How to Make a Mini-doc Video
I’m shooting video content all the time. In fact, I’ve been making films, TV commercials, and videos continuously almost my entire life. It started when our dad set up a make-shift animation stand in our living room, and we used a super-8 camera to learn stop-motion animation. I was 9 years old.
As I’ve progressed through film school, producing thousands of commercials, four films, and now lots of social content, I’ve learned a ton about storytelling. Since I get asked about creating video content all the time, I thought I’d share some techniques. One of the most useful, and simple types of videos I make for brands is the mini-documentary. This is a simple way to tell the story of a person or place with a minimum amount of shooting and expense. The plan I lay out below is basic, bread-and-butter, 60-Minutes style storytelling. It’s very simple but can be powerful.
The end product here is typically a 1–2 minute video that can be used on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or on a landing page. This is useful, multi-purpose filmmaking is a great way to tell someone’s particular story.
First, here are a couple videos of this style that I’ve created for brands recently:
OLiVE DTLA Artist-in-Residence program — the goal here is to tell the story of one of each of our finalists, one of whom will win six months free rent in a brand new building in downtown Los Angeles. I collaborated with cameraman/editor Geoff Franklin and Creative Director Colin Cooley of Wicked.
NCSA Sports recruiting — I wanted to SHOW what sports recruiting platform NCSA does rather than TELL. So I shot this interview with employee and former high school/college star athlete Jay Straight. He was basically NCSA’s first customer, and his college journey had a huge impact on his life.
Here is your 10-step guide to making a film like this:
- Choose the subject: Go with people who are interesting. That sounds obvious, but it’s hard to make an interesting video about a boring person. Moreover, you want someone who can articulate their thoughts to you, or provide interesting backstory that people don’t know about.
- Find a location: What you want is a quiet location that will work for sound. Usually that means indoors. It’s easier to focus that way, and you’ll spend less time waiting for helicopters and trucks to go by so you can get back to the interview.
- Write out the questions+ B-roll ideas: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE INTERVIEW. This is by far the most important part of what you shoot, because those audio sound bites will form the backbone of your video. I like to write out 10–12 questions in advance then be open to taking a left turn depending on where the subject takes it. Before the interview, I’ll also jot down some ideas for b-roll (background) shots. Then I’ll adjust it right after the interview, while things are still top of mind.
- Hire the crew: you need a cameraman, and maybe a grip and sound man. On a smaller interview shoot, you can have the camera person also do sound, but you are dividing their attention. If I have to light several locations in a day, I’ll bring a grip to help set up and move lighting. You want the best people you can find who fit within your budget. Aim high. You may work with a camera person who edits, or use an entirely different editor. The key is to work with storytelling pros if you can.
- Use the right equipment: you don’t need a fancy Arri Alexa or Red camera to create nice content. You just need a basic HD camera with a good lens. A Canon 5D or C300, or a Sony will work just fine. But you do need a good microphone set up. You can use a lav mic and/or a boom, but make sure you get clean sound. This is actually more important than the picture. Without good sound, the interview is worthless.
- Shoot the interview: As the interviewer, sit right next to camera so the subject is looking just off camera. This is your basic documentary/60 Minutes-style interview. Do not ever have the subject look into the camera — that’s an entirely different type of performance. Also, prep your subject: tell them not to wear any busy/distracting patterns on shirts, and remind them to answer questions as complete sentences. If you ask, “What color is your shirt?” They would reply, “My shirt is navy blue, and I chose that because it reminds me of the college I went to.” An important point about interviews: you want THE WHY. That is, get the subject to explain why they’re doing something or why things went a certain way. Keep pushing on lines of questions that will get you to these answers. In the videos above, I kept asking for that kind of background.
- Shoot the b-roll: make sure you shoot the interview first, and the b-roll second. The b-roll is supporting visual information that backs up what someone has said in their interview. Like in the video above with Jen Schroeder, we cut to the computer screens when she’s talking about how the recruiting process works. While I do plan a few b-roll shots in advance, I often add or change things once I hear the answers from the interview. Also, still photos as b-roll work great. Say you’re interviewing someone about their life, and they talk extensively about their grandmother. Have them email you some photos of Grandma. You can then cut to that, maybe with a push in move, and it looks great. I call this the Ken Burns effect.
- Review footage and select takes: Once you’re done with your shoot, go through the interview and watch it again. Be on the lookout for sound bites that fit together and drive the narrative in a direction. Pull those out and list them on a Google doc. In some cases (see screenshot below from Joseph Lee video above) I’ll transcribe the interview and then highlight favorite soundbites in a color. In other cases, I’ll just list the time code in and out points of the sections I like. You then give this list to the editor, along with some ideas about b-roll. Or maybe you’ve already shot some b-roll.
- Put cut together and design titles: I like very simple titles in a nice font. Identify the subject either within the shot (like Joseph’s video) or cut to a black title card (like Jen Schroeder). Less is more. Then add a simple title card at the end to wrap up the video
- Get ruthless and make it short: when I made TV commercials all the time, we were usually limited to 30 seconds. That was it: 900 frames, no more no less. This forced us to be very crisp in our choice of shots. In the YouTube era, with no time limit on video length, filmmakers have gotten sloppy. They often let videos run on way longer than they should. Your video should be as short as it can while still telling a compelling story. And not a second longer than that. Typically, I’ll do a first cut that comes in at 3:00–4:00. And it looks ok. Then we get out the machete and start hacking away. Only keep a shot or sound bite if it is absolutely essential. You’ll be amazed at how much better the end product is when you cut it in half. The video will have more impact, and far more viewers will watch it through to the end.