Over the years the equipment necessary to produce a high quality film has gradually decreased in price, yet much of it is still too expensive to be of service to the average person. While an independent filmmaker may not be able to afford the best stuff on the market, there are some techniques for getting a professional result from as little as no money at all.
The basic elements to a documentary production are concept, talent, and equipment. By concept we mean the idea for the film, which you will want to plan out in general and probably even come up with some sort of expected script or outline. This step is the easiest to do for free. All you need is your mind and maybe some paper to write things down.
With that settled, what about the issue of talent? For a documentary, this would mean the people filming and the people being filmed. First let's talk about the people doing the filming.
Documentaries can be filmed solo, and in this case you obviously wouldn't have to be paying anyone. But if you need some help there is a good chance of getting it free of cost as well. Many people just starting out in the film industry are willing to work in exchange for the experience, credit, and relationships. All of this you can provide your workers for free.
In this case you will want to make sure that you treat the people working with you as professionals. Take your project seriously and work to produce a good film and the people you work with will feel like their time is being well spent, and you will give yourself a good chance at developing relationships that could benefit you in the future.
With that settled, let's talk about the subject, or subjects, that you will actually be filming. For a low budget film, there is really no reason to pay anyone appearing on screen. Being in a film can provide valuable exposure for people, so find a way to sell that to them. For example, if you want to document an interesting restaurant, point out that it will basically be a commercial for them.
And if you are documenting a protestor or activist, point out that the exposure will help legitimize and spread their cause. You are not ripping them off or manipulating them. You are providing value in exchange for their time.
So far we have a crew and a subject and have not spent any money, but here is the hard part. Getting the equipment to actually make your documentary could cost you a lot, but if you are willing to get creative, you can pull it off for free.
The first big issue is of course cameras. One of the best ways to get a nice camera for free is to borrow one from a friend or someone working with you. If this is not possible, try borrowing someone's point and shoot camera. These common devices owned by nearly everyone have improved so much recently that you can get some great results on them if you limit what types of shots you want to include. Find out what the camera can do well and just stick to that.
The same principle applies to any other type of equipment needed. Look to borrow or use the equipment of people you bring on to work with you. You are the director and producer. You have provided the concept, inspiration, and organization, so it's not like you are freeloading by using other people's technology.
All that remains is post-production. Fortunately this is another easy step to do for free. Once again, look to borrow someone else's computer if they have editing software and all of that already set up. If not, as long as you have a computer there are plenty of open source video editing programs you can use. Most new laptops will come with some type of free editing software, so this should be no problem.
Even professional music for your film can be had at no cost. Many composers just starting out will score your film for the experience and credit, but if you don't have time for that, there are sites online that offer free production music of various types. You might even know some musicians that would be willing to donate their music to your project in return for the exposure. It's all about coming up with ways your film can benefit other people.
Documentary filmmaking can be very cheap by nature if you have the right approach, so if you are an aspiring documentarian, there is no excuse not to get started on your career.