Developing a Mini Documentary to Tell a Story (Module 6)

Building the frame of the cabin – 1980

People tell stories all the time. But that doesn’t always mean they’re good stories. OR, maybe the story is a good one, but the way it gets told might not keep listeners interested. That’s why the story, how it’s told, visualized, and produced is essential if you want people to pay attention. 

This last week was my preparation to make a mini documentary that does just that – tells the story well in all aspects. 


In The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video, Schroeppel has written about some very important things that go into video design. 

Chapter 7: Lighting explains that lights are essential when filming. Schroeppel breaks down exterior and interior lighting, and useful ways to utilize and modify both.

Exterior lighting includes the most common source of light – the sun. Though, depending on the time of day, the sun can prove difficult to utilize. 

There are a few pieces of gear that can help when the sun provides unideal shadows while filming. Reflectors can be used to reflect the light from the area that provides it, onto the area that needs it. And fill lights (really any light source) can be used to add light from the area that has too much shadow to even out the light distribution.

Interior lighting typically uses three different kinds:

focusing quartz – this is a type of light that can direct both spot lights – narrower and focused circle of light, or flood lights – wider and broad circle of light. This option leaves a hard edge between light and shadow.

Broads – lights that are similar to a focusing quartz, though, they don’t focus on a specific point, and can be evenly distributed or softened. 

Softlights – use bounced lights that are directed towards the inner curve of the white or silver inside, and the reflected lights are what shines on the subject.

Basic interior lighting set up goes as such:

First, placing the key light to the side of the camera at 45 degrees above the subject. Then, setting up the fill light on the opposite side of the camera where the key light is to fill in the shadows. Next, placing the backlight behind the subject, which provides a ring of light onto them, visually separating them from the background. Lastly, setting up the background light to illuminate it with some depth, but leaving it slightly darker than the subject. 

Chapter 9: Doing it describes helpful directions for actually filming your video. Schroeppel goes into detail about planning, shooting scripts and storyboards, shooting out of sequence, communicating, and working in uncontrolled situations. 

When planning for shooting a sequence, make sure to know your audience, their reactions, the story, etc. Then, decide how everything is going to work when shooting – the camera, lighting, and subject placement, and variety of shots. Use a slate – shot identification at the beginning of each shot. 

Shooting scripts help to visualize better which shot goes with which piece of writing. And storyboards help to visually represent each shot with a simple drawing. 

Shooting out of sequence is ideal to reduce the amount of set up and take down that would go into shooting in order. For example, if you’re set up for a wide shot of the setting, and you also have another scene that uses that same shot location and set up, it’s beneficial to film the shot that uses it, even though it’s out of order.

Communicating is always a good way to go about projects. The film might be your baby, but that doesn’t mean only you know about what’s going on.

Working in uncontrolled situations will always happen. It’s good to prepare for them by getting as many shots for b-roll as possible when the weather or situation permits. 


An article written by Michael Moore called “Michael Moore’s 13 Rules for Making Documentary Films” talks about different takes on making documentaries. One of his rules is to include humor. So, of course, I thought of Drunk History as a great example to analyze. 

This short clip about Colonel Sanders uses narration from the guest of the show for this episode, and the editing includes his introduction. The shots are primarily L-cuts as there isn’t any added ambient audio to use J-cuts, which is fine because that’s the style of Drunk History. 

This clip from Mythbusters is another great example of effective video/visual storytelling. The audio is clear, of course, and the shots have a nice balance of L-cuts and J-cuts. It’s also nice to have the animations with ambient audio when Adam explains the science project.

Another example of Mythbusters, only this one is from 2009, so the production doesn’t sound or look as high quality as the newer episodes. Though, it is hard to say if this is a tape-over from the screen of a TV. The sound of the narrator and the team are a bit more muffled, like the editing could have used some effects to help make the audio more crisp.

Developing my own mini documentary:

There’s a lot of rich history in my family, and there’s a great heirloom that we all get to use today – the family cabin. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, my grandparents decided to build a cabin that the family gets to use every summer for their own small getaways. 

I’ve had the privilege to grow up using it, and have known the simple fact that it was built for this reason. Though, I don’t know much about the extensive work and planning that went into it. 

So, I asked my dad if he had any photo albums about the family, and of course, my grandma Dorothy had many that were handed down to him. It was truly amazing looking through the old photo albums and seeing what their life was like years before I was born. 

Attached to this blog post below is a document for my pre-production planning of this mini documentary. Next week I will have done the production and editing for my mini doc, and there’s a lot of work ahead! 

At this point, I have planned the story of what it will be about, and the overall direction of shots to include the interview, b-roll of photographs and albums, and of the cabin. I’ve also shot a few different b-roll options of the photo albums themselves. The albums are at my home now, so I’ll be able to get more footage throughout this week before the interview.

The interview with my dad is next on the to-do list, and along with that, we both need to solidify our scripts better. I’ve sent him a list of questions to think about, which should help him to know better what he goes into depth about, and what he doesn’t. He mentioned that he’d like to go into detail about certain things that he knows will be interesting for the listeners, but needs to better identify it. We’ll re-gather once that happens, and begin shooting the interview!

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