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6 Tips That Will Improve Your Documentary Filmmaking

In this episode I talk about The Civil War documentary series by Ken Burns and break it down to show 6 ways to improve your documentary filmmaking so that the material you are presenting is clear to the audience and keeps them enthralled by your movie.

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Relevant Links

The Civil War Series by Ken Burns

Shelby Foote’s Books (really interesting in documentary) on Amazon

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Full Episode Transcript

NOTE: This podcast was transcribed by a tool I highly recommend called called Happy Scribe (affiliate link). We do our best to adjust the transcript so that it reads smoothly, but if we missed something please forgive any typos or errors.

Hey there, everyone, today we are going to be talking about six elements to make your documentary movies better, and I came up with this idea, as I do most ideas for this podcast, with what’s going on in my life currently right now. And I am watching the Civil War by Ken Burns. And it’s interesting because that has been on my to-watch list for probably like 20 years, maybe longer. And because it came out a long time ago and it was lauded as something very, very excellent to watch if you want to learn a lot about the Civil War.

And it was spurred on… The watching of it was spurred on by the posting… Not posting, but… There was an advert, a little promo about the digitally enhancing the Civil War series currently, because it has a lot of photos that were made for a three by four or 4:3 screen that looks very blurry on a digital screen now, so it was very low resolution, which was appropriate in the 90s, but now it does look pretty bad.

And that promo was interesting because the pictures that they had in the original looked so beautiful on the digital screen. It really did improve it. But what it did for me was just remind me that that something I wanted to watch. And here we are staying in a lot. And I said, ‘Well, this is a great time to watch a long civil war series. So luckily my library had it and it’s five discs. It’s a lot. It’s really quite long.

And that is fine. It’s approximately 11 hours. And the thing is, though…

If you choose to watch it right now… If you’re inspired to watch it from this podcast, it gets better as you go along.

But it inspired this podcast because I was kind of shocked in the first few discs about how – oh, I hope this isn’t too inflammatory to say – I thought it was a terrible documentary in the first few episodes and I found it really hard to hold my attention and the piece, just, EVERYTHING!

So what it made me think is: Why is this really a tough documentary for me to get through?

And it did get better. It’s getting better. We’re on the last disc now. And a lot of  the content has improved and the presentation has improved. And honestly, back  like 30 years ago, they were not making documentaries with the fervor, culturally, that they are now, so being able to put an 11 hour documentary out about the civil war is an impressive feat in itself, regardless of the quality.

And I’m not talking about the digital quality of the images.

That is not what I’m talking about, because a lot of these images are quite old. And I also know that they shot on film. And I also know that the resolution on all TVs was not that great. So and that’s what they were.

You know, that was their presentation mode, so…

We’re going to get into this. The first thing I’m going to say, though, is…


And what I mean by that is, who are you creating a documentary for?

And specifically in the first few episodes of the Civil War, it seemed like he was orienting this series, which was again lauded as something people could watch as a neophyte to the civil war material and to not having a great understanding or knowledge of that war. But they would make references to random generals and sometimes not even reference what side of the war they were on, and it was a little bit nerve racking.

And they did that throughout the series, but eventually you’d be like, “Oh, I recognize that voice, that’s Sherman,” or whatever, but at the beginning you’re like, “Who just said that? You know, what was that? A soldier? Is that from the army, the Confederates? Or is that the union army?”

And it was really annoying. And I mean, even at the end, we’re still having to rewind and be like, “I think that sounds like that’s the Confederates.”

Like, you can’t really tell. Sometimes with the accents you can tell. But I mean, as somebody who, I will admit, does not have a very strong knowledge of the civil war…

I have a better knowledge now, but I have a much stronger knowledge of the Revolutionary War, probably because living, growing up around, like in and around, New York, you have touchstones everywhere of that war. So you want to go “Washington was here and he kept his army at the church two blocks from my house.”

Okeydokey, that’s a touchstone that would make you want to learn more about that war.

And I’m sure in the south there’s that we actually have spoken about, where I’m sure there’s that in the south for the Civil War, where they probably have a much deeper understanding than a lot of people. I don’t want to get into that whole aspect of it, but I’m just saying, like, I don’t know a lot. It’s not something… It’s not material I have actually been drawn to as much as the Revolutionary War.

Probably from where I live. That made a big difference.

But know your audience, because we really didn’t know what was going on for a lot of the first few episodes, and it had to do with just presuming you got who was speaking or maybe presuming it didn’t matter.

And I get that in the 90s it was harder to make lower thirds, but it was really frustrating where you’d be like,”What? Is that from the south?”

So that’s number one. Know your audience.

Now, if this was lauded as something that was for civil war buffs who knew all the ins and outs of the wars and the names of the the battles and all of that and all the generals and all of that, that would have been an appropriate documentary for that. But I said we felt at the beginning of the series that this was made for people who already were super into knowing all the details of this war, who read books on this because they didn’t need the references as to who was speaking.

So that’s number one.


Number two. This will bring me into number two, which is LABEL EVERYTHING and be clear, because I could have really appreciated them just putting at the bottom, as somebody was speaking, a lower third.

If you don’t know what a lower third is, it’s when you’re watching documentaries, TV stories where there’s in the lower bottom of the screen… You see who’s speaking, if they work for a company, or maybe in this case what side of the war they were on because there was none of that except for the live speakers, which I’m going to get into in a minute.

But for these quotes that they would pull from letters and journals from that time, it was really hard to know what side the person was from. And that really should have been reinforced a lot in the beginning.

Again, when you’re into hour 10, you go, “Oh, that’s the lady from the south.” And so it’s a little bit more clear. Or, “Oh, I recognize Tecumseh Sherman’s voice.”

And that’s, you know, whoever’s voicing that. It’s gravelly and I recognize that. But in the beginning, you’re like…It’s completely hard to tell.

So I there was a moment where I’m like, “I wish they would take these quotes in the midst of this battle and just put like, you know, you know, Union or Confederate and just put a little notation somewhere on the screen that the person speaking was on one side or the other.”

Not that it mattered because they were both suffering in a very similar fashion. So the quotes were relevant to how there was a lot of similarity in in the losses that were happening on both sides, so sometimes I think it was deliberately not labeled as north or south because it was supposed to show that these were very similar populations that were creating all of this terrible loss when really they were nearly the same, aside from some very. You know, strong choices that each side wanted.

So my number two is label everything for clarity, because when people stop being clear on who’s speaking and where the battle is and why they’re moving this way and not understanding the movement of the battles, which was pretty good in some parts, especially Gettysburg.

But I have a background in knowing that Battle of Gettysburg because I’ve been there. It’s really the only place I’ve been in terms of this, you know, the maps and the locations of this war. So I had some… I did have some previous understanding.

And actually side note, if you go to Gettysburg, there is this fantastic museum where they actually lay everything out in this panoramic view. And you can see how that Battle of Gettysburg took place.

And I had to recall that map in the midst of watching this series to able to be better at understanding what he was talking about.

And I recall seeing the open field, that of Pickett’s Charge and all that, so…

So that is an important thing, if I hadn’t had that background, it would have been a little bit more confusing and understanding where the the little the hills are and everything that they battled over.

So that’s another one.


Number three is PACING because sometimes I literally would be off… And I think this is true… And I think…

OK, I interrupted myself three times.

I think that modern society has a shorter attention span.

I will admit to that. I know I have it.

And that has to do with how we receive media today. We read short content on the Internet and we watch these little videos and get a dopamine hit and that’s what we’re used to.

So having to sit down and focus on a slow paced documentary is really challenging in modern society for a lot of people, and I actually thought, “Well, I read books,  I meditate every day for 45 minutes. I’m pretty good at focus.”

But, boy, I could not focus for those first few discs when I didn’t know what was going on. So I’d be like, “Who just spoke?” And we look at a picture and like, I don’t know what I’m looking at or there’D just be a series of pictures with no talking.

And I get that that’s telling the story, too, but sometimes that was unnecessary or just felt very drawn out, and it could be that the way I watch a movie now is different than the way I watched a movie 30 years ago.

And there have been studies that that is true. The attention span of modern people is a lot shorter.

I will say, though, just an aside again, a side note, my ability to take in information really fast, really, really fast has gone up.

I can’t often… Even though I can’t sit through a very slow movie at this point, maybe this is an example of one of the [movies], (although that got better too as I got through the series)…

I was like, “Now it’s time to focus”.

I find that I can watch most [YouTube] videos at like 1.5 speed or 2.0 speed. And I get everything, I get everything that they’re saying. So in a way, my capacity to take in information has gotten very, very good at a very high speed.

So maybe that’s a perk, but this whole long style of pacing, it felt so boring sometimes that I could feel my thoughts kind of just going off into a series of other thoughts and then literally two minutes of the movie would pass and the person I was watching it with would say, “Who just said that?” Or “What side of the war was that person on?” And to be like, “What? Oh, I wasn’t paying attention for two minutes.”

And maybe that’s more of a testament to me, but I think that’s a chronic thing in society, too.

But I would say that even in the 90s, this was a slow paced thing. He took an entire two minutes just to play a song that people used to listen to back then in its entirety, IN ITS ENTIRETY… But a large several bars, a whole section of it, and just had pictures. And we got to listen to the whole slow paced song.

And it just seemed so tiresome.

So pacing is important.


And this brings me to number four, which is BREVITY.

And I know you can’t be brief with the Civil War. There’s so much that went on. He probably had to cut a lot that he wanted to put in.

But brevity is important. And I feel like sometimes I’m the only documentarian, and I’m primarily a narrative [director], but when I edit my movies, I say, “Am I bored?”

“Am I bored?”

I’ll watch it, I’ll cut it, I’ll watch it and I’ll go “Am I bored?” Is there any point where I am bored? And that might be a detriment to me in some ways because I probably from my last documentary could have made a full feature. And that’s always nice to say. “I made a feature.” But at the expense of your audience’s attention span.

And so he [Ken Burns] made an 11 hour series on the Civil War, but it probably could have been seven.

And especially when you leave two minutes to a song.

I would have been embarrassed, honestly, if I had… And I’m sorry, Ken Burns, maybe you’ve gotten better at making movies since then. I did watch a little bit of the country music one. And I also was like, you know, no offense, maybe offense. I don’t know. I was bored.

And so with this, I was like, “If I had been at a film festival and I had screened only a two hour movie and I took a chunk of that movie to just play a song, I would have been so embarrassed.

I would have been like, “What was wrong with me when I edited this? That is a giant waste of these people’s time!”

Unless the song was really relevant to the entire story.

And it wasn’t.

So here’s this thing that you just… I don’t know….

So I am a very aggressive cutter of my movies because I don’t want anyone to ever say, “That was so boring”.

And especially a few film festivals ago, I went to one screening where the entire thing was interviews with just these old timey pictures of some area down in South Jersey and the history of that area, but it was like over two hours long. And I think even if that type of documentary had been made about my town that I currently know and live in, that still would have been excruciatingly boring.

But it was especially excruciatingly boring because I know nothing of –

I think it was about Stone Harbor.

Boring,. So boring. SO BORING. And the filmmaker is right there. So it’s sort of like you don’t want to walk out because I kind of felt like an asshole, by, like, walking out. So I sat through the whole thing, but I left thinking, “I never want to do that to people”.

And I sat there thinking, this guy made two hours of shit… Pardon my language. Getting spicy today.

He made a terrible movie, but now he has a feature film credit. And my excellent movie, which is award winning, you know…

Because when people run down your credits, they go, “Oh, feature film or not feature film. But if it’s two hours of poop and that guy gets a feature film credit, it seems a little bit unfair.

A little bit, but maybe I’ll be devious. And the next time I make a movie, I leave every inch of footage in so that I can get that credit. I mean, it’s so…

But that’s so unethical anyway, but I think sometimes I’m the only ethical person in… Anyway, so that is something… That’s something to be aware of.

I guess you can get away with it.

Ken Burns got away with doing two minutes of a song that’s just a song with some pictures in front of it.

Who knows? So maybe don’t listen to me because he’s famous and I’m not.

But if you want to entertain people, don’t do that.


And number five is having LIVE INTERVIEWS.

And even though I just said with the documentary about Stone Harbor, that was really annoying because it was all live interviews with just pictures in front of you, old timey pictures, I found that it was very lacking in the Civil War to not… Series, in the Civil War SERIES, to not have live speakers be a large part of that.

Yes, he had interviews that he had done, but most of it was quotes from the war that was drawn from journals and letters and writings and sometimes, again, that made it sort of disjointed because I wanted to know what theorists had summarized in modern day times about this thing that happened in the 1800s.

So, about halfway through, we got bored, so we said, “What’s on the final bonus disc?”, and we looked at what was on the final bonus disc and it was long interviews and we didn’t get… I haven’t watched all of them, honestly, not yet.

But I watch… We watched the first one, which is just an interview with one of the main guys he talks with in the documentary. And that was infinitely more interesting. Because I liked hearing his perspective and how he reflects on it. And he had written books about the Civil War, this one interviewee.

And I really found that much more interesting than a lot of the 11 hour documentary that we are watching.

So live people are important to making it relevant to today, especially if you’re doing a historical project.

One of my documentaries is historical and is a lot of interviews, pictures. I mean, I guess if you’re doing historical, you’re going to have that. So even going back to the Stone Harbor one, OK, but two hours, man, and he needed to put some other thing in it to make it interesting. It was really, I mean, I got that feeling of just being like, “Oh, my God, this is… I gotta get out of here, but I can’t get out of here,” is a really terrible feeling.

I don’t know. Maybe I think today I would have just walked out because my time is valuable. But I wanted to honor this person who, you know, put effort into it.


But anyway, so now we’re on number six and would have also made this better, even though they did do a pretty good job in the Civil War series with this is making MORE MAPS AND DIAGRAMS, and showing that more while the quotes were being pulled.

And I will say of all the things that I’ve mentioned here, they did the best with this.

But what I learned is constantly putting up confusing concepts like how people were attacking, how the armies were attacking each other would have been very helpful.

And I know back in the 90s they couldn’t really digitize the movement in a way that they can today. So it’s not presented as clearly. And I get that that’s just a technical aspect of filmmaking that has progressed over 30 years. But I wish when he would say “And they move their flanks…”

First of all, I don’t know what a flank is.

I’m not familiar with war terms.

I guess this movie isn’t meant for me.

I mean, those are the thoughts I had as I was watching.

Like, what the hell does that mean in, you know, army speak? I don’t know, in battle speak? Is this not made for people who are not war veterans or war people? I just want to know about the slice of history.

So, you know, [for] a lot of what he was describing [I] was like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about”, but I mean, it took me halfway through to understand a lot of the terminology he was using, and that’s why it was super boring in the beginning.

I’m like, “Oh, I know what he’s talking about now. Flank is like I think when they move their… So I don’t… I can’t even verbally describe it, but I got a good concept of it by the end. But in the midst of the… In the middle and in the beginning, I’m like, “I don’t know what’s going on, but it sounds like this side won”.

OK. So OK?

But it took away from the richness of the entire thing. So I hope maybe when he goes back and enhances it, and probably this is not going to happen because he’s probably not going to change the framework of what was presented but, I wish he had put in more lower thirds and more maps and putting the maps more in the documentary rather than a still of somebody dead, which, you know, you see the same image five times of the dead guy in the field. Same. That same picture.

And, you know, again, it was more effective to get the same map and be like, “Where’s Virginia? You know, where’s Richmond again in relation to D.C. and everything?” 

Because I’m not as familiar with the territories down in the south, so I don’t know what the relationships are between these spaces. And so he’s like, “And then they went into Tennessee and did it…”

And I’m just like, “I don’t know these landmarks,” which made it really hard to understand how things were moving, which made it really hard to, again, get into the movie as much as I was hoping to get into it.

And that’s basically it.

I hope this wasn’t really too harsh and I feel kind of like a jerk criticizing Ken Burns because he’s supposed to be this lauded filmmaker. But I was kind of shocked.

I kept going like, “I can’t believe this is what was celebrated, like, you know, when I was a kid.”

I will say now that I watched the whole thing, I have a much stronger understanding of that war, but I just feel like there is a lot of stuff in there and techniques that were not strong, and they could have made it stronger. And even from a perspective of someone with an attention span of the 90s, had I watched it or attempted to watch it 20 years ago, I think I would have said a lot of the same thing and most likely I wouldn’t have been in pandemic mode where I’m cool with sitting through stuff that is maybe a little bit tiresome.

I think 20 years ago I probably would have watched the first disc and been like…

And we almost did that.

We reached disc three and we’re like, “Do we really want to spend the next, you know, for hours watching this documentary?”

But I’m glad I sat through it and it is worth watching. Be prepared that you’re going to be rewinding a lot to be like, “Who said that? What side? “

Because we were doing that and we still are doing that. So it’s 11 hours of documentary that will probably take you about 14 hours to get through, so…

It makes me not really want to watch his other ones, though, because we were going to be like, “Let’s watch all Ken Burns stuff and really get into his whole… All his war things that are supposed to be so great.”

But I think… I think not. I think I need a long break from this filmmaking style.

But still worth watching, you know.

I wouldn’t ever show this to school kids, though. Oh my God. Paper airplanes flying everywhere, people texting. I think this would… I don’t know what. I definitely couldn’t have sat through this in high school. If some teacher had been like, “We’re going to watch some of this series, I would have been like done in five minutes.”

Anyway, enough about me saying attention span things. That’s it for today.

Ultimately, the intention of this was to help people who are starting their documentary experience to make it a better, more presentable movie.

I’m sorry, I just burped, that was like… I hope that… I sometimes forget that I’m… You can hear that. I burped. I’m not going to shy away from it. I burped. I’m drinking water and sometimes it happens. Anyway. But I feel like, you know, this will be informative to people who are on the beginning of their filmmaking journey.

And when you watch movies, it happens automatically at this point for me, you will start to watch it with a filmmaker’s eye and say, “Would I have put this in.? Would I have put that in? What would have enhanced this moment? How could I have made this moment more clear and more impactful?”

And I will say actually, to end on a happy note,… Not a happy note… But a complimentary note… There were moments in this series where it was so touching and so heart wrenching and it really did communicate just how wasteful that war was and war in general is.

But it was, I think, the part we just got to, the part where General Lee from the Confederate side goes in to surrender to General Grant… And it just was so clear that there was no… Even though it was not a moment… It was a moment of celebration, but subtle celebration, because ultimately the loss that had been created in this war was so great for both sides that you couldn’t really call it a win because there was more loss.

I mean, but you could, but it was so heartbreaking in itself.

And probably if anybody’s ever been through a long, arduous experience in any in any way, when it ends there’s like almost this cry of relief and cry of just exhaustion and just “I can let go now and I don’t have to, you know, operate in emergency mode”. I can just release it. And often it’s in the midst of of tears. And it’s not always a feeling of “Yahoo”.

It’s a feeling of, “Auhhhh…”

Just a sigh.

And that even as I speak about it now, that was really clear and there were moments in that series where that will stay with me for a lifetime.

So that is the gold in that documentary.

So I thank you for listening and I hope that this has helped you if you’re making a documentary. Always watch with the filmmaker’s eye because you will learn from other people’s techniques and the way other people do things and whether you like it or not, as a viewer and as a filmmaker.

Thank you for listening. And I look forward to talking to you soon. Take care.
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