How to Create a Historical Documentary

A documentary should reflect your ability to use audiovisual equipment to communicate your topic’s significance. The documentary category will help you develop skills in using photographs, film, video, audio, computers, and graphic presentations. Your presentation should include primary source materials and also must be an original production. To produce a documentary, you must have access to equipment and be able to operate it.  

How is a Documentary Different from Other Categories?

Creating a documentary is different from other categories because of the technology necessary. Before deciding to create a documentary, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I interested in using computers, cameras, and other technologies?
  • Can I conduct and record interviews (for the purpose of including film clips in the documentary)?
  • Can I find film clips to use in my documentary?
  • Are there enough still photographs related to my topic available that I can use in my documentary?
  • Do I have access to equipment that will be needed to make a documentary?
  • Is creating a documentary the best way to show off my topic?
Getting Started
  • Create a documentary notebook.  Use this to write down all of your ideas and keep your research organized. Watch historical documentaries and write a list of what you think makes a great historical documentary.
  • Make sure you have the necessary technology. This includes access to:
    • a computer,
    • a video camera, and
    • editing software.
  • Research the topic first.  Examine secondary and primary sources, taking careful notes and keeping track of which source each piece of information came from. From your research, you should come up with your thesis – the argument you want to make with your documentary.
  • Keep a database. It is important that you have a database where you keep track of all of the information you are gathering. A database is simply any place where you can collect and easily access your sources and production materials.
  • Create a timeline. Before you jump into your project, it is a good idea to create a preliminary timeline of when you want to finish important steps along the way, especially the start and end dates of pre-production, research, production, and post-production.
  • Create a budget. On the practical side, you need to have a sense of the costs of doing this project.  Remember you don’t have to break the bank to make a film.  Spending more money does not make a film better in quality.

Documentary Rules Verification Sheet – This check-off sheet will guide you as you review your entry to make sure you have followed NHD rules for the Documentary category.