Create beautiful lower thirds for documentaries with these helpful tips.

Professional design comes naturally for some people, but if you’re anything like me – you probably have to work a little bit harder to create great-looking lower thirds. In this post, let’s take a look at how to create engaging lower thirds for documentaries and discuss a few ways you can take your lower third designs to the next level.

Popular Types of Lower Thirds

When it comes to professional documentaries there are really 3 distinct styles that can be seen in 90% of modern docs: shapeless, simple, and stylized. Each lower third can be used to enhance your story, it’s your job as the editor to decide which style is best for your project. Let’s discuss the pros and cons of each distinct style:

1. Shapeless Lower Thirds

Shapeless Lower Third

  • Pros: Non-distracting, easy to edit
  • Cons: Can blend with background

Shapeless lower thirds are the most popular type of lower thirds in professional filmmaking. This is because a shapeless lower third is a non-distracting way to add information into your documentary. The key to a simple text-based lower third is picking the right font.

2. Simple Lower Thirds

Simple Shapes

  • Pros: add creative style, give life to a boring scene
  • Cons: Animated shapes can be distracting, shapes give off a lighthearted tone

If you’re looking for a quick way to add creative stylization to your project a simple lower thirds is the way to go. Shapes can give your project an extra level of professional sophistication. However, the trick is to simply think about the tone of the project you are trying to create. While a simple shape animation may be appropriate for a lighthearted documentary, it isn’t always the best choice for a serious-toned doc.

3. Stylized Lower Thirds

Custom Style

  • Pros: Customized look and feel, can greatly enhance your message
  • Cons: Can be distracting, takes extra time to stylize

The most involved way of going about creating lower thirds for your documentary is to create a custom design for your specific documentary. This can mean different things for different docs. For example, if you were working on a BMX documentary you might have a lower third with a grungy animated background or if you are working on a technology documentary you might have cool futuristic style text. It all just depends on your projects and personal preferences.

However, if you don’t have a lot of experience with design or motion graphics it’s usually best to just keep it simple. It can be easy to muck up your project with over-the-top lower thirds, but at the end of the day a lower third is just a tool to help tell your story, not distract from it.

Working with Text

When it comes down to creating your lower thirds picking the right font can’t be overstated. In a world of Bleeding Cowboys, it’s important to remember that simplicity is key. While there are a lot of popular fonts out there a few of my favorite fonts for lower thirds are:

For a documentary you will likely want to stick to sans-serif fonts only. You can find a great collection of sans-serif fonts on PremiumBeat.

After you’ve picked the right font it’s time to begin laying out your text in your frame. Instead of rambling on about how to do it, take a look at a few of the examples below. All of these examples use the Lato font.

One Line Layouts

Single Line Lower Third Simple

Single Line Lower Third Bold Second Word

Single Line Lower Third Bold Color Second Word

Single Line Lower Third Bold First Text

Single Line Lower Thirds First Text Colored

Single Line Lower Third Dual Color Bold

Two Line Layouts

This list is by no means comprehensive, but it does outline a few of the most popular ways to display two-lines of text.

Two Line Lower Thrid

Two Line Lower Third 2

Two Line Lower Third 3

Two Line Lower Third 4

Two Line Lower Third 5

Stylizing the Shapes

When it comes to adding in shapes into your lower third squares are the best shape to use. The text we read everyday already follows a very block like structure, so by using squares in your design you can play off of these already established design principles. Below you’ll find a few different ways to use squares across the exact same design layout.

The After Effects template, Label, here on Rocketstock is a great lower third that utilizes rectangles to frame the text.

Animating the Lower Thirds

While there are always exceptions to every rule in motion design, when it comes to lower thirds you typically want to keep your animations as simple as possible. The best tool to use when animating lower thirds is the graph editor in your motion graphics software of choice. By utilizing the graph editor you can smooth out your keyframes to create organic movements. This is key for making your animations look professional.

Animated Lower Third

For the timing of your animations you will typically want your entire lower third animation to take place over the course of 1-2 seconds. This will give your smoothed out animations time to come to rest without ‘popping’ up on screen.

Animated Lower Thirds 2

Tools for Creating Lower Thirds

There are a lot of different tools you can use to create lower thirds. Let’s take a look at a few of our favorites:

Adobe After Effects

The best tool to use for creating animated lower thirds is Adobe After Effects. Using the built-in tools and effects you can easily create 2D animated lower thirds with ease. Plus using Live Text Templates in Adobe Premiere Pro you can set up your After Effects lower thirds in such a way that you can edit the text in Premiere without ever needing to open up After Effects. Here’s a great tutorial on how to create live text templates for Premiere.

Apple Motion

Another great program to use to build lower thirds is Apple Motion. If you’re not already familiar with the program, Apple Motion is a reinvented version of After Effects that is a little more approachable for beginners. If you frequently use Final Cut Pro you should be able to start creating awesome animated lower thirds in no-time.

Any Editing Software

Simple Cross Dissolve

While animated lower thirds can be a great tool for taking your projects to the next level, it isn’t always neccesary to have moving shapes or text. For many documentarians having simple L3’s that dissolve in and out is totally sufficient. To create simple lower thirds like these you can simply use any traditional video editing software. Premiere Pro, FCPX, and Avid Media Composer are all great programs to use for quickly making professional lower thirds.

Lower Third Templates

The team here at Rocketstock has put together an amazing array of 2D lower thirds that are perfect for documentaries and video production work. Using the After Effects templates is easy. Simply edit the text and export the video. Here is a demo for Lyft one of our exclusive documentary lower thirds templates.

What is your favorite way to create lower thirds for documentaries? Share in the comments below.