Shoot + Direct: Documentary

Part 1: Plan

The UK's top directors producers and editors share practical advice and insider tips to help you stand out from the crowd

"Having a detailed script means you know the two things you need to get from a shoot if it pours with rain.
But I would regard that script as a fantasy.
It’s probably not what’s going to happen.
What happens is often a lot better"

Annabel Gillings. Producer/ Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Annabel Gillings. Producer/ Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

The person with the plan

Storytelling is at the heart of documentary, before you shoot a frame you need to know your story. But you also need to plan how you’re going to tell it.

Planning is about more than scripting the narrative, it encompasses research, building relationships and setting up shoots. These unglamorous, forgettable tasks are vital steps in film production.

Annabel Gillings is a producer in the BBC’s Specialist Factual department and has directed programmes including Horizon and Human Universe with Prof Brian Cox. Annabel highlights this stage as the key to good factual filmmaking.


Annabel Gillings, Producer/Director – Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Human Universe (BBC Two) pre-titles


Know your material and visualize your ideal film.

Write a shooting script
At least the opening words and pictures should be written in detail. Having a plan in your head will help you and reassure everyone on set

Set up and plan your shoot carefully.

Questions and pieces to camera
Consider carefully and tailor your writing to your contributor or presenter.

Find out how colleagues want to receive notes
Then communicate your plan accordingly.

Listen to feedback from colleagues
And incorporate their improvements.

Be flexible
Things will change on location so your plan must change too.

"In documentary the relationship you decide to form with your subject is the most important element, whether it's combative or very empathetic - show it.
Be tough on your subject and tough on yourself"

Bruce Goodison, Writer/Director - Our World War, Our War, My Murder (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery)

Bruce Goodison, Writer/Director - Our World War, Our War, My Murder (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery)

Connect with your contributors

Relationships are at the heart of any factual programme and the most important relationship of all is the one between filmmaker and subject. This is the basis for how your project will take shape.

Bruce Goodison is a director and writer known for powerful docu-dramas including My Murder (BBC Three) and the Emmy nominated Flight 93: The Flight that Fought Back (Discovery).


Bruce Goodison, Writer/Director – Our War (BBC Three), Flight 93 (Discovery US)

Getting to know and gaining the trust of contributors is an important part of any production. This is vital when shooting an observational film butcan be complicated when filming in a challenging environment.

The ob doc HMP Aylesbury (ITV), made by Paul Hamann’s Wild Pictures and series produced and self-shot by Lee Phillips, was filmed for overfive months in the UK's most notorious young offenders institution. HMP Aylesbury houses some of the most dangerous criminals in Britain, including murderers and violent gang members, the oldest among them is just 21.


Lee Phillips, Series Producer/ Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4)

HMP Aylesbury (ITV) - Please note this clip contains disturbing scenes


Lee Phillips, Series Producer/ Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4)


  • Consider what you want to reveal about your subject
  • Plan the tone and style of your film
  • Agree with your contributors the kind of film you want to make
  • Spend as long as you can getting to know your contributors off camera recceing. This will put you in the best position to capture incidents and emotions
  • Set out ground rules with your contributors and location, establish protocols for 'what if' scenarios
  • Get all of your potential contributors on camera early to get them used to being filmed

"Some presenters are willing to open up emotionally or philosophically, but you don't want them doing that shouting across a bridge. You need to create space for them to do it, both in terms of filming space and how you treat them"

Annabel Gillings, Producer/Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Annabel Gillings, Producer/Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Connect with your presenter

The challenge of working with big name presenters can be daunting. Start building a working relationship in pre-production and win their trust by demonstrating clear direction. Find out how they like to get notes and give them the platform to ‘own’ the material. This will enable your presenter (and your film) to shine.

Annabel Gillings has directed top science broadcasters including Professors Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khalili and Iain Stewart.


Annabel Gillings, Producer/Director - Human Universe, Horizon (BBC Two)

Every presenter has something unique to bring to their role and you need to work with them to find out what that is. Some might want to contribute a lot to the content while for others it may be about their on screen performance.


How much they want to contribute to the words in pieces to camera and narration. Also the level of detail they want from your script. Some presenters like a script with full sentences, others bullet point notes, others less detail still. For presenters who prefer to improvise their pieces to camera, a simple line in the script will suffice, for example ‘presenter talks about volcanoes’.

How ‘game’ they will be. There is no point writing a scene where the presenter rides a horse up to the rim of a volcano only to find on location that they’re scared of heights and allergic to horses. Viewing past programmes can givesome indication of a presenter’s style and the type of stunts or activities they may do but you should aim to discuss any action with your presenter pre-shoot.

The delivery and level of emotion that a presenter is likely to give should be taken into account when planning shots, locations and timings, particularly for pieces to camera. Presenters may want to improvise and expand on a short piece to camera that you have planned, this would mean that you couldn’t do a sequence of perfectly timed walking shots for example.

Create an immersive experience

Filmmaker Lee Phillips has produced observational series like HMP Aylesbury (ITV) as well as presenter led shows like My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1) with Dawn O’Porter and he makes presenter led films in the documentary style.

"On my presenter led films I didn’t treat them like presenters or call them presenters. They were the contributor or subject. I’d try to create a world, throw them in and see how they reacted to it. With Dawn O’Porter in particular, you can tell there’s a filmmaker behind the lens"

Lee Phillips, Series Producer, Self-shooting Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4), My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)


Lee Phillips, Series Producer/ Director - HMP Aylesbury (ITV), Coppers (Channel 4), My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)


Carefully consider the scene
Interrogate whether this is the right approach for the film and the people on camera

Ensure that contributors and presenter are comfortable
And happy with what you’re planning and robust enough to take part

Be frank and set ground rules
Presenters and contributors should know that they will be going into emotionally challenging situations

Start planning early
It will take time to find the right contributors and situation

Get to know your presenter
Build a working relationship with the presenter and decide what you want from them, whether that’s an emotional response, an engaging performance or sharing knowledge.

My Breasts Could Kill Me (Sky 1)

Where next?

You’ve got your plan, now bring it to life.

For more production tips from award-winning documentary film makers: