What Makes a Good Documentary Film? ( Top 10 Rules )

A documentary film is a nonfictional motion picture whose main objective is to document aspects of reality. Its main aim of educating, instructing, and, or maintaining a historical account. Today this filmmaking practice or a cinematic tradition or a mode of audience reception which is gradually evolving beyond boundaries.

So, what makes a good documentary film? In simple words, A good documentary must be true to its subject, whether it is issue based, informational, investigative, or a report. It should be able to voice out both the perspectives of the conflicts to the viewer in an unbiased manner.

Today they are a vital educational tool too. Many learning institutions use it as a teaching aide.  Documentary films also called docufiction had taken giant leaps in terms of production and quality. Some match the standards of any big blockbuster.

However, to make a good documentary film, the filmmaker should ensure that their movie first connects with the emotions of the audience before standing out in its style. So what are those things that you should consider throwing into making your documentary stand out? Here we will discuss a few of them.

What makes a documentary film stand out?

1.    A nice storyline

When you are starting your documentary, you need to ensure that you have an exciting storyline. You should pick a subject that excites you, and that you feel people will be interested in watching. Always ensure that you make a documentary that you are passionate about, and one that makes sense to you. It is the first thing you need to get it right the first time.

2.    Do wide research

In your quest to make a documentary standout, you need to do thorough research about your subject. There are times when the storyline is obvious, and there are times when they are not. Desist from coming up with a cliche storyline as this shows that you did not do enough research on your subject.

People sometimes already know what you are talking about. Therefore to captivate them with your documentary, you need to show them something different or something more profound than what they already know about your specified subject.

Research makes your content-rich. Put onyour reporter hat and gather more facts than the obvious ones. What makes adocumentary great is when you uncover the gem that is buried deep, out of sightof your audience.

3.    Have a plan

The next step after in-depth research is to have in place an outline, meaning you think about how well or differently, you will tell your story. Come up with an exciting, or better still a unique structure. Have a style. Ask yourself whether there are existing footage r even photographs that will help you to articulate your idea or everything in the documentary better will be brand new. If so, at least you now know from where you have to start.

Identify your primary characters as well as determining your core story points. Know the elements of your story those that are compelling and makes you or will make your audience tingle with intrigue.

If you understand this, then figure out how you will create that intrigue for your viewers. Find out if there are any existing situation that you can film or if you will have to create that moment.

All these questions and answers all goes into having a plan, and unless they are all met, the documentary won’t stand out as you had expected. Detailed planning also compounds your budget template, a documentary proposal template as to how you will finance your pre and post-production of the documentary film.

4.    Have a shot list

At this juncture, it is good to have a shotlist. A documentary with disorganized shots won’t stand out. Therefore you needto come up with a well-organized list of footage as well as interviews that gointo making an outstanding movie. It is the list of ingredients that everyexcellent documentary must-have. 

Also, don’t stop yourself from covering moments which are not in your list. The purpose of making a list is to have a blueprint to your shooting plan. Any improvisation won’t harm the movie, but disarrayed collections of incoherent storytelling will surely hamper your film.

5.    Steady Eddie

It means that you need to keep your camera steady. If you have to ensure you shoot your documentary clips using a camera tripod. Again do not use the zoom ring when you are not supposed to. Ensure the image remains just steady. Only zoom when you have to as this is not a tournament that you are shooting, but a clip to add on your documentary film.

Also, in the same breath, avoid unnecessary pans. Try to record at least 10 seconds of a shot without panning or zooming in or out. The action in the frame needs to speak for itself. When you achieve this, you will have a smooth time when in the editing room.

You also shouldn’t avoid hand-held style if it is investigative or a journalistic film. The hand-helds add that edge to your movie. But sometimes they alienate the viewers from your story. So, maintain a proper balance between the jerks and the steady.

6.    Informed organization of shots Close-up, Wide, and Medium

A standing out documentary film needs to have different shot angles. It enables you to have a wide array of choices when it comes to editing the film. For instance, when shooting a protest, it is advisable to have a wide shot of the occurrence. You can achieve this when you are at the top of a building looking down.

If you have another camera, position it somewhere where it will videotape close-ups of people’s faces in the crowd. You can have another camera positioned strategically to take up medium shots of people from the ground, ground level. Do not forget the 10 seconds rule in every shot that you videotape. ( You need to roll for at least 10 seconds to get a shot.)

This will be rewarding when it comes to editing the documentary film, and consequently, the documentary film will have a positive reception by your audience once out.

7.    The background of your shots

Many people may not know, but actually,that is in the environment of your shots play a significant role in definingwhether your documentary will be a hit or a miss. Documentary films that standout, and which have interviews or speech take into consideration what ishappening or is at the background. Therefore when making yours, you need totake note of what’s in the background.

If there is anything that you think should not appear in your documentary, yet you need that speech or interview shot, you can take a suitable angle or better still. If it is an interview, make a new, clear background. Always light the subject in contrast with the background. It falls squarely upon you to judge whether the environment visually supports your story. Every award-winning documentary has a strong backdrop of whatever is being discussed or relayed to the viewers.

8.    Skills develop with Practice

It is instead a skill other than a lesson that can be taught at school. The more you shoot, the more you develop the skill. You will find, say Michael Moore documentaries always standing out because he has a broad wealth of experience shooting a documentary film, thus has this skill in his DNA. The craft starts when you miss several money shots because you will start paying attention. An excellent documentary has its actions timely shot.

9.    Makes use of all persuasive techniques

Many persuasive techniques can be used in a documentary film to make it stand out. Some of them include celebrity endorsement, use of color and black and white shots where applicable, using ordinary people, and much more. When you use it appropriately, the result is an award-winning documentary.

We have a detailed article on Pervasive Technique. Click here to Read

10.    Adding Representation to you Story the Fiction Way

In the docufiction style, You can present your story in a fictional way. You can enact actors representing real people and create a real milieu of incidents. It not only adds a new dimension to your story but makes your film more engaging and visual. It is an innovative way to engage with the audience and a contemporary style of making it pertinent in this day and age.


There are much more that can be done to a documentary to make it stand out. It all starts from the pre-production stage, the production stage, and finally, the post-production stage. As a filmmaker, it is vital that you keep researching for the best techniques and tips to enable you to come up with a documentary that will not only tell the story but stands out in

Recent Content