If you’re reading this article then you’re probably in the midst of making a documentary film but you’ve realized that it doesn’t look as great as it could. The production values or “the feel of how well made the film is” aren’t as high as you’d like them to be. Whether you’re knee deep in post production or still shooting, we’ve got some ideas for how to increase the production values of your film to make it more professional feeling.
Boosting production values isn’t just about vanity or wanting to make your doc seem “like a real movie”: it can also help your film succeed in getting selected for various film festivals or distribution. Often times programmers and distributors will only watch the first few minutes of a film before deciding to give it a chance. And starting off with a bang (or at least not obviously shoddy amateurish production values!) can be a major help to your film’s prospects.
10 Ways to boost your documentary film’s production values
Let’s get started!
1. Add some killer additional b-roll
Let’s say you already have the meat of your story down, but maybe you don’t yet have the absolute best visuals to illustrate it with. Sometimes scheduling an additional b-roll shoot or two where your only goal is to capture really great shots of the process or exterior locations and so forth can make your storytelling go the extra mile. You can also use tricks like:
- Shooting on a dolly, slider, or steadicam style stabilizers for extra smooth footage
- Using a drone or a jib/crane to get a high angle shot
- Shooting using a DSLR or other camera with a large sensor to get shallow depth of field
- Using specialized mountable tiny action cameras for a unique point of view (Related: GoPro comparison chart)
If your film is about a carpenter for instance, you might schedule an entire shoot day just to get creative angles of them putting together a piece of furniture. No interviews to stress about, just plenty of time to really nail nicely lit shots at interesting angles of them doing their work. Depending on the environment if it’s indoors, it may be worth bringing along a documentary film lighting kit to augment available light or make things look cooler.
Check out our related article Creative B-Roll Ideas for Documentary Filmmakers for more on shooting b-roll to increase your film’s production values.
2. Supplement your own footage with some slick stock footage
Of course, you may not have the time, equipment, ability or travel budget to get every shot in your documentary, and that’s where licensing stock footage comes in. Licensing some relevant stock footage or photographs to help you tell your story can help increase your film’s overall production values. Some examples of stock footage that documentary filmmakers commonly license include:
- Time lapse footage
- Drone/aerial footage shot from helicopters of various locations
- Footage of a specific location you can’t get to
- Licensed news footage (or used under the fair use doctrine for documentary filmmakers)
3. Get a killer custom soundtrack composed for your film
The purpose of music in a film’s soundtrack is to tell the audience how to feel about what is happening. Stock music really doesn’t hold a candle to custom composed songs written by a real film score composer.
Original music can is often much more subtle than stock royalty free music and it working with a good composer can really boost your production values by augmenting even scenes you wouldn’t have thought to put a bit of music under.
4. Get your film color corrected properly
Color correction makes a huge difference to make your film look more professional. As such colorists are some of the most highly paid technicians in Hollywood, often commanding day-rates well into the four figures. Even if you don’t have the money to hire them, getting your film color corrected properly with a program like DaVinci Resolve by someone who knows how to use it can be a big step up.
5. Get a professional sound mix
You knew this one was coming. Having a poor quality sound mix, often faster than anything else, can really make your work seem unprofessional. Even unsophisticated viewers notice the flaws in sound even faster than the flaws in picture quality. Which is what makes it a shame that the sound department often gets short thrift on indie films!
Sound mixing isn’t just balancing things out and adjusting the levels. Getting a great sound mix for your documentary may include:
- Sound sweetening or adding of foley sound effects for sounds that weren’t captured on location
- The addition of environmental or background sounds to certain scenes to sonically flesh them out
- ADR or re-recording of key lines that weren’t captured cleanly on location
6. Do an editing pass to clean up messy dialogue or unnecessary material
First time film editors and even more experienced editors can sometimes fall into the trap of including all the “ums” and “uhs” that their characters say, when they’re actually irrelevant. Doing a dialogue clean-up pass of editing can help polish your work and make the people in your film sound more articulate than they actually are (which helps the entire film feel smarter and “more together”). Look for any loose language or unnecessary fragments of sentences. Really be brutal and ask yourself if every part of each soundbite is necessary to tell the best version of your story. When it comes to filmmaking, tighter is usually better and trimming off the fat can sometimes do wonders for how professional a film feels.
7. Consider adding motion graphics, nice titles, or animation to help illustrate a point
Motion graphics and animation in particular can be a money pit for indie documentary filmmakers to spend their entire remaining budget on. But deployed strategically, these elements can also seriously boost the production values of a film.
Motion graphics can be deployed to explain complicated concepts or explain the history of something.
Animation can be used in lieu of archival footage where it does not exist, or to explain something complex
Nice title design differentiates professionally made films from amateurish ones by establishing a distinctive look and feel for the film’s opening and closing, credits in addition to the main title and lower thirds, labels, and interstitial titles throughout the film.
8. Start the film off with a bang
Often times film festival programmers will commit to reviewing only the first five or ten minutes of a film before rejecting most titles as not grabbing them. So starting your film off with a bang both in terms of the action that happens (an intruiging or exciting “hook”) and in terms of the quality of the first scene or two is crucial. If you have a choice between starting the film with a well-shot scene or a poorly shot scene, consider carefully whether or not you can start with the nicely shot scene.
9. Apply stabilization effects and vignettes where appropriate
Editing software like Premiere Pro has surprisingly good stabilization effects and if you’re shooting in 4K and delivering in 1080p you’ve got a lot of room to stabilize shaky or unsteady footage. This can help boost your production values. Similarly, adding vignettes around archival imagery or historical sequences can add an extra bit of “sheen” and “sparkle” to your film.
10. Use archival footage and photographs when appropriate, at the highest resolution possible
Great and unqiue archival footage and photographs either from your film subject’s own lives or general historic archival imagery and footage can help illustrate history and set the mood for your story.