Non-profit organizations are increasingly collaborating with documentary filmmakers to produce films that communicate their visions, reveal the heart behind their services, and demonstrate the impact they have on their communities.  Films connect people quickly and emotionally to an organization’s human stories in ways that make them want to become involved.

To give you an idea of what is involved in making a film, we’ve outlined the filmmaking process in four categories – Audience, Content, Budget, and Schedule – and its in this order that we normally begin thinking about a new project.  We will use our film for McLean’s Hospital, April’s Story, for our case study.

April’s Story • Produced by Trillium Studios Film for the 2018 McLean Hospital gala.


Who are the audiences for your film?  •  Where and how will they see the film?  •  What message do you want to convey to them?  •  What do you want them to do?

Determining the audience and messaging for your film project are the most important first steps. Non-profits audiences usually include donors, service recipients, the general public, other organizations that could promote your services, and the press. Each audience may need subtly different information about your organization. For example, your film may focus its message for an audience at a fundraising event or touch upon the needs of several audiences when you use it on your website. Working out your film’s message and pairing it down to something an audience can grasp quickly in a short film is critical.  

McLean Hospital holds an annual gala event for their major donors and friends of the organization to thank them for their support and to promote new initiatives. As part of the program, they show two short films that are carefully timed to fit the flow of the presentations. Their intention is to quickly demonstrate all that this McLean program does and showcase how their donors allow their team to help patients and their families in crisis.They hope the films will invigorate their supporters commitment to the Hospital’s mission. After the event, these films are embedded into the hospital’s website, posted on social media and shared with other organizations with similar goals.



What is the “story arc?”  •  Who are the characters who will tell the story?  •  Can you gain access to the people and places we will need to film?

How long should the film be? • What should the film look/feel/sound like?

Let’s apply the information we learned about the Audience above to April’s Story.

McLean’s gala audience is made up of existing donors and others who may already know about the great work that McLean is doing. Seeing the films provides them the opportunity to hear emotional, first-person accounts of how that work has greatly benefited individual patients. Our goal when working on a McLean film is to allow the main character to tell their own story of illness and recovery. We touch on the important aspects of a treatment or program as needed to advance the narrative and allow anecdotal storytelling to provide the immediacy and emotional impact that film does best.

The characters in the film need to be compelling and open to sharing their experiences. April was selected by the staff of McLean because they saw in her someone who had not only made a remarkable recovery, but also was eager to tell her story and help others.  Her mother, Joanna, was also willing to give a family member’s perspective on the experience. Kirsten Bolton, April’s therapist, was able to give the audience a professional view of the severity of April’s illness and the specifics of treatment. In the film, she becomes a spokesperson for McLean Hospital. April, Joanne, and Kirsten’s willingness to be part of the project was essential. Without that access, making a film about April would be nearly impossible. We worked with her to be sure she was comfortable with what pieces of her story we were sharing and the methods we used to do so.

The duration for April’s Story—about 4.5 minutes—was the time allotted in the gala schedule. This is might be too long if the film’s primary intended use had been the internet, but it was a good length for punctuating an event where there would be multiple speakers.  After screening a film at this kind of event, we often cut a shorter version specifically for web use.

Although the details of every McLean Hospital film do vary significantly, there are certain recurring elements that have worked well for telling their compelling stories: get close to the main character, experience their crisis, and understand how McLean helped. We use on-camera interviews with the patient, the patient’s family, and their doctors; incorporate patient family photographs and video when they exist; create scenes that help the audience understand the nature and severity of illness and how life for the patient has changed as a result of treatment; and select music that carries the story forward without taking over.



How complex is the story?  •  What music, stills, or video will need to be licensed?

Our short non-profit films can vary greatly in price, ranging from $10,000 to $65,000.  Cost is determined by the complexity of the story and production needs—not by film length. Compare, for example, April’s Story and Arts at MIT. The latter runs only one-minute but required significant production time to film at many locations and to create the special effects. In the end, these two projects had nearly the same budget.  

To get a sense of how complex a project will be, we ask these questions: How many characters will we interview and at how many locations? Will you need our assistance in the selection and vetting of characters? How much travel will be necessary? What scenes do we need to film in order to visualize what is is being said in interviews? What interviews and scenes can we film at the same location and on the same day? Will we need any specialized equipment?  How much archival material do we need to research, scan, and license? What music will we need and how much? How many people at your organization will need to review the film and suggest changes? How will this film fit in your overall marketing and budgeting strategy? The answers to these questions will determine how much time is needed for pre-production, production, and post-production, and help determine cost.

We like to be involved in the development of a new film as early as possible, but it is more cost effective for a client to recruit and vet their characters themselves. For April’s Story, we began the filmmaking process after McLean had approached April about being in a film and she had agreed to participate. We followed up by talking with April, her mom, and her therapist to be sure they understood what would be involved in the filmmaking process.

Licensing archival images and footage can be a big consideration for budget. A project that will rely heavily on materials owned by a museum or stock house will need extra time for locating and properly licensing these and to make sure there are not any restrictions on how they may be used—a complex process. The still images in April’s Story were owned by her family and licensing was not an issue.  

Music, too, will need to be licensed or created. Existing production music cues from a stock house will typically cost between $35 to $450 for each cue, depending on the use. For April’s Story, we used two cues from Figure and Groove, licensed specifically for McLean’s gala and web use.

We often talk with clients about ways in which a film and its footage can be used as an evergreen archive throughout an organization’s communications platform and be part of a larger media library. When including this in the early planning process, we can often stretch existing budgets to capture additional footage that can later be re-purposed for social media, newsletter content, donor communications, and other films about the program’s services. In this way, Helping Hands Monkey Helpers worked with us to utilize extra footage from their gala films to create the Monkeys in a Minute series.



How much lead time does a film need?  •  What work needs to be done during pre-production, production, and post-production?  •  Who needs to review the film before release?

We like to be involved in a film project as early as possible. This could begin as much as a year before the planned deadline, when discussions and development have just begun. At that point, we provide advice about how an organization can use a film and how to begin gathering the pieces that will become the structure of the story. For a client that is farther along in the process, we can begin pre-production much closer to the deadline. For April’s Story, because we’ve had a long-standing relationship with the organization, we only asked that McLean provide us with their characters two and a half months before the early June deadline.

Pre-production for April’s Story began as soon as April had agreed to participate. For the first few days, we learned as much as we could about her story by talking with her, Joanna, and Kirsten by phone, and by researching this type of illness and the treatment program at McLean. From these early conversations, we started to build the arc of a film: how April’s illness began in college; her experiences with mania and psychosis; her recovery at McLean; and the kinds of things she is doing now. We then began scheduling times for on-camera interviews and working out where to film them. We try to solve as many logistics issues as we can during pre-production so that there are few surprises once we have arrive on site with a truck-load of gear.

Every project’s production requirements are different. Some films, relying on existing or archival footage, may not require any new filming at all.  For April’s Story, the schedule looked like this:

  • Day 1 - Interview April and Joanne
  • Day 2 - Film scenes of April at home, with friends, and driving
  • Day 3 - Interview Kirsten and film scene with her and April in office
  • Day 4 - Film April at DBSA

Scattered amongst these full days were partial shooting days to film shots that did not require April. All of the characters involved had normal work schedules, so we had to find time on weekends and free days. It took just over three weeks to complete all the necessary filming.

Post-production begins as soon as the major pieces of production are complete. Every interview is transcribed and anything new learned that may add to the film’s arc is incorporated into the production schedule. For example, in April’s interview, she dramatically described the feeling of driving too fast and how she felt, “high on [her] own brain”. We wanted to visualize this part of her story with some sped-up footage shot through the windshield of a car. We incorporated that into our second filming day with her.

Video editing on April’s Story started one month before the deadline. We assembled the major storyline of the film with interview quotes from each character, an initial selection of music, and placeholders for any missing pieces.  We felt comfortable at this point sharing the film with McLean to get early feedback on the direction we were taking with the film. With their comments, we continued making adjustments and improving the film. When McLean had seen it a second time and was happy with the edit, we shared the film with April, Joanne, and Kirsten to make sure we were telling their story accurately. We did our best to accommodate their few final changes.  About a week before the deadline, we received a sign-off from the president of McLean and began the final steps of finishing the film: optimizing color and sound, licensing music, and finalizing titles. For their venue, McLean asked only for digital files to play back on a computer.

The whole process, from when we received the contact information for the characters’ in both films to the day we delivered the files for McLean’s gala, took fifty-four days.

We hope this guide has given you an initial glimpse into what it takes to make a short documentary film and given a new perspective on how to think about characters, content, and schedule. Please free to contact us at if you have any questions not answered here or just want to know more about the process!