11 January 2014

How to be a documentary filmmaker

Everything you need to know about becoming a documentary filmmaker

How to be a documentary filmmaker

If you love TV and fancy yourself behind the camera not in front of it, look no further. We met documentary filmmaker Michael and asked him a few questions about how you get to make TV…

Hello Michael! What’s your job?

I'm a Producer/ Director (known as PD in the TV industry…). I mainly make documentary's. 

What does your job entail?

I’m responsible for everything to do with the documentary – I come up with the idea behind it, find the people to film, do the filming (I’m the voice you hear that asks the questions) and work with the editor to make the finished film you see on TV.

What's a typical day at work?

Every day is different. I could be calling potential contributors (TV term for ‘people in the documentary’), planning shoots, arranging permission to film in public areas, writing interview questions, and very often filming in weird and wonderful locations with fascinating people.

What’s the best thing about your job?

I get to meet loads of people I wouldn’t normally meet and ask them questions. I’m naturally quite nosey so I love it!

What’s the worst thing about your job?

Making a documentary takes over your life - every hour of your day is dictated by the people you’re filming. When they do whatever it is you’re filming them for, you have to be there – whatever time of the day or night!

What did you do at school/ university?

I’m American and went to school in L.A. so the system is slightly different over there. I completed high school specialising in History and English and went to university to do a History and Film degree.

Then what?

I did part of my uni course in London and loved it, so knew I wanted to come over to England for a bit to live. Trouble was I didn’t know anyone over here. My university had an alumni database that students could access, with details of all past students and what they were doing now. I found someone on there working in media in London and emailed them. I’d never met them before!

That was brave, did they reply?

Yes! They couldn’t help me but gave me the email address of someone they knew who worked in TV. I emailed them and they agreed to meet me for a coffee when I arrived in London.

Did you do any work experience?

I did two weeks at an independent production company (which I got through the person I met in the answer to question 8!). Two weeks turned into a job offer as a runner!

What advice would you give to anyone who was interested in doing what you do?

Work experience really helps – most people I know who work in the industry came through work experience. You don’t have to go to university to work in TV – no one has ever asked to see my degree certificate!

The biggest misconception about your job is...

That it’s well paid.

If you weren’t doing this you’d love to be...

A writer.

Well, being a writer is kind of cool, even if I do say so myself.

Thank you Michael!

If you’re interested in doing a job like Michael’s he recommends watching TV! Find the programmes you like and the ones you don’t and be able to say why.

Here at Whatever after we recommend career tips from The Network, they also have a good article on different TV jobs. The BBC College of Production website also has loads of articles, videos and tips.


Michael was interviewed by Isla Gray


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