How To Film A Documentary (The first step isn’t even own camera)

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how to film a documentary


I don’t know how to film a documentary in the technical sense. Every day I work a new job, people ask me the same question.

Did you go to school for this?

Okay, maybe I’m lying. The first question they usually ask is if this is for course credit to which I snidely remark that I graduated in 2012 and that, despite what they believe, I am not 18 years old.

Either way, the answer is no. I could’ve taken production courses as part of my degree. But I didn’t because I knew I didn’t want to go into film and I didn’t want to spend most of my days running around with a camera. Oops. If only I’d known, maybe my right shoulder muscles would be a little stronger.

But in reality, you don’t really need to know much about aperture or aspect ratios or whatever high falootin’ nonsense words people make up to refer to normal things like light and size.

Here’s all you need to learn how to film a documentary:

1. An idea or mission that is focused on others

There are plenty of great ideas in this world. But only the ideas that are outward focused, the ideas that help the most people, will succeed. If we showed up at each job saying we just wanted to work a different job in each state, people wouldn’t understand why. But when we say we do this in order to shine a light on the lives of hourly workers and tell their stories, people let us in. It invites them to be a part of something greater.

2. Guts

Our first step to filming this documentary cost $11,000. It’s where I’m sitting now, where I slept last night, and what brought me into this small Wyoming town yesterday. Deciding to buy an RV is one of the bravest things I’ve ever had to do. But if we hadn’t made this purchase, we wouldn’t be fully invested in our documentary.

3. More Guts

If buying the RV was brave, living in it full time is petrifying. I sacrificed normalcy, a mailing address, my car, and my life back in Austin. Every day, we have to make the decision to keep going, which is especially hard when you have to fill an RV-sized tank of gas.

4. Fearlessness (of Rejection)

Every once in a while, someone yells at me. They tell me I can’t film there or to turn it off before they are on screen. Sometimes I want to yell back at them and tell them this is America and I can do whatever I want, but I don’t, mostly because being yelled at is scary. Along the way, a lot more people will reject us, but exponentially more people will accept us. Once the documentary airs, the same rules will apply. You can’t let rejection bog you down.

5. Support

I’m not talking about money here, because, well, we don’t have much.

But I do have people. I have hundreds of people supporting me, supporting my husband, and supporting our mission. Nearly every day I get to tell people what I do. 1 out of 5 gives me a weird look and says, “Uh-huh that sounds nice.” They probably go home to tell their friends all about the crazy hippie they met at the grocery store.

But 4 out of 5 can relate. They’ve worked hourly jobs or still do and for them, they know their story should be told too. We don’t need more podcasts by famous authors or movie stars or activists. We need to hear the voices of the majority. What amazing things are they doing in the world? What story does their life tell? To hear some of those stories, visit where Heath posts weekly blogs about each job.

If I went on, number 6 & 7 would be own a camera, buy audio equipment and a tripod, have a plan, have funding, and all that other technical stuff. But none of those things will help you if you don’t have the five characteristics above.

2 Responses

  • […] didn’t plan on creating a documentary. In fact, when we started, I had no clue how to film! But we’ve invested hours, months, and our honeymoon into creating this documentary. […]

  • […] During 40 full days of filming over the past six months (I film something from our trip almost every day, but these are my 40 work days), I became a videographer. I suppose I became a videographer on my first day of work, or maybe it was the moment I agreed to film a documentary. […]

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