Knowing how to make a docuseries out of a documentary film can be a valuable skill. It allows producers to mine unique development opportunities from pre-existing or in-progress content. However, the process is rarely easy and never straightforward.
That’s why this post digs deep into the docuseries vs documentary conversation. What is a docuseries? What makes a good docuseries? How do you write a docuseries that remains focused and gripping? Below, we’ll cover all these questions and more, as we break down how to make a docuseries out of your feature film documentary.
A docuseries, or “documentary series”, is any serialized or otherwise episodic content whose subject is non-fictional. A docuseries deals in facts and opinions about facts. It attempts to document, explore, or analyze reality.
In an age of streaming television, docuseries have enjoyed steady growth in popularity. To meet this increasing demand, the range of docuseries types has flourished into an endless variety. Producers everywhere are trying to decode how to make a docuseries that stands out from the crowd.
As a result, the volume of viewing options is now staggering.
Classic docuseries like 60 Minutes and Independent Lens still air. Their journalistic approach forms the foundation of serialized true crime sagas like Making a Murderer and historical exposés like Wild, Wild Country.
Food docuseries like Somebody Feed Phil and The Mind of a Chef are wildly popular, as are nature docuseries like Our Planet and Night on Earth. Sports docuseries get in on the game with entries like The Last Dance and the award-winning 30 for 30.
So what is a docuseries? With the right perspective, it can be almost anything.
What is a docuseries’ point of divergence from a traditional documentary? Obviously, one is a movie, and the other a television show, but that’s just the surface. Meaningful differences in the docuseries vs documentary debate are all about storytelling.
For example, story structure in docuseries vs documentary filmmaking requires a fundamentally different approach.
While a documentary seeks to tell a single story within a compact timeframe, a docuseries must break its story into multiple chapters that are each capable of standing on their own. The docuseries has the advantage of more time to explore its story, but it also faces the challenge of holding its audience’s attention for an extended duration.
The pros and cons of a docuseries vs documentary approach affect the story’s construction at every level. That doesn’t mean that the separate storytelling processes are totally opposed.
In fact, most of the same questions necessary for figuring out how to make a documentary are just as relevant to figuring how to make a docuseries. What makes a good docuseries is often the core of what makes a good documentary feature.
That’s why it’s becoming more common to see docuseries that are adapted from, inspired by, or directly connected to documentary films.
Peter Jackson sculpted 2021’s The Beatles: Get Back out of unused and restored footage from 1970’s Let It Be. Creator David Gelb considers Chef’s Table to be a direct follow-up to Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Martin Scorsese and Fran Lebowitz closely adapted the format of their feature-length Public Speaking into their seven-part Pretend It’s a City. HBO’s Murder on Middle Beach began as a student film when director Madison Hamburg was in college.
As the list grows, the docuseries vs documentary conversation becomes increasingly complex. Documentary filmmakers face more possibilities for where to tell their stories and more challenging decisions for how to tell them. To help you cut through the noise, let’s talk about how to make a docuseries out of your documentary film.
Figuring out how to make a docuseries from your documentary film is an undoubtedly daunting task. It forces you to dismantle preexisting ideas, then reassemble them into a brand-new form.
Fortunately, the core of this process is built on simple planning and structure. After all, what is a docuseries if not a good story well-told? Good storytelling either follows or subverts certain principles. You can use these principles as guiding lights for constructing stories of your own.
With that in mind, let’s break down five essential steps for figuring out how to make a docuseries out of your documentary feature.
The point-of-view of your project is a key element in deciphering how to make a docuseries of any kind. In other words, what is a docuseries’ voice? How does it frame or present the facts that make up its story?
If you’re starting from scratch, this step is open-ended and may evolve. You might enter pre-production planning to use narration but find that it’s unnecessary during post-production. You might find that animation works better than archival footage. Your original protagonist could turn out to be a side character or even a villain. With an original idea, the possibilities are endless, but individual choices and experiments will build up your project’s voice over time.
An advantage of basing your docuseries on a completed or in-progress documentary feature is that most of this legwork has already been done. You can glean critical clues to your docuseries point-of-view by examining what works best from your original film.
Consider the example of Pretend It’s a City.
Pretend It’s a City focuses on the mind of Fran Lebowitz, celebrated author and quintessential New York personality. The series is propelled almost exclusively by her personal stream of consciousness, cutting direct interviews together with clips from her myriad speaking engagements over the years.
While this monologue-driven approach might seem risky at a glance, it had already proven itself by the time the series went into production.
The point-of-view in Pretend It’s a City was established nearly a decade prior in Public Speaking, a feature documentary that follows the same subject in much the same way. With the voice of the docuseries already in place, director Martin Scorsese could focus on adapting it to an episodic medium.
What is a docuseries’ most defining feature? While content and style are highly variable, the episodic nature of a docuseries always remains the same. Therefore, regardless of subject, each episode of a docuseries must be distinct and satisfying by itself.
Even if it’s part of a larger story, each episode must have its own arc, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end. Learning how to make a docuseries from a documentary presents two clear approaches to this task.
If the story is serialized, each episode should function in a similar way to chapters in a book, building a larger story from smaller, contained pieces. While it’s tempting to think serialized episodes can start and stop wherever we want, a nonchalant approach to each episode’s story will leave the audience underwhelmed.
Even if the overall story works as a bingeable whole, the individual episodes will fail to keep an audience engaged. Giving each episode a distinct arc helps ensure that viewership remains at the highest level possible from pilot to series finale.
Alternatively, if the story is not serialized, each episode must stand with a unique story of its own. The adaptation of the feature documentary Catfish into Catfish: The TV Show exemplifies this approach.
The original documentary follows one young man’s compelling descent into a deceptive online relationship. Knowing that this single subject would not be enough to sustain a potential docuseries, the filmmakers chose to reformat the TV show by exploring a different instance of “catfishing” in each episode.
Perfectly timed with the normalization of online dating apps, the resulting docuseries was met with a virtually endless supply of subjects. As of 2023, Catfish: The TV Show has been airing regularly for more than a decade.
Feature length documentaries have to be tight, focused on building the central story at all times. Docuseries, however, give filmmakers room to stretch out. They have time to follow side characters and tangential storylines. Therefore, figuring out how to make a docuseries from your documentary feature could depend on your ability to find new story threads within your own research.
To illustrate, let’s take a look at Tiger King.
We won’t get into spoilers, but Tiger King is an unusual true crime docuseries that is absolutely packed with twists and turns.
The first season spans seven episodes, each of which sends the audience spiraling deeper into the world of its subjects.
While their initial project was focused on the venomous snake trade, the pair pivoted after an intriguing brush with the big cat community. Their following investigation dredged up a colorful cast of characters and plotlines. Perfect fodder for the episodic structure of a docuseries.
Cliffhangers are anathema to traditional documentary films, but they’re the lifeblood of a successful serialized docuseries. When figuring out how to make a docuseries from your documentary feature, you need to end each episode in a way that makes watching the next irresistible.
In docuseries, cliffhangers are usually associated with the twisting, turning, life-or-death stakes of the true crime genre. For our purposes, however, it might be more useful to examine a less extreme example. How do you write a docuseries that utilizes cliffhangers without dramatic tools like mystery or traditional suspense?
By the time a new season of Drive to Survive airs, the F1 racing season has long concluded. There is no longer any mystery about races, drivers, or teams. How do you craft cliffhangers from foregone conclusions? What is a docuseries when we already know the outcome?
To craft cliffhangers in the absence of true mystery, the team behind Drive to Survive cleverly designs the final moments of each episode to raise questions or increase stakes. They might, for instance, highlight that a driver’s professional future hangs in the balance or imply that a particular team is now under increased pressure to win.
These threads may or may not be picked up again in later episodes, but that’s not the point. The goal is to keep the audience gripped from episode to episode. Formula 1: Drive to Survive has enjoyed massive success because these small moments create an intense need in the viewer to see what happens next.
Cliffhangers are also an important element in your docuseries overall structure. They’re critical for figuring out how to make a docuseries that builds to an exciting climax and satisfying conclusion.
Again, we won’t get into spoilers, but The Jinx offers an incredible illustration of this simple effect. Each episode of the series delivers a jaw-dropping revelation or tantalizing mystery.
By the time you reach the final episode, you’re on the edge of your seat. It’s impossible to believe that the climax could possibly top everything that’s come before.
…Until it does.
While it has little to do with story structure, a strong visual identity can help you figure out how to make a docuseries cohesive. If the tone or even the subject of your story shifts across multiple episodes, a common visual language will unify the individual chapters into a single experience.
The relationship between the Chef’s Table docuseries and Jiro Dreams of Sushi, its feature-length predecessor, demonstrates the power of visual language.. Their shared aesthetic is so powerful that it changed the film industry’s approach to food journalism.
At the time of its release, the visual language of Jiro Dreams of Sushi was unique among documentaries. The movie borrows techniques from feature and commercial filmmaking, imbuing the reality on screen with an undeniably cinematic glory.
Director David Gelb applied the same innovations to his subsequent docuseries, Chef’s Table. Each episode of Chef’s Table profiles a different master chef, but the show’s aesthetic approach binds them together as a single work.
The innovation proved widely popular, sparking a massive expansion of the audience for food documentaries and spawning countless imitators. Today, it’s difficult to find a food docuseries that doesn’t mimic Gelb’s cinematic approach to fine dining.
The success of Chef’s Table and Jiro Dreams of Sushi should encourage filmmakers to test the perceived limits of their genre. When figuring out how to make a docuseries, no aesthetic approach is inherently off the table.
In purely visual terms, what is a docuseries? Ultimately, it’s just another form of television. As filmmakers continue to push the aesthetic boundaries of TV, there’s no reason that your docuseries can’t explore the emerging frontier.
The docuseries vs documentary conversation is as wide open and wildly subjective as reality itself. At the end of the day, what is a docuseries if not whatever you can imagine?
Using the steps above, however, will help you hone in on what makes your docuseries special, whether it’s an original concept or one adapted from a documentary film. You can leverage that knowledge to optimize other critical tasks, like funding your docuseries or choosing what format your documentary narrative should have.
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