Short Documentary Assignment


Paul Van Ness, awards Victoria Robbins the first place award as co-director for the film STAINED GLASS. Photo by Mary Shea Photography
Paul Van Ness, awards Victoria Robbins the first place award as co-director for the film STAINED GLASS.
Photo by Mary Shea Photography

Objective: Create a 3 to 5 minute non-fiction film that explores a subject interesting to the student through interviews and visuals. We will enter your films into this year’s Salem Film Festival’s Five Minute Student Doc contest. Link: Salem Film Festival

Possible topics: A biography of a subject; an exploration of a hobby, sport, or passion and the people who do it; an investigation of a controversial topic, exploring both sides of the issue; documenting an event; a historical documentary, using still images. See examples at the bottom of this post.


  • Subject is student’s choice, but must be approved by the teacher
  • Topic is concrete; film should also explore a theme or larger idea
  • No more than 5 minutes in length
  • 1 main interview (more if needed)
  • 30 shots (“b-roll”) to illustrate that interview
  • Still images, historical images or “found footage” (pre-existing media) if needed
  • Music can be used for montage sequence(s), intro and ending
  • May use text or a voiceover to convey information beyond the interviews


  1. Choose a partner, or choose to work alone. Your teacher may pair you up with someone you haven’t worked with before.
  2. Identify and research three subjects.
  3. Discuss them with your teacher.
  4. Identify and arrange interviews (subjects, locations) or an event to document
  5. Type up a pre-production packet: 
    • In a treatment (4 or 5 sentence paragraph) describe your film (story, characters, theme)
    • A list of interview subjects (with a one sentence description of each)
    • Interview questions (at least 5) for each interview subject
    • A list of locations 
    • A list of shots (“B-Roll”)
    • voiceover script or on screen text (as needed)
    • A production schedule (when you will be shooting, and where)
    • An equipment list for each shoot
    • A list of five next steps for your production (what do you need to do from this moment to get your production rolling)  … download this production packet template here: Documentary Production Packet
  6. Practice technology needed for shooting (wireless lavaliere microphones, camcorders, location lights with umbrellas)
  7. Shoot the video
  8. Rough Edit (Shooting may continue while you begin editing). This means putting the pieces in place to tell the story. Resist using effects or doing extensive audio editing until the story is complete
  9. Screen for fellow students and teacher
  10. Fine cut (trim, effects, color correction, transitions, titles, credits, audio effects and mixing)
  11. Share and screen with the class


Search the Short Film of the Week website to find short documentaries on your own. Also, watch these select outstanding short documentaries for inspiration and ideas…

The Most Quoted Man in the News

Follow Your Fears

A Brief History of John Baldessari

Mo’Ne Davis: Throw Like a Girl

In Guns We Trust


Every Runner Has a Reason

Marie’s Dictionary

A Kiss Deferred

Clint Smith: Beyond This Place