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How to Find and Develop Great Documentary Ideas

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One Breath: A Life Without Gravity

Do you want to make a documentary but struggling to find that perfect idea to kickstart your project? You're not alone. As a filmmaker and aspiring filmmaker, it's hard to know where to begin and how to unearth a story worth telling. This is where our blog comes in with easy-to-follow advice on discovering and developing compelling documentary ideas. Whether you're drawn to untold human stories, pressing social issues, or intriguing cultural phenomena, we'll show you how to transform your curiosity into a captivating documentary idea.


Choosing the Perfect Documentary Idea

A good idea for a documentary is one that resonates profoundly with both the filmmaker and the audience, offering a unique perspective or insight into a subject. The ideal topic should be engaging, informative, and capable of sparking curiosity or emotional response. It often revolves around compelling human stories, social issues, cultural phenomena, or historical events that have a broader impact or significance. The key is to find a subject that is not only interesting but also has depth, allowing for the exploration of various angles and viewpoints. This approach ensures that the documentary is not just informative but also captivating, leaving a lasting impression on its viewers.


Discovering Compelling Documentary Ideas

If you don’t have a story idea yet. I’m going to go through my five steps for how I find a great documentary idea:


1. Does Your Documentary Idea Have a Clear Goal & Obstacle

A good story has compelling characters who are working towards something they want, a goal. It could be a physical goal such as wanting to climb a mountain or an emotional goal such as wanting to be loved. Then an obstacle gets in their way, something that’s stopping them from achieving their goal. Whether it’s not having enough money, an opposition who’s challenging them, or maybe it’s something that’s never been done before, so it seems impossible. This creates conflict which drives the story forward and makes it engaging as audiences want to keep watching the documentary to find out what’s going to happen next.


2. Why Do You Want To Bring This Documentary Idea To Life

Why do you want to make your film? Make sure your answer includes a strong emotional motivation. For example, with my short film, One Breath – about a freediving couple who attempt a world record – when I started out looking for a story, all I knew was that I wanted to make a film about humans connecting with nature. Why? Because I have a huge passion for the natural world and I wanted to share my love of nature with an audience. Discovering your ‘why’ is important because it will help you find ideas you emotionally connect with and are motivated to share, and this emotion will come through in your film. It will also spur you on when you feel stuck and face challenges in the film production process.



3. Seek Inspiration Daily To Help Develop Your Documentary Idea

Look for stories about people you know, to books, social media, events and people you meet. If you can, I recommend dedicating a bit of time to seeking inspiration every day, even if it’s just five minutes, and keeping notes of your ideas as you go along, so you can refer back to them. It’s the things we do daily that bring us closer to our goals.


4. Discover The Main Aim Of Your Documentary Idea

Is your end goal to sell a product, to raise money, to change perspectives, to raise awareness or purely to entertain?  For example, with a short film I made in Nepal, my aim was to raise money for a charity called Kinoe that funds children’s education. Whereas a film I made for Canon, was to sell a product - the Canon M50.


5. Research Your Documentary Idea

The key is to learn everything you can about the topic and your main subject. Sometimes the storyline will be obvious from the start, other times you’ll discover what the story is as you start making it. Do a lot of digging, gather facts, and search for interesting characters and storylines.


Organise Your Documentary Idea Effectively

As you work through each of these steps, I strongly recommend setting up a Google Drive folder and keeping a record of all your findings and contacts in Google Sheets, Google Docs, and Google Keep. Everyone is different though so you may have a different method of working, but personally, I find Google Drive to be the most reliable, user-friendly, and collaborative platform. And for Internet research, I recommend using Bookmarks with organised sub-folders so you can easily come back to a website or article at a later date. 


What are Some Good Ideas for a Documentary?

Embarking on a new documentary project can be both exhilarating and daunting, especially when it comes to selecting the right topic. If you're searching for inspiration to kick-start your next filmmaking endeavor, look no further. Here's a list of 50 inspiring documentary ideas, each brimming with potential to create a captivating and thought-provoking film or series. These ideas span a wide range of themes and subjects, offering something for every filmmaker, whether you're drawn to untold human stories, environmental issues, cultural explorations, or historical events. This collection is designed not just to ignite your creativity but also to provide a springboard for your storytelling journey. So, let's dive in and discover the idea that will set the stage for your next impactful documentary project.


50 Inspiring Documentary Ideas

  1. The Last Artisans: Exploring the world of traditional crafts at risk of disappearing.
  2. Hidden Cities: Uncovering the underground cities and tunnels across the world.
  3. AI Revolution: How artificial intelligence is transforming every aspect of our lives.
  4. The Ocean's Depths: Exploring the mysteries of the deepest parts of the ocean.
  5. Vanishing Languages: Documenting languages that are on the brink of extinction.
  6. Space Junk: The challenges and dangers of debris orbiting Earth.
  7. Blockchain World: How blockchain technology is changing finance, art, and security.
  8. Arctic Awakening: The impact of climate change on Arctic communities and ecosystems.
  9. Urban Farming: Innovative solutions for growing food in city environments.
  10. Silent Epidemic: The global rise of mental health issues and solutions.
  11. Conservation Champions: The dedicated individuals working to protect and rehabilitate endangered wildlife species around the globe.
  12. Virtual Realities: The impact of VR on entertainment, education, and therapy.
  13. Forgotten Wars: Conflicts around the world that have escaped mainstream attention.
  14. Solar Futures: The evolution and potential of solar energy.
  15. Street Food Stories: A journey through the world's most vibrant street food cultures.
  16. Water Crisis: Examining the global struggle for clean and accessible water.
  17. Digital Nomads: The lives of people who work and travel full-time.
  18. Ancient Megaliths: Investigating the mysteries of ancient megalithic structures.
  19. Drone Revolution: How drones are changing surveillance, delivery, and warfare.
  20. Underground Music: Scenes and movements that are reshaping music culture.
  21. Coral Reefs in Crisis: The fight to save the world's coral reefs.
  22. Compact Living Revolution: Exploring the innovative and sustainable approaches to living in tiny spaces, focusing on the social, environmental, and economic impacts.
  23. The Microbiome Frontier: Exploring the human microbiome and its impact on health.
  24. Volunteer Heroes: Stories of extraordinary volunteer efforts around the globe.
  25. Dark Web: Delving into the hidden parts of the internet and its impacts.
  26. Nature's Comeback: Documenting ambitious projects worldwide aimed at restoring natural habitats and biodiversity.
  27. Future of Food: Innovations that are changing what and how we eat.
  28. Megastructures: The engineering marvels reshaping our cities and landscapes.
  29. The Art of Animation: A deep dive into the history and future of animation.
  30. Climate Refugees: Stories of people displaced by climate change.
  31. Mindfulness Movement: The rise and impact of mindfulness and meditation in modern society.
  32. Electric Dreams: The race to develop and dominate the electric vehicle market.
  33. Hidden Champions: Small companies that are global market leaders in their niches.
  34. Esports Explosion: The rise of competitive gaming as a global phenomenon.
  35. Cannabis Culture: The evolving world of cannabis, from business to culture.
  36. Ghost Towns: Exploring abandoned towns and the stories behind them.
  37. Biohacking: Individuals pushing the limits of biology and technology.
  38. Unsung Innovators: Stories of lesser-known inventors who changed the world.
  39. Polar Shifts: Examining the changing landscapes and life in the polar regions.
  40. The Art of Protest: The role of art in social and political movements.
  41. Cyber Warfare: The unseen battles happening in the digital realm.
  42. Lunar Dreams: The new race to the Moon and its potential consequences.
  43. The Happiness Quest: Different cultural approaches to seeking happiness.
  44. Surviving Extremes: People living in the world's harshest environments.
  45. Robotics and Society: How robots are changing the way we live and work.
  46. Child Prodigies: The lives and challenges of extraordinarily gifted children.
  47. Secret Societies: A look into historical and modern secret societies.
  48. Life After Death: Exploring global beliefs and experiences about the afterlife.
  49. Urban Explorers: Delving into the adventures of urban exploration.
  50. Green Architecture: The revolution in sustainable and eco-friendly building designs.


How To Find Great Documentary Ideas

Choosing the right idea for a documentary can be challenging, but using the steps for finding a great idea that I mentioned in this blog can be really helpful. Plus if you get stuck, have a look at the ideas above to get your creative juices flowing. Remember, a powerful documentary not only informs but also connects with its audience on a deeper level. Use these steps and these ideas to spark your creativity and embark on a journey to tell stories that enlighten, inspire, and leave a lasting impact. Good luck! 

Written by Sebastian Solberg

Sebastian is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose credits include One Breath and the BAFTA-nominated film The Eagle HuntressHis 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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