Documentary Director

What is a Documentary Director?

A documentary director is the driving force behind a TV programme or film that charts real- life events, whether past or present. A documentary director shapes everything about the film's content and presentation, including the interviews, script, filming and music.

It is a documentary director's job to:

  • Lay out a vision for their documentary, right from the start. This includes answering questions from the investors, executives or TV channels providing the money
  • Estimate how much the documentary will cost – and help the producer and co-producer to divide up the budget fairly among the different departments
  • Give each department clear instructions about what is required, before filming begins. Who will be interviewed and where? What look and feel should the reportage shots have? Does the script need to be changed to fit better with the visuals?
  • Lead the technical crew (lighting, sound, etc) during filming and instruct the 'post-production' team after the film has been shot. What music would make a good soundtrack? Does the documentary have the impact it should?

How much does a Documentary Director earn?

Most documentary directors work as freelancers and are paid per project. Documentary films tend to make less money than Hollywood feature films, so don't expect to earn mega-bucks – and new directors just starting out may earn very low wages on the basis that they get a share of the profits if the film does well. Don't despair, though – small films do sometimes break through to the mainstream, if critics like them at events like the Cannes Film Festival.

If you would like to know more about the current pay guidelines, you should contact the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) for more information. You can visit their website, here

So tell me more about how to be a Documentary Director

To be a successful documentary director, you should:

  • Have good time management
  • Have the ability to budget well
  • Be creative and imaginative
  • Have first class communication skills
  • Be able to lead and motivate others around you
  • Be highly organised and able to plan ahead
  • Be able to make decisions quickly and work well under pressure
  • Be aware of health and safety requirements

Some documentary makers start out working alone, or with a very small team. But once you've progressed to working on bigger productions (with a budget to match), you won't be doing it alone. Essentially, your main purpose is to be a creative genius and guide the rest of the crew that you are working with.

As a documentary director, your work could include:

  • Looking for and hiring the cast and crew
  • Deciding on how the shoot and production should look
  • Directing actors in the programme or film
  • Instructing the technical crew
  • Developing storyboards – this is where your creativity needs to step in
  • Putting a plan of action together for the shooting schedule and logistics
  • Having the final say of the editing process to produce a final ‘cut’
  • Writing your own scripts
  • On occasions, you may also operate the camera or sound equipment

Becoming a Documentary Director: What does it take?

Becoming a documentary director takes:

  • Creativity and passion for making documentary films
  • Enthusiasm, motivation and determination
  • Excellent communication skills for leading the cast and crew
  • A 'show reel' sampling your work so far
  • A directing or film-making course could be helpful

Do you think you have got it?

If so, there are a number of possibilities to get your foot in the door. You can become a ‘runner’ and work your way up to a documentary director – this is the route most often taken by documentary directors.

Alternatively, you could go to university or a film school and achieve a BTEC HND degree in filmmaking or media production. This is also a great way to build up your contact list – the motto ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ is very real in the directing industry.

Another route includes making your own short film. In this case, you will need access to equipment, actors and a crew. You can also get involved with community film projects. This is a great way to meet new people and gain new skills.

What is the job market like for careers in directing?

The job market for documentary directors is looking pretty good. There is always the need for new and exciting talent as this is an industry that never sleeps.

Here are a few key statistics about the current market:

  • The average annual income for the culture sector is £27,008
  • 49% of the culture sector are self-employed, 36% are full-time and 15% are part-time

Documentary Director Courses and training to build your career

As you gain experience in the field, you will develop your skills, knowledge and expertise. You will be one great documentary director.

But to help you along the way, you can take a number of short courses and master classes to improve your technical, business and creative skills – brilliant. To search for a relevant course, you can visit the Creative Skillset’s website. Alternatively, you can find relevant training with a number of organisations including: film schools, regional screen agencies, specialist private training companies, and the Directors’ Guild of Great Britain.

You can also take on a postgraduate course in directing. If you are hoping to become a documentary director, universities and film schools often provide specialist courses within this area. 

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