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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 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.


50 Inspiring Documentary Topics and Ideas

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
  • Historical events

This collection of ideas is designed not just to ignite your creativity but also to provide a springboard for your storytelling journey.


How To Find An Idea For a Documentary

Are you wondering how to find your own documentary idea? In this blog, I’m going to share the five steps I take to find great documentary ideas. Plus some bonus tips at the end:


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.


How To Organise Your Documentary Ideas 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 Should I Make a Documentary About?

The most engaging documentaries often delve into uncharted territories or offer new perspectives on familiar subjects. Human interest stories, for instance, provide a deep dive into the complexities of life, highlighting resilience, cultural diversity, or the triumph of the human spirit. Environmental issues, such as climate change and wildlife conservation, are also increasingly popular, offering a stark yet essential look at our planet's future. History and biographical documentaries bring the past to life, giving voice to untold stories or new insights into well-known figures. Technological advancements and their impact on society present another fertile ground for exploration. The best topics are those that not only interest you as a filmmaker but also resonate with your audience, sparking conversation and potentially driving change. Whether it's uncovering hidden truths, exploring artistic endeavors, or narrating the unspoken, the right topic has the power to leave a lasting impression on its viewers.


Inspiring Documentary Topics And Ideas

For filmmakers seeking inspiration, focus on topics that align with your passions, global trends, and human stories. Environmental issues like climate change offer compelling narratives on our planet's beauty and the need for its protection. Social justice themes provide a voice to the marginalized, pushing for change. Technology's influence on society, covering artificial intelligence and privacy, presents a nuanced view of progress. Biographical pieces on both renowned and everyday individuals showcase personal triumphs and challenges. Cultural documentaries celebrate global traditions, enhancing appreciation for cultural diversity. These themes not only engage viewers but also encourage dialogue and social consciousness.


Innovative Documentary Ideas: Stories That Inspire Change

Some of the best documentaries stand out for their profound exploration of captivating themes, weaving together compelling narratives with real-world impact. "An Inconvenient Truth," for example, excels in raising awareness about climate change, utilising powerful imagery and data to underscore the pressing need for environmental conservation. "13th," directed by Ava DuVernay, delves into the intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States, highlighting the systemic inequalities within the criminal justice system. "Won’t You Be My Neighbor?" offers an intimate look at Fred Rogers' life and the profound kindness and empathy he shared through his television show, showcasing the impact of compassion in media. "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" not only celebrates culinary artistry and dedication but also reflects on the values of craftsmanship, legacy, and the pursuit of perfection in Japanese culture. Each of these documentaries embodies a great idea by not only presenting facts but also telling stories that resonate emotionally with audiences, prompting reflection, and often inspiring action toward social, environmental, or personal change.


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 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 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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