Artistic Process

Here’s where things get creative! You have your historical argument and the sources you are using as evidence. Now you get to decide how you tell your story.

There’s no one way to make your documentary. If 10 different students read the exact same secondary sources and used the exact same primary sources as you, even if you decided on the exact same historical argument, you’d still likely make 10 very different documentaries. That’s because documentaries aren’t just history–they’re art! And art can be made in as many different ways as there are artists.

There are a few crucial elements you’ll need to put together to go from analysis to your documentary, and with each step, you’ll have to make artistic choices.

  • First, write an outline of your story. You’ve done the research, analyzed what you found, and created a thesis, but now what exactly will your story be? Start by writing the simplest version of the story you want to tell. Remember, think of the beginning (who are your characters, what is your setting, what is the issue at hand), the middle (what do they do, what happens next, what conflict develops), and the end (how does it end up? Why does this matter to us now?) as a way to outline your story.
  • It’s time to decide what we see on the screen! With an expository documentary like you’re making, most of what you’ll see are primary sources. So your first step is to lay out your sources and see what you have that can illustrate the beginning, the middle, and the end. You may find you have a lot of sources for the beginning but none for the middle, or a lot for the end but none for the beginning. That’s ok! That just shows you the holes you have to fill. You can fill those holes in a bunch of ways–check out the worksheet for some examples!
  • Decide on a tone for your film. Is this an inspiring, uplifting tail? A somber and respectful story? Is it silly? Perplexing? Complex? Find as many words as you can to describe the tone. This will help you build a consistent story!
  • Now it’s time to write the story itself. In a documentary like this, your story will mostly be told in voiceovers, though you can build in the oral history interviews, audio clips, music, or film archival pieces as well. Use the worksheet below to help you with this if you need!
  • Put it all together. This can be the most complicated step, but it can also be the most fun! This is where you’ll pull out the editing software or websites and begin making really big choices as a director. Will you have a soundtrack? Fancy transitions? How will you let your audience know about what they’re seeing? What kind of questions conclusions, or feelings will you leave them with at the end?

And remember, the most important final step: in order for your documentary to be complete, you need an audience! Show your film to your teacher, classmates, friends, and family to share these stories with the world.