Five Lessons on Making a Documentary

This year’s Oscar nominees weigh in

Welcome to Oscar Week, where we’ll be sharing lessons every filmmaker can learn from this year’s nominees. Here, the artists behind the Documentary Feature and Short Subject films discuss their inspiration and process.


Documentaries are About Relationships

Every documentary filmmaker must consider two important relationships as they work: the one they have with their subject, and the one they have with their audience.

While shooting their short film “End Game,” about terminally ill patients and their families, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman knew the subject matter would be tough for audiences to take in. So they made sure to offer some lighter moments. “We included moments of levity to give viewers a break in the tension,” Epstein said.

Because most of the movie was shot in small spaces, such as a hospital or hospice room, the filmmakers by necessity developed an intimacy with their subjects. This led them to decide to break one of their cardinal rules.

“Usually you don’t want the subject to acknowledge the camera, but by turning that around, it allows the audience to have that same experience we had.” -Rob Epstein
Clockwise from left: Documentary (Feature) nominees Talal Derki and Ansgar Frerich, “Fathers and Sons”, Su Kim and Joslyn Barnes, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening, ” Tobias N. Siebert and Eva Kemme, “Fathers and Sons”, RaMell Ross, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening”, Bing Liu, “Minding the Gap”, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, “RBG”, Diane Quon, “Minding the Gap” and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Evan Hayes, Shannon Dill and Jimmy Chin, “Free Solo”

We’re More Than Just Observers

For Skye Fitzgerald, making the short film “Lifeboat” about refugees from North Africa trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea became a time of reckoning. People began falling into the water before the rescue boat could reach them, and Fitzgerald and his crew watched in horror as some started to drown. “We put our cameras down and began to pull people out of the sea,” Fitzgerald recalled.

Of the almost 200 people on the refugee boat, all but two survived. As for the no-doubt dramatic footage they lost by being more than bystanders? “The film may have suffered for it, but I believe, and the crew agrees, that it was worth it.”

“It’s the age-old dilemma for a documentarian — at what point do you intervene?” -Skye Fitzgerald

There’s No One Way to Make a Movie

There are as many ways to make a documentary as there are individual filmmakers. The nominated short “Black Sheep” examines racism by using local non-actors to recreate events from Cornelius Walker’s life. “A Night at the Garden” used only exiting historical footage and music to portray a 1939 Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden. Hale County This Morning, This Evening began with 1,300 hours of footage encompassing thousands of moments in the lives of ordinary African-Americans to create a new perspective.

“There’s no business model for short films. We all do this because we’re so passionate about the stories we’re telling.” -”Black Sheep” director Ed Perkins

Shooting at Life’s Pace

For their feature documentary Free Solo, about Alex Honnold’s journey up Yosemite’s El Capitan Wall without ropes or safety gear, husband-and-wife filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin had no schedule. “The climb was so dangerous, we couldn’t in any way pressure Alex to do it. We just had to be ready to go when and if he was,” Vasarhelyi said. Months went by.

Then, Chin remembered, they were sitting around one evening when Honnold casually mentioned he was thinking about doing it the next day. “He asked, ‘Are you ready?’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, sure, absolutely!’” The crew scrambled and the next morning, Chin was able to shoot Honnold’s historic climb.

“Free Solo”

Stories Can Be Found Anywhere

You never know where the next great documentary subject will be found. Young filmmaker Bing Liu grew up using skateboarding as an escape from a broken home, so it seemed like a natural way to tell the painful personal stories of young men he knew — as well as his own — in Minding the Gap.

For veteran filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the internet gave them a gift in the form of the meme-tastic “Notorious RBG.” In contrast, Rayka Zehtabchi was a week out of USC film school when a high school English teacher called her about an international aid project that her students were starting. Those 15- and 16-year-old girls became Zehtabchi’s executive producers on “Period. End of Sentence.”

“If I learned one thing from this experience, it’s that documentary filmmaking is absolutely essential for our lives and our culture.” -Rayka Zehtabchi