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AI Filmmaking: The Future of Making Documentaries

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AI Filmmaking

The changes I've seen in filmmaking over my lifetime are mind-blowing... and the latest shift with artificial intelligence (AI), well, it's opening doors for anyone who has a great story to tell - you no longer need to be a big production company or need to have access to expensive camera equipment to make a powerful film.

I've been making films for over 20 years now, I remember the transition from those bulky film cameras to the pocket-sized gear we have today. Now AI is on the scene, and the transformation it's bringing is mind-boggling.

Yes, new tech can feel scary and create uncertainty - especially when you think it's going to take your job or ruin your future career. But for us documentary filmmakers, there's a lot to be excited about. AI is streamlining our workflow, giving us creative superpowers, and making it possible to bring our films to life in less time and without needing a huge budget. It's leveling the playing field for passionate filmmakers everywhere.

To help speed up your documentary filmmaking, I have compiled a comprehensive list of AI-powered filmmaking tools which you can get here: AI tools for filmmakers


AI is Revolutionising Documentary Filmmaking

AI is saving us documentary filmmakers so much time and turning some of our most dreaded tasks, which used to take days or even weeks into something that only takes a few minutes. Here are a few examples:

  • Transcriptions: Need interviews transcribed lightning fast? AI's got your back, transforming hours of audio into searchable text. Finding that one perfect soundbite just got a whole lot easier.
  • Digging into the Archives: Searching through mountains of old footage for the right clip can be a nightmare. AI tools recognise themes, faces, and emotions – and bam, they help you find the footage you didn't even know you needed. 
  • Automated Mixing: With AI-powered mixing, you can fine-tune the balance of your music, dialogue, and sound effects with ease. It's like having an experienced audio engineer tweaking your audio behind the scenes! No more struggling with background noise  – AI can identify voices and prioritize them, making sure the most important parts of your story are always crystal clear.


Filmmaking Possibilities We Never Imagined

Here are some ideas on how we can use AI in new and innovative ways (I dive into the ethics of this later in the blog):

  • History Brought to Life:  Al tools let us upscale and enhance archive footage and photos. No more grainy archival footage or leaving those scenes to the imagination. Documentaries Like 'They Shall Not Grow Old' have already done this, but AI is making the process easier and faster.
  • Breaking Language Barriers: AI translation removes barriers between filmmakers and those powerful global stories. Suddenly, our viewers get access to voices from around the world that used to be inaccessible.
  • When Footage Doesn't Exist: AI-generated content fills in the gaps, respecting our story's mood and visual style. We don't have to give up on those key moments if we lack the raw material.

This is a screenshot from an AI-generated video. 


AI and the Future of Filmmaking

The incredible evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in filmmaking has the potential to revolutionise the world of storytelling. We're entering a time of thrilling innovation, and with it, thoughtful consideration is just as important. As AI begins to play a deeper role in pre-production, production, and post-production, it's up to us to make sure its power is used thoughtfully. 

The core of any great film is the human connection, and how can we leverage AI to deepen those connections in ways we never imagined? AI has the potential to open incredible doors – making the power of filmmaking more accessible than ever before. Imagine how these tools can give more diverse voices a platform, empowering storytellers around the world.

Of course, as with any new technology, we need to consider how it may alter the landscape of originality in filmmaking. Could AI blur the lines of what we consider to be truly, uniquely human creation? Additionally, using AI to create digital avatars or replicate past performances opens a discussion about consent, identity, and respecting the legacy of individuals both living and deceased.

As pioneers in this exciting age, let's use this moment to have inspiring conversations about responsible AI within the world of film. It's crucial –  filmmakers, technology experts, and the public need to work together to ensure that AI fuels human artistry instead of eclipsing it.


The Ethics of AI Filmmaking

Here are some key aspects to consider for the ethical use of AI in documentary filmmaking:

Bias and Representation: AI systems often learn from vast existing datasets. In filmmaking, if these datasets contain inherent biases (e.g., lack of diversity or stereotypical portrayals), these biases can be amplified in creative outputs. It's essential to consciously design AI tools with mitigating these biases in mind, fostering inclusion and accurate representation in storytelling.

Transparency and Explainability: With AI becoming a complex part of the filmmaking process, creators need to understand how algorithms and AI models contribute to decisions. Ensuring transparency builds accountability, facilitates trust, and is crucial in protecting audiences from potentially harmful impacts of AI-generated content that misrepresents reality.

Collaboration, not Replacement: Let's frame AI in filmmaking as a powerful collaborator, not a looming threat to human artists. Filmmakers can combine their unique vision and talent with the advanced capabilities of AI to explore new horizons in storytelling and expand the boundaries of artistic possibility.

The Power of Education: Encouraging filmmakers at all levels to become literate in AI technology and its potential implications is essential. Through ongoing education and training opportunities, we empower them to harness these tools responsibly and maintain creative control. With an open mind and shared values, we can ensure this groundbreaking technology helps shape a future where the ethical use of AI enriches our connection to cinema and to each other.


AI and the Future of Documentary Filmmaking

This stuff feels a bit like science fiction right now, but it's happening. It's exciting, a little scary, and full of incredible possibilities. OpenAI's Sora text-to-video AI model sent shockwaves through the creative world. Could AI replace filmmakers? It's an understandable fear – technology always disrupts. But AI in filmmaking isn't something to dread; it's a tool to unlock new potential. It will make filmmaking more accessible, giving more people the chance to share their stories visually.

We, humans, crave connection through stories. AI can't replace our ability to tell stories with heart and understanding. The empathy, the subtle details, the uniquely human viewpoint – that's the magic of documentary film. AI is just a new instrument. Smaller teams, and streamlined processes, but the filmmaker's touch is still vital.

This is a screenshot from an AI-generated video.

There's so much speculation around the future of AI and filmmaking at the moment. So I thought I'd put together a simple Q&A below, exploring common questions about AI filmmaking and sharing my thoughts.


How can AI be Used in Filmmaking?

AI has the power to reshape the very nature of documentary filmmaking. It offers us tools to streamline our processes while simultaneously unlocking profound new storytelling possibilities. In pre-production, AI can help us delve into vast troves of archival material, identifying patterns and connections that might elude the human eye. It could even assist in finding potential interviewees, matching individuals to the themes and narratives we seek to explore. During production, AI can be an invaluable asset, automating time-consuming tasks like transcription and logging footage. This frees us to stay present in the moment, truly engaging with our subjects. Post-production is where the magic continues – AI can assist with the painstaking process of crafting cohesive narratives from hours of raw material. It can enhance the quality of archival footage, restoring visual clarity, and even help synthesise voices for historical figures where direct recordings don't exist. The impact doesn't stop there. AI can analyse audience data to create targeted outreach strategies, ensuring our documentaries reach the viewers most likely to connect deeply with them. This isn't simply about efficiency; AI empowers us to be more thoughtful and effective storytellers. It gives us the tools to do justice to complex subjects, uncover hidden truths, and amplify marginalised voices. The documentary landscape is changing, and I believe AI will play a pivotal role in shaping a future where our films are more insightful, impactful, and accessible than ever before.


Will AI Replace Human Documentary Filmmakers?

AI has incredible potential, but I firmly believe it'll never replace the heart of documentary filmmaking. It can crunch data, streamline editing, and offer suggestions, but the essence of our work lies in capturing the raw beauty and complexity of the human experience. That requires empathy, intuition, and a unique perspective –  things AI simply can't replicate. AI is a powerful tool. It can free us from technical burdens, giving us more time for the artful, interpretive elements of our craft. Think of it as enhancing our ability to tell the stories that resonate deeply – our ability to spark understanding and ignite change.


Can AI Be Used Ethically in Documentaries?

AI is fascinating, no doubt, but as filmmakers committed to truth-telling, its use raises some very real ethical questions. Can we integrate AI and still guarantee authenticity? What if viewers can't discern between genuine footage and an AI-crafted image or sound? The trust we build with our audience is built on a foundation of honesty. Then there's the issue of bias. Algorithms learn from the data they're fed, and that data can carry historical or social biases. AI might lead us to skewed perspectives, unintentionally misrepresenting complex subjects or entire communities. And it's not just about onscreen representation – if we use AI to analyse data about potential subjects or audiences, do we have their full and informed consent? Privacy is paramount. For me, navigating AI in documentaries is about more than just embracing new tech. It's about weighing the potential against our deepest values – our commitment to truth, fairness, and respecting the very people whose stories we tell. There's an ethical puzzle to solve, and doing so thoughtfully could help ensure documentaries remain beacons of insight and understanding in an increasingly complex world.


Will AI Take Over the Film Industry?

AI is undoubtedly changing the way we make films, no question about it. From streamlining those routine tasks to opening up whole new avenues of creative expression – the possibilities are thrilling. But will it take over completely? I don't think so. At its heart, this is about augmentation, not replacement. A clever algorithm might whip up an edit, enhance those tricky visuals, or even suggest a script tweak, but that spark of true storytelling, the ability to make audiences feel something deep down... that's still uniquely human.

As documentarians, the promise of AI lies in helping us wrangle all that footage and data more easily. Imagine having a tireless assistant at your side! That said, the big choices – the narrative arc, the ethical questions, the way we frame a lived reality – that stays in our hands. AI becomes this amazing tool, freeing us from the technical minutiae, so we can put our hearts and minds into the elements that truly define our work as filmmakers. It's about honing our craft, about making documentaries that leave a lasting impact.


How can I Get Started Using AI in my Documentary Projects?

If you're ready to dip your toes into the world of AI filmmaking, the best approach is to start with focused applications. Think about the nitty-gritty areas of your workflow that consume time and effort. Need those interviews transcribed? There are AI tools that convert speech to text with incredible accuracy, saving you hours poring over audio. Does editing feel overwhelming? Try out software that uses AI to sort through footage, suggest potential cuts, or even add some eye-catching visual effects. Struggling to understand how your last film landed with viewers? AI-powered analytics can give you amazing insight into audience engagement. Remember, it's not about letting AI take the reins – it's about finding clever ways to integrate it into your existing skillset.


How to use AI for Video Editing?

The great thing about AI is that you can start getting real benefits without overhauling your whole workflow. Even those big filmmaking programs – Premiere Pro, DaVinci Resolve, Final Cut Pro – they've got some incredible AI features built right in. Think auto-reframing so your subject always stays in shot, clever scene detection, color matching... all the small tweaks that end up taking hours. AI can go a long way towards sorting and tagging all that beautiful footage we shoot, making it a breeze to find that one poignant expression or a specific location later on. Transcription services that use AI? Those have been a lifesaver for me. Speech to text in the blink of an eye makes working with interviews so much easier and opens up whole new possibilities for subtitles.  And don't get me started on AI's ability to polish audio. Background noise vanishes, voices get cleaned up – sometimes it even helps in crafting more seamless voiceovers.  Then there's the visual side — steady that shaky handheld footage, upscale your older material, make gorgeous slow-motion effects even when you couldn't film at high frame rates. The key is remembering that AI is meant to free us up, not dictate our choices. It's about those routine tasks taking a backseat, letting us focus on building our narrative, on finding the moments that make our documentaries sing.


How do I Use AI as a Filmmaker?

As filmmakers and videographers, we're always looking for ways to work smarter, to bring our creative vision to life without getting bogged down in technical minutiae. AI can be a fantastic ally in that regard.  Start simple – even basic AI tools for stabilising shaky footage, correcting colors, or tracking objects can make a huge difference in the quality of your shots. That means less time fussing, and more time focusing on the story. Programs like Adobe Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro now have amazing AI features built right in. These range from automating routine editing tasks, like trimming clips and balancing audio, to sorting through all your raw footage for those key moments. That scene you know is in there somewhere, lost in hours of tapes? AI can help you find it. Don't be afraid to think bigger, too. There are AI platforms for gorgeous slow-motion effects, resolution upgrades, and even generating usable content when the exact shot you need is impossible to capture live. The key is to treat AI as part of your creative toolbox.  It frees you from the tedium, letting you put your energy into building those stunning images and crafting narratives that connect with your audience. 


How is AI Being Used in Filmmaking?

AI is changing the way we make documentaries, and that's exciting stuff!  The potential to streamline our workflow, and even find whole new ways to approach storytelling... amazing. Just think of all that time spent painstakingly sorting through footage. AI tools can now take that on, automatically tagging our images and clips so those powerful moments are right at our fingertips. Need a transcript of a lengthy interview? AI transcription gets that done in a heartbeat, opening up so many possibilities for how we work with narratives and craft subtitles.

Best of all, these tools free us up to focus on why we do this work in the first place. The human connection, the crafting of stories that resonate...those will always be our domain. It's about letting AI handle the technical side, while we refine our vision and find those threads of truth in the world around us.


Note: This blog features a mix of real and AI-generated images.

Written by Sebastian Solberg

Sebastian is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose credits include One Breath and the BAFTA-nominated film The Eagle Huntress. His passion for fostering emerging talent led to the creation of the Documentary Film Academy, an online community and educational platform designed to empower the next generation of filmmakers.

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