Published on 9 Nov 2023

Short Form Documentary Making: How We Do It

Short Form Documentary Making: How We Do It

Recently I was tasked with creating a very interesting short form documentary project for the Mectizan Donation Program, the outcome of which was a series of five episodes and one full standalone film. The original plan was to write and edit the series’ five episodes for social media first, and then compile them into a full film to be shown at a World Health Organisation meeting in Senegal. I thought this project for Mectizan Donation Program would be a great opportunity to show how we at Cloud9Media adapt our productions to create different desired outcomes. 

What’s the difference between creating five 1 – 2 minute films, and a 5 – 6 minute one?

The obvious answer is that we need to adapt the length, but there’s more to it than that when it comes to creating a short form documentary. As creatives, our job is to solve puzzles, and this project was no different, as the most important thing for us is to meet the right expectation. That’s why when clients contact us and have questions such as How long should our film be?” “How much will it cost?”and “How many weeks does it take to produce?”,  we tend to respond by asking What do you want to say in your film?”, “Where do you want to show it?” and “What do you want your viewers to come away with?“.

We don’t expect clients to instinctively know the answers to these questions, and we’ll usually book a briefing meeting where we can advise and talk through the goals for each film. For this particular short form documentary project, we knew a couple of things that were crucial: firstly, that the audience for the series of short films wasn’t going to be the same as the one for the compilation film. Secondly, we also knew the context in which the compilation film was going to be shown was different. This information was enough to give us a clue of how to adapt both the series and the longer compilation film. 

Let’s get into it and explore how we custom-built each film.

Short form documentary structure

Building the narrative

The first thing we need to develop a film is a narrative. For this short form documentary project we had our first challenge: not only did the series episodes have to stand on their own, but they also had to make sense  together. One of the things I keep in mind when building a narrative is to break it down in three parts – beginning, middle, and end.

In the case of each series episode we used the beginning to expose a problem, the middle to showcase how the problem was dealt with, and the end to highlight the outcome of solving the problem.

Creating a film narrative
If a three-part narrative worked well for a 1 – 2 min film, how did it translate when we stitched all five episodes together? As expected it flopped, even though the series was developed in cohesion and we created an overarching storyline for anyone watching all five episodes in a row.

Crafting a short form documentary film narrative
The reality was that in order to translate them into a 5 – 6 min short form documentary film, we had to go back to the drawing board. That’s exactly what we did; in order to edit the compilation film, we asked ourselves the same questions we ask our clients: Who’s watching this film?”, “What do we want to communicate?”, and “What effect do we want it to have on the audience?”.

Building a short film narrative part 4

In the end we shuffled a few of our interviewees and storylines and chopped some parts that would have made the film repetitive. We also tightened the image sequences, as a lot of our work goes to ensuring that what’s shown on screen complements and builds on the words being spoken. And, as this is a short form documentary, we can add excitement through a fast montage conveying happiness and success stories with people smiling on screen or even showcase the challenges people go through by having them lived out before us. For this particular film we also had to consider that it would be shown to an audience of stakeholders, so our focus was to create an experience that would energise them and have them double down on their commitment towards eliminating NTDs. 

Choosing the best format

So you might be wondering what is the best film format for me? And why would I choose a series of short vignettes over a longer film or vice-versa?

The answer depends on what you want – your ambition. If your goal is to launch a campaign, then a series or group of short form documentary films at 1 to 2 minutes is probably the best fit, so that you can customise each of them for a different audience, cause, organisation arm, etc. By launching these short documentary films  over a campaign of a week/month/year, they can do a great job at retaining and building audience engagement over a period of time, bearing in mind social media algorithms favour short content of less than 1 minute. However, if for example, you have an event and you’d like to stand out or celebrate a success story over a longer period of time, then a short form documentary might not be the best fit. Rather, a single film would be the way to go – and a longer film makes sense.

It all comes down to what you want to do with your communications and marketing plan, and how you want to engage your audience. This is where it’s very helpful to consider your strategy, what your budget is, and how it can be used to the best effect. For example, a 5-minute film is great for a website page, where it can do the job of highlighting the work your organisation does and inspiring viewers who hear your story, values, and people.

Here’s the final cut of our full 6-minute film:

 

However, if you’re looking for social media content then short form documentary is the way to go, as a series of these is a great way to achieve consistency and grow your audience. Here’s an example of our 1 to 2-minute film from the series (this is Episode 3):

Whatever your subject, comms schedule, or budget, think about these three key principles whenever you need a film: What is it you want to say, to whom, and how?”.

Keeping these in mind will bring up other questions that’ll help you find the right film for your needs, one that stands the test of time. Add a team of creatives that are a good fit and who are willing to work to meet your needs, and you’ll find yourself wowing and even growing your audience.

Thanks for reading!

– by Joana Soares, Creative / Line Producer


If you’d like to know more about how we approach our films, and the process involved in creating them, take a look at our Process page.