me.

Are there any personal pictures or videos that could be used? Take pictures & videos with you.

Are there any items to scan like letters, poetry, drawings, etc?

Look for supporting interviews, locations, re-creations and B-roll.

Ask permission to film difficult locations. If a child was drowned in the backyard pool, ask to film the pool. Do this at the interview so the family is prepared. Would you be open to filming the pool? Would you be open to standing in the shot? Could we re-create the child swimming in the water?

Once you have conducted the interview, move on to a few housekeeping items.

-Define what people will wear, including jewelry and makeup. Ask to look at their closet if you want to pick out a specific look.

-Share the disclaimer that not all participants will appear in the project. This gives you the freedom to eliminate footage during the editing process.

-Alert the participants that you may wish to move the furniture.

-Describe the equipment that will be used at the shoot.

-Make sure that no pets or other noisy elements will be present.

-Get proper name spellings and notate relationships of all participants.

-Use a release form on behalf of your church. (See sample form)

Before filming, it is vital to have a clear story treatment. This will aid the interviewer in asking the “right” questions and guiding the interview process. It will also motive camera angles, lighting, locations, styles and shots. A treatment is a basic outline of the story written in a descriptive style. Include as many details as necessary for communicating the vision.

Think about the emotional journey. How does the story flow emotionally? Generate ideas for showing the emotional content in visual form. What concept do you want to convey? How does this tie into the emotional content?

Clearly describe the film style. What is the mood and coloring? What type of angles will be used? How does the location relate to the story? Are there any environmental considerations? Reference other films for style.


Choose the location wisely. How does it relate to the story and how do the participant fit into the location. What type of lighting is present? Plan for any additional lighting needs. Are there any humming motors or other noises that will interfere with the sound? Are there any special fees or permits associated with the location? Always be a good visitor by caring for the surrounding and returning everything the way you found it.


The interviewer is a major player in the creation of the film. Choose someone with a warm personality. The intimacy of your project will be directly related to the interviewer and their ability to connect with the participants. Look for someone who is relational and that people respond to. Place the interviewer in close proximity to the participants. Train the interviewer to respond to the interviewee without verbalizing. No laughing, “uh huh’s” or “mms”. Do not allow any relatives or friends observing off camera. Untrained participants will often look away from the interviewer toward their friends. Even a glance can be distracting.


Give the participants some basic film directions. Instruct them not to look directly at the camera, but to look at the interviewer. Train them to rephrase the questions for clarity of thought.


Q: How did you feel about God after the death of your wife?

A: I remember feeling total anger with God after the… etc.

Sometime people ramble. Train the participants to share their ideas in small to medium sized sentences. After a lengthy statement, ask them to share the same content but to share it in half the time or less. Assist people in rephrasing their statements. If someone says something with potential but it lacks quality, ask them to rephrase the statement. It’s helpful to guide people while they share their story.

1. Keep it simple. No fancy fandangled transitions.

2. Remember that every editing choice should contribute to the story. Do not include elements that detract.

3. Craft the begging and the ending with great care.

4. Use secondary interviews and B roll liberally. They add context and interest to the film.

5. Make still images move gently.

6. Use scripture.

7. Text names and relationships to identify the players.

8. Black space can intensify emotion.

9. Slow down the pacing for emphasis.

10. Avoid still pictures. Have them scale or move slowly.

11. Use a slomo effect when appropriate.

12. Use voice over.

13. Use simple music with a narrow dynamic range.

Documentaries are about the story. If you have a good story, you can make a great film, even with limited resources. Reality TV is popular because people are interested in each other. Use this curiosity to make an impact for God in the local church. The results could have eternal consequences.

Making Documentary Films & Reality Videos by Barry Hampe

Documentary Storytelling for Video and Filmmakers by Sheila Curran Bernard