TV Documentary filmmaking: Step by step.
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TV Documentary filmmaking: Step by step.

Learn from me, how I conceptualised, shot and edited two TV documentaries both run on major TV networks
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4.6 (130 ratings)
Instead of using a simple lifetime average, Udemy calculates a course's star rating by considering a number of different factors such as the number of ratings, the age of ratings, and the likelihood of fraudulent ratings.
1,040 students enrolled
Last updated 8/2017
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What Will I Learn?
  • Understand the creative insight and what takes to make award winning video documentaries.
  • Learn by example. If you would like to learn, step by step, how I conceptualised, shot and edited two, highly acclaimed TV documentaries, then this is for you.
  • Gain insight into what thought processes professional TV documentary makers use to shoot, gather content and edit award winning video stories.
  • Enjoy being taught by a TV broadcast professional that has dozens of broadcast programs to his name, shown on networks around the world.
  • Decide who you would prefer to be your instructor? Someone successful in the world of TV broadcasts? Or someone who makes good wedding videos? You can only be taught to the level your instructor has reached—never beyond. You decide what you want to end up doing, and seek out teachers that have achieved your own goals.
View Curriculum
  • You should have a keen desire to learn some in-depth—not taught in college—techniques that the pros use to tell great stories with video.
  • A desire to learn and spend some time-out bettering your video making skills. The learning is full, and you may need to watch some of the videos a few times to grasp all of what is being taught.
  • If you yearn for more creative insight into how great videos are made, then this is for you. I try and make my courses different from the crowd, because unlike many video courses, I don't talk about equipment overly much. This course is more about creativity.

Follow award-winning broadcast professional, Andrew St Pierre White as he takes you set-by-step, as he conceptualises, shoots and edits two of his highly acclaimed TV documentaries. The first is based on a one-hour special documentary broadcast by Discovery Channel, and the second a half-hour serialised episode of a 26-part African adventure travel story.

Once released, critics used the words, "gripping", "superb", outstanding" in their reviews of these films.

The course consists of a series of videos with details of what is being taught as written summaries.

The documentary is run, and as the story unfolds, the director/producer goes though all the thoughts, processes, equipment and creative processes used. This is a real-life event, valuable to those who both shoot and edit stories on video.

As every scene is covered, the shooting techniques, editing ideas and storytelling methods are revealed. This is an actual documentary, so what is taught is not just theory— it has become fact, and you can see the results for yourself.

The documentary was produced by an indie producer, yet still sold to major networks. How this was done is discussed.

The course lectures run to 247 minutes (±4,1 hours). With some, you may need to watch them more than once, because there is quite a lot of learning to do.

If you are interested in making serious documentary films, or telling thought-provoking videos for TV or social medial, then this course has a lot to offer.

Much of what is being taught here is not, and cannot be taught in a classroom. It goes beyond theory, as the course is based on actual, highly successful productions.

Who is the target audience?
  • All those who wish to make better, more compelling and engaging videos, where there is a story to tell.
  • Makers of documentary films in short and long form, corporate video makers will get a lot out of this course. And for those who want to make wedding or project videos with a special flare.
  • This course is probably not for you if you want to learn about cameras, lenses or editing software.
  • If you think that learning by example is a good way of understanding concepts, then this is for you. I go through, step by step, how I conceptualised, shot and edited this gripping TV documentary.
Compare to Other Documentary Filmmaking Courses
Curriculum For This Course
23 Lectures
Sell your video in the first 30 seconds
3 Lectures 31:23

The introduction to the documentary film on which this course is based.

The film is called The Death of Pelican-16. It is a 54-minute TV documentary, financed by myself and made on a shoestring budget. Steve Searle was my chief camera operator and sound technician. I also shot about 50% of the footage, and conducted the many interviews. Editing was all mine, as story-telling in the edit suite is my major strength.

We shot with a Canon XL2 DV camera, using Canon's standard and wide-angle zoom lenses. Some super tele shots were shot using a Leitz 400mm lens on the Canon XL2. Audio was a Senheiser MK300 rifle mic, and a Sony radio mic. It was edited on Apple Final Cut pro-7. Production lasted 12 months and was completed in 2005.

In pre production the most important lesson we learnt was that if one puts the subject matter first, and the people the story affects first, before our own goals, doors are more easily opened. Without this approach I know for sure, this film would never have been made. We needed the cooperation of some large organisations, and to get that, one has to get them on your side. If they have a vested interest in the film project, there is all the more chance that they will get behind it. The selfless approach works wonders.

The single most important thing I learnt when I was young in this industry was: I am not as good as I think I am. No matter how good YOU are, you are NOT as good as you think you are. This one realisation was a breakthrough for me, and also for a number of successful and highly paid filmmakers and photographers that I now know. They all agree, that without this, a successful career in the creative arts is unobtainable. Be humble and be ready to learn, learn, learn.

Preview 11:06

This video introduces the two TV shows on which this course is based. One is a one-hour one-off TV documentary, and the other is a half-hour episode from a TV series. Both have found success with networks and have been broadcast on major TV channels in various countries.

How this course works. And more about the TV shows on which it is based.

The opening shots, and as importantly, the opening soundtrack, is vital to capturing and holding your audience. It does the same job as a YouTube thumbnail or a book cover. It is what will make your audience stay. In the event that a broadcaster or agent is considering your program, they will likely make the decision to buy or reject it within the first 30 seconds. So make it count!

I also speak about the opening titles, and things that I would do differently now, 10 years later. With every film one makes, big or small, we should always be prepared to learn something new, and admit our mistakes.

Important things:

  • Grab the audience inside the first 30 seconds. Image and audio impact should be at its highest level.
  • Use big bold shots. Stunning visuals. Rich audio. Beware of overpowering music.
  • Sound effects are vital. Ambience is created better with sound effects than music.
  • Never dump sound effects and replace with music.
  • Give the audience something to look forward to.
  • Be bold! Make your audience FEEL something.
  • Beware of falling in love with shots so that you let them run too long. Good for your ego, bad for storytelling.

The opening - The time that makes a viewer stay or go. Use it well
Creative Style
5 Lectures 01:00:42

Decide on your story-telling style before shooting. That way you will know what to look for when capturing your content. When shooting images, shoot for sound effects as well. Don't neglect this part of content gathering.

Important things:

  • Narration-rich documentaries means that networks can easily translate them into different languages for worldwide markets.
  • Lots of interviews do restrict the ease in which a program can be translated. Agents and networks like easily-translatable shows. This isn't one such show.
  • Make sure your audience knows what is going on, ALWAYS. if in doubt, explain what is going on with narration. Everything must be understandable.
  • Keep your audience engaged by changing the pace, mood, and footage style. Beware of running sequences too long (a common mistake) as modern audiences like things to move along briskly.
  • Beware of too many talking heads, one after another. Too much information, to fast, slows the storytelling and should be avoided. Give your audience time to understand and absorb what it being said.
  • When something dramatic happens or is said, ease the tempo to allow the audience to take it all in. Then get on with the story. Vary the pace!
  • Spend time with your soundtrack. Use as many appropriate natural sound effects as possible.
  • When using archive footage, use the sound track that came with it, if appropriate. It gives the footage age, and puts the timeline into perspective.
  • When using sound effects, make sure they are authentic. By that I mean, an American countryside sounds different to one in England. The bird calls and other ambient sounds will not be the same. A large US-made sedan from the sixties is not going to sound like a Ford Focus, is it? This aircraft (as do most aircraft with the exception of some large jets) have very specific sounds. Make sure they are authentic. People do notice!
  • Beware of excessive technical information. It can frustrate an audience.
The Story

If you consider music to be the key to great storytelling, I believe you to be wrong. If you have ever watched the movie, Cast-Away, you may understand. There is one piece of music in the entire film— played twice— once when he escapes the island (and loses his home), and the same piece again when he loses his girl for a second time. Brilliant storytelling, where the music has huge power - because its the only music in the entire film, and it's used twice.

Important things:

  • Use key changes for changes of scenes or major shots.
  • Match the music's emotion to the story-telling emotion.
  • Use back-timing when editing to make the music queues work with the action.
  • Correct music choice is vital (handled in a separate lecture later).
  • Never replace a reasonable background sound effects with music. If your background sounds are wrong, then find some that are right. Removing background sound effects robs the scene of its reality, and removes the emotion, because sound effects are often more powerful than music when it comes to creating emotion.
  • Try cutting with no music, and afterwards add music to punctuate and heighten the emotion.
Music to Tell Stories By

Understanding how storytelling tempo, mood, and emotion should not be uniform. I like to call it, Change of State. This means that if the audience is in one state, for example, relaxed and taking in the story, don't leave them there for too long. Change their state by changing the pace of the story. Tell them something new, and in a different way. This prevents monotony in the storytelling.

Important things:

  • Be aware of sequences that run too long. Be especially ware when the sequence is driven by music.
  • Sequences driven by music might be too long if over 15 seconds, and almost definitely too long of over 30 seconds.
  • Use significant sound effects to punctuate the story.
Change of State

This is a continuation of the documentary, with no specific teaching. I suggest that you watch it to understand the storyline, then continue to the next section.

The Story continues

In this section we begin talking about shooting interviews.

Important things:

  • Modern lighting means that interviewees are lit flat from the front to avoid shadows.
  • Deep depth of field is needed to have background out of focus.
  • If background is in focus, them make sure it does not interfere with the subject (more on this later)
  • Record real sound effects when possible. Authentic sound effects are of great value to the storyteller.

Changing the editing pace means varying the soundtracks. When using music, ask yourself, is the music making the audience feel the way you want them to feel? And, are they feeling the same way as the subjects may be feeling? Matching these two is important.

Important things:

  • In a developing story, it's not a spoiler to suggest what is about to happen. It's good! Give away enough of the story to entice, but not too much.
  • Suggestions about what is about to happen gets an audience involved with the story.
  • Changing the pace builds tension.
  • Vary the type of information. Keep the people real.
  • Give your audience time to absorb important parts of the story by slowing a pace for a short while.
  • Beware of overdoing the story. Unrealistic hype devalues the story. (more on this later)
Music and Narration. Holding the audience while telling a story
Good Storytelling
7 Lectures 01:21:50

Shooting to create emotion can only be done if you are clear about what the emotion was, or what emotion you would like to convey. In this scene we had to recreate night flying in a crippled aircraft. And we shot it in a hangar, at night, with the original crew as cast members.

Important things:

  • Be as authentic as possible, with both imagery and sound effects.
  • Be sensitive to how the people in your story are feeling—and match that feeling in the way the story is told. Do that, and the audience will feel the same way. This must be the aim. (more in the next lecture)
  • Do not let music run over a change in emotion. Once the desired emotion has been attained, change the sequence to something different—different in ambience, images and sound track.
  • Background sound effects are vital for authenticity. Use stereo recorders if possible.
Shooting for Emotion

Here we talk about hype. It's something that turns me off so many documentary TV shows.

Important things:

  • Use authentic sound effects to heighten the tension.
  • While it is important that your audience knows what it going on, don't tell them how to feel by telling them with narration. Instead let the story, with ambience, tension and good editing do it for you. Editors who do not how to do this, add narration and try and make it work that way. It's far more effective and far more realistic to use these elements in the edit.
  • Music can be very effective in heightening the tension, especially when used in conjunction with authentic sound effects and voices.

One of the ways I find to get the most from my actors or interviewees, is to be very relaxed, prepare well and take their focus off the fact that there is a camera pointed at them, and more about telling their story. More in the next lecture.

Tension building versus Hype

Background for interviews are extremely important, so as not to distract from what is being said.

Important things:

  • If the back ground is out of focus, make there there is little or no movement in it - especially people movement and faces can be very distracting.
  • If the background is in focus, keep it clean and uncluttered, with no movement whatsoever.
  • Avoid shadows on the face by lighting flat from the front.
  • In natural light, avoid interviewing anyone in direct sunlight. Put them in the shade.
  • Look for a darker background, especially with subjects who have dark skin tones.
  • For people with very dark skin tones, use dark backgrounds, then add light with reflectors. These are among the most difficult faces to light, but also the most rewarding when you get it right.
  • Cutting within an interview (subjects jumps in frame) is okay for YouTube and social media, but it is not appropriate for TV productions.
  • Keep your subject at ease by lighting and setting up before they sit down.
  • Tell them where to look. Do not assume they will know. Either its looking directly to you, the interviewer (out of shot), or its to the camera and they are addressing the audience. Never both.
  • Avoid shouting 'action!' or 'roll camera'. It often makes the subject nervous.
  • Turn off the tally or on-air red light on the front of the camera. Nothing makes a subject more self-conscious than that.
  • Being informal and quite casual in your questioning can be used to make the subject feel as if they are having a conversation, as opposed to being in an interview.
  • Having a great big pad with a long list of questions on your lap during an interview is a sure way to frighten your subject. A small piece of paper with four or five questions is all that should be needed.
  • Keep eye contact with your subject. Avoid looking down at your list of questions while they talk, as it throws them off, and all sincerity can be lost.
Interview Techniques

This video goes into further detail about shooting interviews, and comes from my Video Shooting — Techniques Loved by Pro Broadcast Directors course.
More on shooting Interviews

When creating shot lists and organising shoots, it is vital to have all the information at hand about the story, archive footage availability, access to interviewees and the part they played, as well as all the other elements that make up the story. For every shoot, there should be a distinct goal.

Important things:

  • Research your story before planning shoots.
  • Know who you are interviewing and why they are relevant to the story. In-depth knowledge of your Interviewee's part will prevent shallow questions and answers.
  • Play back your completed interviews before embarking on any more shoots. Things they say, or refer to, may be added to shot lists at any time.
  • Always consider the production as a fluid creative process, and allow for changes, additions and subtractions. Sticking to shot lists just because its 'professional' thing to do, does not always contribute to creativity.
  • Avoid arriving at a shoot without a good idea of what to expect— and a goal in mind. Say to yourself, "At the end of this day, I want shots and recordings of . . ."

Editing ideas:

  • Let your story breathe, and be sensitive to the feelings of your audience. And give them time to feel without being long-winded. There is a thin line between just enough time to 'feel', and too much time that will bore the audience.
Planning your shoots

Music choice can make or break your production. Make it, if you get it right. Break it, if you get it wrong.

Important things:

  • Music adds emotion AFTER natural sound effects have done as much as they can.
  • What is the emotion being felt by the subjects in the story? Use music to match that emotion— as closely as possible!
  • Be specific as to what music to use. Use the dig-deep method.
  • If you think the music is 'almost right', then it's probably wrong! Work hard, spend time, and get your music choice right. Do so and your story will soar.
  • Try multiple music choices with your sequence, to help you understand what will work best.
  • Music-led sequences should not be longer than 15 second, and on rare occasions up to 30 seconds.
  • Don't let music kill the emotion created by the sound effects and voices.
  • Don't let music confuse the emotion. If the story is suggesting one emotion, and the music suggests a different emotion, your audience will not know how to feel. This is very bad for storytelling. (see the next section for another very good example of this)
  • Never, ever, dig me a deep grave, forego natural sound effects and replace them with music. A common mistake and the recipe to a really bad story experience. Don't do it - ever! This is why multi-layered audio editing software is absolutely necessary for good editing. If your software doesn't allow this, I suggest you pack away all your gear, and do something else. It's as fundamental to good video making as a cup of coffee in the morning.
  • For ambience background music, underlying the narration and effects, or filling an otherwise 'empty' background soundtrack, is fine. But be careful it doesn't run too long. One minute is quite long for this.
Music Choice - Make or Break

It is vital to understand audience emotion as you tell them the story, and to give them enough time to feel it. It's a balancing act. The secret to great comedy is timing. The secret to great storytelling is timing.

Important things:

  • Be sensitive to how the audience might react to certain events and story telling moments. Give them time to feel.
  • Enough time for them to react and feel, but not enough time to get bored.
  • Details in the photography is necessary to build emotion, and a great way to 'fill' the story with interest and charm. So when planning your shoot lists, or being out in the field gathering content, look for rich, close-up detail shots that are relevant to the story.
  • Be sensitive to people's performances. If they display emotion, they often contribute strongly to the storyline by and of themselves.
  • Light and shade. Ideally, have your story telling tempo change throughout the video. For example, a faster sequence, followed by a slower sequence, then some rich sound effects and a music-driven piece, then back to another slower sequence, works well. Changing tempo and storytelling styles helps to keep the audience engaged.
Controlling Emotion and Audience reaction
The Endings. Leave your audience well satisfied.
3 Lectures 39:02

Here are some ideas as to how to conclude a story, to present all the information needed to satisfy your audience. How the audience should ideally feel should come across in the storytelling methods. Much of this section also includes the completed documentary, to follow the storyline.

Important things:

  • As the story nears its end, one has to prepare the audience for what's to come.
  • This is done controlling the emotion with the use of music, sound effects and well read narration.
  • A good narrator should be an actor. As a director, direct your narrator to be sensitive to the story being told.
Bringing the story to a Close

How we shot some of the spectacular taxiing shots. Also, how sensitive use of music concludes this documentary. The signature music piece was used twice, once to set up or preempt the ending, and again at its conclusion. During a critical group meeting, we demonstrate how when using two cameras, both must have clearly defined tasks.

Important things:

  • With a two cameras shooting a people gathering, have one on the medium shots and closeups of the speakers, and that is all they do. Clearly, the goal of this camera is to capture WHAT is being said, and that's all. Primary audio is captured with this camera if not using external recorders.
  • The second camera is there to capture the AMBIENCE, and that's all. This means wide shots, crowd shots, close-up reactions, cutaways. Not the speakers, unless they are incidental to wider shots. It is vital because often camera-operators begin editing in their heads, and you'll end up with two cameras getting similar footage, and a severe lack of good cutaways and ambience shots. Secondary, or B-roll audio is captured with this camera. This means laughter, reactions, and ambient sounds.
  • Don't forget to record a buzz track. That's a clean background ambience recording of no less than 30 seconds.

Audio bridges in the edit. Be sensitive to how your audience might be feeling as the conclusion is reached, and amplify that feeling with good editing and apt music choices.

Important things:

  • Using an audio sound effect, or familiar music sting, or familiar sound to bridge a scene to another is good editing. It allows the audience to understand the change of scene, and prepare for it. It lifts the tempo and adds to the story in a subtle but meaningful way.
  • Amplify the mood of the story with well thought out music choices and placement.
Two camera shoots with people gatherings

Wrapping up one of the most powerful storytelling opportunities of my career is a pleasure to show to you now.

It consists of a music montage, using music already familiar (used before).

This is why I think it works well:

  • If the final soundtrack is similar to something already heard, viewers will automatically recall it. It reminds them of things that have already happened.
  • People shots are always more powerful than any other. And that's why in the concluding montage, there are fewer aircraft shots and lots of people shots.
  • Think about the ending while planning the beginning and through all the production phases. And although you may not come to a final conclusion as to how to end your film, when it happens, you'll know it. As it did in this case, with the propeller stopping— a one in a million shot.
The Ending
Travel Documentaries
5 Lectures 49:04

I introduce this documentary and how we can learn from it.

It is part of a 13-episode adventure travel series (called 4WD-Take A Deep Breath), shot and first broadcast in 2010. It has been broadcast in South Africa, New Zealand and some Asian countries including Russia. It is currently (Feb 2016) being released on YouTube.

Importing things:

  • Over-dressed and gimmicky titles can look amateurish.
  • Name titles should be consistent throughout the film/series.
  • Opening montages for TV should ideally be 10-20 seconds in length. 30 seconds maximum.
  • Opening montages for social media and YouTube should ideally be no more than 5 seconds in length.
Travel Documentary. Series openings and titles.

One of the most important elements of documentary storytelling is when it involves real life situations, travelogue or reality shows. Throughout each episode, the viewer should always know what is going on. Never allow the viewer to lose track of the plot.

Important things:

  • When one has been involved in a project for a long time, it's easy to make assumptions that things that happen in the show are self-explanatory. Often, this is not the case. Make sure you don't become to 'close' to your project that confusion in the story ends up in the final edit.
  • When editing series episodes, be sure that within the first 4-5 minutes, the viewer is kept up to date with everything that's going on.
  • Every new face must be announced. Do not let anyone say anything without explaining who that person is, and why they have been chosen to say something. They must have relevance to the story, and this relevance needs to be explained.
  • Keep screen graphics simple and easy to read.
  • Avoid transitions like rolls, wipes, spins, swirls, page peels, zooms if you don't want your production to look amateurish. Limit transitions to dissolves and black fades. And if it really works, white fades can look nice, but beware of over using them.
  • Travel documentary productions requires a variety of cameras and zoom lenses to keep shots interesting and entertaining.
  • Prime lenses are often do demanding for gun-and-run shooting, which is so common shooting this type of actuality travel shows.
The opening - This the time to make the viewer want to stay

In actuality styled documentary storytelling, it's almost always preferable to use the present tense. It provides a level of immediacy and therefore tension to the story.

Try and avoid making transitions obvious. It's much better if they go unnoticed.

Important things:

  • Make your transitions and edits smooth and consistent.
  • Use sound effects across transitions. This means that during a transition between scenes, the pace is not lost, that might otherwise happen if a fade to black was used.
  • Keep your viewers informed using narration, especially important just prior to commercial breaks, or major changes of scene.

Keeping edits and transitions invisible

As the story is concluded, tell your story while keeping a level of tension until the last point, and then let it go and don't hold back.

Important things:

  • If a level of tension has been created, and is being released at the end, quicken the pace of that release.
  • Present the conclusion at a faster pace that has been used in the body of the story. This was not done to great effect in the example given - so please learn from my mistake.
  • Learn to learn. Be as good as you can be. And be especially careful if thinking you are better at this filmmaking thing than you really are. Staying humble will make you a better filmmaker!
  • Think your your feet, both when shooting and editing. Be prepared to adapt and change your work. And be humble enough to listen and act on criticisms of your work.

These two productions are proof that you do not need big budgets and crews to make significant films. In terms of getting big networks interested, here are some pointers:

  • It's easier to get networks interested if working through an agent. I would suggest finding an agent first. And you might have to approach many before acceptance.
  • Your program/s need to fit a specific shape to be accepted.
  • Series is better than one-off.
  • Fit in with a well known genre. A new, strange genre has little hope of success.
  • Human interest programs appeal to as wider audience as possible. Niche-interest programs are difficult to sell.
  • Non presenter-led programs are easier to translate into other languages.
  • Be technically close to perfect.
  • Sadly, if your project involves incest, bearded characters (men or women) who are creative, family feuds and young girl's body piercings, you have a good chance of being considered.
  • YouTube means we can can create our very own TV channel. Learn about YouTube and other revenue streams that make it possible for creatives to sell their creations on many platforms. This is what I now do, very successfully.
  • I am now preparing a new Udemy course on just that thing, so stay in touch for its announcement late 2016.

Thank you for taking in this course. Please post a review and comment. It's by the comments and not just praise that I learn how to improve as a teacher.

My best as always

Andrew St Pierre White

Networks and selling your programs
About the Instructor
Andrew St.Pierre White
4.4 Average rating
882 Reviews
3,887 Students
4 Courses
TV Broadcast Professional

Andrew St Pierre White is a broadcaster, writer and presenter, with 38 years in TV, film and publishing. He is also a published author with over 16 book titles and his YouTube channel has over 12 million views and over 59 000 subscribers.

  • Included in his resume as director and photographer are over 80 TV documentaries, many of which have been on major TV networks. He's edited hundred of TV commercials and won several top international editing awards.
  • He's an award winning author, married to a NY Times bestselling author.
  • He's also a passionate and involved teacher.