Can You Make Your Documentary 'Without a Hollywood Budget and Big Crew'?

Is it possible to make a feature documentary that spans the globe without a Hollywood style budget? Mother/daughter team Gail Mooney and Erin Kelly did just that with their film, Opening Our Eyes -- a documentary that tells the stories of eleven individuals across six continents making an impact in their communities. As we've previously mentioned, Gail Mooney shared her experience pulling it off in an hour-long seminar courtesy of B&H, and an on-line video of that seminar is now available for your perusal. It delivers an informative (and inspiring) intro for anyone thinking of launching a documentary project on a small budget:

Mooney covers lots of ground -- from conception of your documentary idea and key elements you should have in place before embarking, to why you should start a blog, and weighing distribution options while expanding the project beyond the film itself.  If you're looking for a broad overview of what this kind of project can entail, this is your ticket.

So how'd they keep costs from getting out of control, and can you follow their approach? Yes and no. The travel costs might be difficult to replicate -- through Mooney's regular job as a photographer for organizations like National Geographic, she had accumulated enough frequent flier miles to keep their trip's flight costs to under $300 (!) -- that's a lot of frequent flier miles. All the same, the rest of her strategy is doable, if at least in spirit! They were very smart and frugal.  They limited the crew to themselves -- two. They slept where possible, and even bartered their video making services (i.e shot a web video in return for two weeks stay at an Australian hotel). They took the bare bones in terms of equipment and did much of the planning and production themselves.

Shot on a Canon 5D MkII, and with only enough gear to fit into two backpacks, the film looks great judging from the trailer, you can see how Mooney's experience as a professional photographer out in the field made her incredibly adept at working with available light.  If you're curious about the rest of the gear they took with them on their 3 month trip/shoot, check out her blog post on just that topic.

If you're a no-budget filmmaker, many of these tips will sound familiar, but it's admirable and refreshing to see those strategies married with great ambition and put into action with very tangible results. I especially liked Mooney's advice about overcoming inertia with "forced accountability":

Everybody has ideas, right? But how many people really act on them? And I know I'm guilty of the same. I have ideas every day -- some of them are great ideas and I just don't act on them for one reason or another. So I find that when I tell somebody, you know, I gotta save face.  'Cause that's important to me.  So if I really want my idea to happen and take off, I tell somebody. and then I'll tell someone else, and then I'll blast it to the universe on my blog, and then I have to do it.

If you have a DSLR, an audio recorder (Mooney used a Zoom H4n) and a decent enough shotgun mic (e.g. Rode NTG-2), you're well on your way to starting your journey. So what are you waiting for? Do you have any ideas burning a hole in your head?  Share them below, that might be the first step towards making them happen!


[via B&H]

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Your Comment


I will likely be getting the NTG-2, but am split on recorders. Would you guys prefer the Zoom H4n or Tascam's new DR-60? Are there pros and cons between the two?

June 2, 2013 at 12:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I have an even cheaper Zoom digital recorder (H1N) and I can tell you even that's perfectly fine.

The microphone plays a far bigger role in the sound than any digital recording will.

So, as long as you don't use their internal microphones but the Rode, any decent digital recorder will do the job just fine.

That said, you might want to get a recorder with XLR inputs, because those can be stabler (ie. hold on to the cable better physically) than mini jacks and the like.

I would also get an adapter to attach the microphone to the camera flash, and definitely, definitely, a fur style windshield.

June 2, 2013 at 4:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


DR-60 has a great design that I find much easier to make level adjustments on the fly (which can be controlled individually) than the H4N. It also seems to be better equipped to fit in a workflow with DSLRs (e.g. the camera out jack). The downside is, of course, no built-in mic's - but I almost never used them on the H4n anyway.

June 2, 2013 at 8:19PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I'm a student at Stanford University and I'm a big fan of this blog. I got a grant from the University last summer to make a documentary in London about the Nigerian community there and I just had the screening for it yesterday! I definitely agree that really all you need is a DSLR and shotgun microphone. I was working with an even smaller crew (just myself! Yikes!) but it was a very rewarding experience.

June 2, 2013 at 1:04PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Documentaries have never been made with Hollywood budgets or big crews. From the 60's verite pioneers like Pennebaker, Mayles Brothers to 80's Errol Morris, Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore its been small crews often just a sound guy and camera with budgets well under a million bucks a film.
Ross McElwee and the late Les Blank have been travelling the globe making their films for 40 years solo, camera and sound on a dime.

June 2, 2013 at 2:32PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I'm curious why and how this project came to garner so much attention. I'm not trying to be negative, and I haven't seen the full-length doc, but by all appearances it's not very impressive looking. I mean, it's great that they made it and all, but it seems to me they are getting an odd amount of attention and promotion for such a mediocre product. Maybe they've just done a much better job of promoting themselves than many others do?

June 3, 2013 at 9:43AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


There was also I Am Eleven which was pretty much made by the director and had great success in Australia.

For those doing interviews I have recently been plugging a wireless senheiser straight into a 5d mark II. It sounds fine as long as you put your levels down low. Obviously not a solution if you need other sources but not having to sync has been great. It's limiting but possible. The footage has been broadcast with no complaints.

June 3, 2013 at 10:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Billy C

Great article E.M. As soon as you have right tools and great content in place, you shouldn't forget about the 'earning on your talent' part, which with growth of different online content monetization platforms becomes as easy as pie. Take for example my company that helps independent creators to hit wider audience and start earning money they deserve.

I've learned on an example of an Emmy-nominated TV producer - Jon Hotchkiss - that becoming independent equals being successful (if interested, read more on his blog His incredible show called This vs. That comes up with a totally new TV model, in which creators can own their work and earn on their talent, leveraging the power of social media to spread the word & built a strong audience community around it. He uses the PPV (pay-per-view) potential. With a simple setup he sells his show to global audience & at the same time all episodes remain resistant to piracy, data loss or other abuses.

For me - a cinema lover & connoisseur - filmmakers ditching the ordeal of scouring for a dedicated agent, quitting on selling all-rights productions to distributors is a no-brainer.

June 6, 2013 at 6:06AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM