How to make a cheap serial killer documentary

Ed Williamson

13th October 2011

The ideal recipe for a decent hour's viewing: you channel-flick a while and chance upon a documentary about a serial killer. It's cheap, it's schlocky, but it'll pass the time before the Television X free preview kicks in.

But what if you don't want to leave it to chance? Why not make your own cheap serial killer documentary, sell it to Channel 5 and watch it whenever you like?

Don't expect to do it alone though: you're going to need expert advice. This handy guide should have your documentary finished and gracing the Biography Channel by ... ooh, Tuesday?


Reconstructions are key to achieving the right tone. Remember the importance of saving money when hiring actors: they won't have to speak; just convey emotions like shock, surprise and bloodlust with their actions and facial expressions, which is really easy to do convincingly, so the cheapest ones you can find will do.

If you can get Egon Spengler off Ghostbusters in for some on-camera analysis too, so much the better.

How much violence are you going to show? Remember that your audience wants to see as much as possible, whether they admit it or not, but you're probably looking at a 9pm airtime on Channel 5 so you can't go nuts. Bits will have to be implied.

If there's a body being dragged off camera and it's a bit too slow just speed up the film towards the end; no one will notice.
Psychologists: a little qualification goes a long way

Psychologists are key: they lend verisimilitude. How else can this be qualified as serious investigative journalism? You'll need at least two for variety's sake, but don't forget: nobody wants an over-qualified doctor. Hell, they don't even have to be a doctor. Anyone who sounds middlingly intelligent, has read the entire Wikipedia entry on the case and has a half-baked opinion on it will do just fine.

Get this guy: we want to meet him.
Fill the screen with something, anything

The overwhelming likelihood is that you will have very little footage. There is a good reason for this: murderers are as a rule fairly secretive, and tend not to appear on camera all that much. You might have the odd five-second clip of them being led from a police station into a van, or maybe stating their name in court, but in general you need more stuff on screen while your talking heads talk, so you're going to have to get creative.

This is where you throw in your B-level footage. The arresting officer making a statement for the press. The still image of the smiling victim in happier times. A zoom-in on some press cuttings. The lead detective, now older, walking alone in a field (or by a river if victims were found in one), looking into the distance and thinking.

By now you've probably filled it about halfway. Now you're looking at raiding the stock footage cupboard. Use anything even remotely connected to the case. It can illustrate what the narrator/current talking head is saying a little bit, or hardly at all. Just get the screen filled.

The eye-zoom trick

Wherever possible, show a still image of the killer's face and slowly zoom in on the eyes. This will serve to emphasise how evil he is. If desired, include some sinister-sounding music - you know, like the kind they played in Pearl Harbor whenever there was a Japanese guy on screen.

If you've got a few different mugshots, even police artists' impressions, throw them in all in somewhere. Remember: you're going to be doing this a lot, so variety is key.

You can even spin the image around slowly if you want to mix it up a little.
Use every effect Windows Movie Maker's got to offer

You're trying to create a certain atmosphere here, and whatever editing tools you have at your disposal, put them to good use. A favourite for creating an unsettling mood is to suddenly turn the image into a negative.

Gives you the willies, doesn't it?
Childhood trauma explains everything

Never forget that you are dealing in absolutes. Good and evil; no shades of grey. You have psychologists doing their rent-a-gob thing on camera, sure, but don't let them dig too deep: one good childhood trauma is enough to explain away the whole thing. Any more complexity and you risk muddying the waters.

The guy in the red shirt's credentials for his psychological profile are "journalist".
You are now fully prepared. All you need is some video editing software on 30-day trial, the phone number of someone at Channel 5 and, ideally, a series of brutal murders to occur and the perpetrator caught. It would of course be wrong of us to encourage you to commit them yourself in order to speed the process along.

But you should definitely do that.

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