Video content is becoming commonplace everywhere we get and use our information: social media, libraries, news outlets. It’s no surprise that the role of video creation has become central to art & education, as well.

From simple high school media projects to award-winning docuseries, documentary video can combine nonfiction entertainment with hard-boiled educational content – but if you want to make your own documentary, it's a complex project and requires a more complex process. I'll go over five important tips for creating high-level documentary videos, plus some tools you'll need to make them online.

  1. Think beyond video
  2. Use music whenever possible
  3. Work with your own visual style
  4. Navigate permissions ahead of time, if you need to
  5. Voiceover everything

1. Think beyond video

Documentary film is ultimately a video form, but that doesn’t mean that documentaries can only contain video. The purpose of a documentary can be anything from outlining a historical event in total to diving deep into the mind of a prominent figure, so your project should use every tool at its disposal to fulfill its goals. Sociological documentaries, for instance, can contain graphs, charts, and still photos to show all sorts of information that videos cannot. Think about video essays, or even news TV: pictures, cards of just text, infographics, and recorded audio can be vital to any documentary, and keep your audience engaged while making sure you get all your information across.

These stills from short documentaries by Mark Brown & Grace Lee show different ways that infographic-style images, background effects, and text slides can be used to convey information that more traditional forms of video simply can't:

Remember: Documentary film is inherently a multimedia field – take advantage of all the types of media you can use, and make sure you’re creating and editing using tools developed for multimedia projects. I use Kapwing to integrate multimedia projects, since it allows files to be imported from anywhere quickly, and I don’t have to clog my storage space with photo, audio, or video draft files. Plus, its broad support of video, audio, photo, text, animation, and subtitle material allows your multimedia projects to coalesce without difficulty.

2. Use music whenever possible

It’s almost always a good idea to add a subtle background music track to your documentaries. Unless you’ve recorded your voiceovers and all audio tracks using professional-grade audio equipment, your sound quality (especially speech) will be sub-par, and could distract from the rest of your video.

The easiest way to fix this is to add some fitting music to the background. Not only will this clean up the sound quality of your video, but also enhance its mood and atmosphere. Desktop apps like iMovie are good places to add music to videos and edit their timing and volume, but you’ll probably want to use an editor that lets you add and customize text and images from any location, as well. Since moving large video files from one editor to another can use a lot of your time and storage space, I recommend using an editor like Kapwing that allows you to make all your edits and store your files in the cloud.

3. Work with your own visual style

The greatest issue with free or online media editors is that they rely too much on templates and style presets. While templates & presets can be perfect for quick projects, inexperienced content creators, or simple edits, you should try to form your own visual identity for a more polished documentary project.

A big part of your visual language is your text. In a truly multimedia documentary project, text is central throughout the video. If your documentary is on medieval history, for example, your text cards can be written in cursive or calligraphic font, on a background image of parchment. To pull off interesting and custom text and title cards, you’ll need to edit your video with a tool that supports in-depth text editing and customization. I recommend using Kapwing, since it supports hundreds of fonts with custom style, color, position, and animations, and lets you search for and import any background image on your device or the web.

Another vital aspect of your documentary's stylistic identity is its peripheral graphic elements – transition backgrounds, borders, atmospheric filters, name cards, etc. Throughout the project, graphic details like this should remain fairly consistent – an easy way to achieve this is to save a template in your Kapwing workspace for each type of scene, label, background, or border that you plan to reuse.

4. Navigate permissions ahead of time, if you need to

Documentaries often rely on found or repurposed footage – it's simply a part of the genre. So unless you're only using videos you shot yourself, you may need to gain permission to use any footage, images, or music that you want to include in your documentary.

Of course, this isn't always absolutely necessary. If you're sure your documentary will ONLY be used for a school project or showing your friends, you won't have to secure any permissions for the material you use. But if there's any chance you might want to monetize your documentary or submit it for a competition or award, it's a good idea to get the hassle of permissions out of the way before it's too late. Check out this comprehensive permissions article for rules, regulations, and tips for navigating the world or permissions and intellectual property rights, and tackle your questions head-on.

5. Voiceover everything

Documentaries aren’t simply meant to replace books; they’re meant to enhance the nonfiction genre, presenting more complex information and richer perspective than a more traditional document can. But to make the most of your documentary, you’ll still want to use some pre-written language. A recorded voiceover is the best way to make the most efficient use of your time. The same documentary shorts from before provide great examples of plain visual content being enhanced by voiceovers (and subtitles!):

Of course, some “artsier” docs might do well with longer sequences of music or silence. You make the final call, but most of the time it’s best to minimize periods of silence in your documentary. Unless the video portion is pristine, and the silence adds to your atmosphere or message,  make sure there’s some audio playing throughout the project.

Important: Always add subtitles to your videos! To make your project more accessible to disabled audiences and the significant portion of viewers who watch videos with no sound, always add text transcription so everyone gets the most out of your film. The Kapwing Subtitler tool is a great place to start, and you can make your subtitle layers fit seamlessly into your documentary's visual style with custom fonts, colors, styles, and position.

Remember to tag us @KapwingApp whenever you share your content on social media– we love to support all our creators! And be sure to subscribe to the Kapwing Resources page – we’re constantly writing new tutorial and features to help you make the most out of Kapwing.


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