First-Time Documentary Filmmaking Tips

Garnered from My First Feature Documentary Experience

Written By Tamar Kummel


I recently completed my first feature documentary, “Fighting for Allergy-Free Food.” I worked hard to find answers to your and my questions about why food sensitivity has become so prevalent, why food allergies are off-the-charts, why our food system is screwed up, what the government is doing to protect us, what GMO’s actually are, and a lot more.

I had a very specific strategy for how I would edit this piece, but of course, in documentary filmmaking, you don’t know how stories will end, how interviews will go, and a lot more variables. I shot over 30 interviews. I asked each expert whom else I should talk to, and then pursued them. I had a clear idea that the film would be in sections, talking about different topics and leading from one topic to the next. But one section never happened because I couldn’t get government agencies to talk to me. And then other sections happened, based on continuing to look for answers. But I still divided the film into different topics and then tried to organize it as best as possible.

Starting the post-production process, I had an advantage, because I did all the interviews. And then I transcribed all the interviews, so I knew well what people had said. I highlighted the lines I knew I wanted to use and then started piecing together the puzzle, which I enjoyed. I knew my first rough cut would be long, and it was 3 hours. It took me 5 passes to bring it down to 90 minutes. And then I turned it over to someone else to make it pretty. It’s a talking head film, so I knew the music had to be driving, and wake people up. I knew I didn’t want any clip longer than 10 seconds without a cut, or an insert, or B-roll under. So, I shot about 18 hours of B-roll, but we still needed more.

If you’re starting a documentary film project for the first time, I would definitely give you a few recommendations:

(1.) Start with a short project for practice.

Find a person you want to interview, or a subject you want to tackle. And then, play with that. There are tons of film festivals that love short documentaries.

(2.) Transcribe the interviews.

Even if you don’t do it yourself. It’s a lot easier to search a document for a specific topic or something an interview subject said – rather than searching through footage that might all look the same.

(3.) Let go of your idea about how the story ends.

The tag line for “Fighting for Allergy-Free Food” is, “So many questions, so few answers.”

(4.) Find a great composer.  

(5.) Shoot way more B-roll than you think you’ll need.

It makes it so much easier to tighten up how people speak by inserting something.

(6.) Don’t forget establishing shots and room tone.

You’re still making a movie.

Good luck!

Now streaming on YouTube, Google Play and 

Fighting for Allergy-Free Food



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