February 8

How to Make a Beautiful Documentary With The iPhone 11: Step by Step

When it came out, the video quality on the iPhone 11 caught everyone’s attention. People were making breathtaking videos with nothing but the built-in camera. So I decided to learn how to make a documentary with the iPhone 11.


how to make a documentary
Photo Credit: Jakob Owens

I applied to the MBA programs at USC, NYU, and Columbia because I wanted to work in the entertainment industry, but they all turned me down. Within a few months of starting my MBA program at Pepperdine, I realized that no one was hiring MBAs to do creative work in the movie industry. So I gave up that dream.


The rise of social media, smartphones, and Web 2.0 technology has disrupted all aspects of media and entertainment over the past 10 years:

  • Authors can write books without publishers
  • Broadcasters can start broadcasts without a radio station
  • Anyone start making a documentary with nothing but their phone

As Naval Ravikant says, all new forms of influence are permissionless. The creative power that was once only in the hands of big companies is now in the hands of the individual who wants to make an idea happen.

When I finished writing an Audience of One, I didn’t have a contract for a third book, so I needed a creative project. First, I worked on a book proposal that went nowhere.

After writing two books, I realized that it might be time to explore another medium for creative expression: making a documentary

A Portfolio of Meaning

assorted-color wooden frames
Photo Credit: Jessica Ruscello

If we make one thing, be it a job, a creative project, or a romantic partner, our primary source of meaning and joy, we set ourselves up for disappointment. We need a portfolio of meaning that allows us to diversify our sources of fulfillment.

The geography of a creative life is complicated. In the beautiful words of Elle Luna: Nothing is guaranteed and everything is possible.

With every piece of creative work, you plant a seed. You do not know whether it will bear fruit or lead to nothing.

  • A blog post could lead to a book deal, but you might have to write 1,000 before it happens.
  • A single episode of a podcast could capture the attention of a person who changes your life.

Although I was writing a book called An Audience, shortly after publication I was addicted to performance. I was obsessed with reaching millions of people. Ironically, I had lost sight of the value of creativity for its own sake, so I decided to learn how to make a documentary.


Imagination Has No Budget – AR Rahman

A few years ago, making a documentary would have cost thousands of dollars for lighting, cameras, and audio equipment. But, today we can do much more with less.


No one is short of ideas; they simply lack the discipline to capture them, and if you don’t capture your ideas, you will never capitalize on them.

My goal was simple: I wanted to make an  iPhone documentary that was 10 minutes long about a subject I found interesting. My documentary ideas for  surfing and snowboarding were a bit too ambitious for a first film.

I spent the whole of December at my parents’ house. And that meant one thing above all: lots of food. Indian food is colorful, has great stories, and no shortage of characters. After watching an  iPhone documentary about food,I realized it was the perfect topic for getting started with iPhone filmmaking.

But food was still too broad of a concept. I had to narrow it down. So I decided to get help.

How To Make A Documentary

Seth Godin once said that the Internet is a fountain of knowledge. The Internet can give you an education that kicks the crap out of the crap you got in school.

So I knew there had to be an online course about  how to make a documentary and get started with iPhone filmmaking


Ken Burns “documentary film course was full of practical wisdom and insights. I watched a lecture every day and took notes on what I could apply to my film.

  • Thanks to the master class, I was able to find out what makes my story unique: the women in my family cook with zero recipes, and none of them learned to cook from their mothers.
  • It was also full of practical advice such as the power of using still images and voiceovers.

$99 to learn how to make a documentary from a true master of the craft was money well spent.

2. How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck

My literary agent recommended a book with this title. It taught me how important it is to shoot from different angles, limit special effects, and to avoid unusual cuts between scenes. People have said the book is like two years of film school on 200 pages.

I never went to film school. But if you want to learn how to make a documentary or shoot any kind of video, this book is an invaluable resource.

3. Practice Shooting Footage

That was perhaps the most useful thing I did. Most of the family members in my documentary only arrived a few days before Christmas. But shooting as much footage as possible taught me a lot about how to use the camera on my phone.

Getting Footage for Your iPhone Documentary

Writing taught me one thing: the more material you have to work with, the better.

1. The Shot List

After I read How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck, I made a list of shots I want to get. I needed as much footage as possible of the women in my family cooking. Every time my mom was in the kitchen, I put up a tripod and pressed record.

2. Interviews

Given that I have been hosting a podcast for 10 years, I knew that this would be the meat of my story. Even if it wasn’t scripted per se, I asked everyone a few questions.

  • What is your name and how are we related just to warm up _
  • Describe your mother’s kitchen in three words, then in detail
  • How did you learn to cook?
  • Do you use recipes?
  • Describe one of our family reunions

So I had all the soundbites I needed.

3. iPhone Filmmaking Equipment / SOFTWARE

With the iPhone 11, I had my camera covered, but I had to buy something for sound and light from Amazon that I had bought:

  • Lighting set $50
  • Shure MV8 microphone for sound $100
  • Filmora for editing $45
  • Monthly subscriptions for and Epidemic Sound  and Storyblocks

The total budget for this was $225.00. But since I don’t have to buy any more equipment, you could say that I could have done it on a budget of less than $100.

4. Editing/Post-Production

The cut is the place where the true magic of filmmaking takes place, bridging the gap between imagination and reality.

Identify the Magic Moments

Working on the Unmistakable Creative Podcast taught me to identify what NPR calls “one-way moments,” and each of my family members said something or other that qualified as one. Once I identified those moments, I had to figure out where they fit into my script.

The Arch and Narrative

A captivating story has a linear arch and narrative. One of the easiest ways to give a story that arc is with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. This helps you find the message you want to convey with your documentary.


You may have wondered how films get to this cinematic look/filter, and the secret is something called color luts. I tried different color luts in each scene, and it didn’t work. Then, one night, I switched off the sound, and I realized that I had to use the same color filters in each scene.

Music, and Voiceovers

Thanks to my experience from the podcast, the voice-overs were direct. Music creates emotions. Think of your favorite scenes. Without the music, this speech below from the film Meet Joe Black would not have the sample effect.

A Return to Creativity for Its Own Sake

Technology has enabled us to be more creative than ever, but if we use it to consume more than we use to create, we become their slave rather than their master.

Unfortunately, the birth of the influencer led to the death of hobbies. This was the first time in almost a decade that one of my creative projects was just for fun. Sure, I’ll share it with my audience, but I didn’t do it for them, I did it for myself, and it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in a long time.


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