Last week I ran a fairly extensive Google search for films about how to make documentary films. Guess what? The market isn’t exactly crowded. In fact, I could only find this one, Documentary Filmaking: Tips from the Trenches, a 2008 educational film made by Brooke Barnett and Katrina Taylor. So I oredered a copy off Amazon, where it retails for $30 and, sat down to watch it after breakfast this morning.
The film is almost entirely a series of interviews with 30 documentary directors, most relatively obscure ones, but I was thrilled to find a few legends like DA Pennebaker, Marshall Curry and Ross McElwee. To call it a low-budget production would be an understatement – most of the scenes appear hastily lit, and shot on low-quality video with occassionally distracting backgrounds. But I give Katrina Taylor and Brooke Barnett major props for making this film, which I would recommend to anyone looking to deepen their understanding of the documentary form.
The film structures the interviews into 6 sections:
- Shooting & Editing
- Legal Issues
- Financial & Distribution
The film starts out with what to me is a tedious question: what is a documentary film? Luckily more than one director agreed with me and said as much in the film, and we soon get past that into the good stuff. Marshall Curry explains how he taught himself how to make documentary films by watching his favorite films over and over again, breaking them down scene by scene, writing down how long each scene in the film lasted, and recording the role it played in the film. If this sounds like hard work, it is. That’s why most people don’t do it. And why most people don’t have their first film nominated for an Oscar, as Curry’s was.
You should be able to describe your film in one sentence – if you can do that, you may have an interesting story, said one director interviewed in the film. DA Pennebaker stressed the importance of frequent practice: If you were a painter, you’d be painting every day. You’re a filmmaker, so you should be shooting every day. That’s how you improve.
On how to find a good story, Curry put it this way: “If you point a camera at people who are interesting, you’re going to have an interesting film.” And look for stories that have a narrative arc – that makes it easier.
BBC has two rules about stories they tell: Any project they undertake must:
- Educate (optional)
But if it doesn’t entertain, it does the opposite, and you never get the chance to educate. Many filmmakers agreed that it’s better to “uncover” a story than it is to script it. The story section concludes with one great piece of advice: Commit. It’s tempting to try and cover everything about a story, but you’re better off covering one person deeply. When you come to a filmmaking fork in the road, take it.
Shooting and Editing
Tip: Don’t use zoom – get close instead. Too many shots live in the “dead zone” of middle focal length, said one filmmaker. It’s better to be either wide or tigh. Also, and this is advice I got from Zach Levy at his workshop last week, HOLD your shots for a 10 count after you think they’re done. If it’s dangerous or exciting, use a 20 count (because you’ll be counting faster than normal).
Focus on what you have, rather than what you don’t have. It’s important to use the technology you have fully. Play to the strengths of the equipment you’re working with. It can be a good thing rather than a limitation – and good filmmakers see it this way. One example provided is the film Tarnation, made over a 20 year period entirely with consumer grade equipment.
Remember to get stock shots of your subjects in various moods, without them talking – just sitting and looking pensive, or happy, or whatever. You will need these in the edit.
Tip: To improve your filmmaking skills, watch your favorite films with the sound turned OFF. This takes you out of the story, so that you can fully concentrate on what’s happening with the cinematography, editing, etc. And it’s a reminder that your doc will only be as good as the sound you get to go with it.
A lot of the directors in this film agreed that the role of editor is essentially of equal importance to role of director. Pennebaker suggested that you approach editing little by little, and the story will tell you where it wants to go. Curry agreed, saying that for him, editing is “months of trial and error” in which you try some things out, show them to people, and keep modifying until it works. McElwee stressed the importance of showing your film to test audience (of people who are not your friends or family), and asking them direct questions about what worked and what didn’t, as part of the editing process.
There was widespread agreement among directors that you should get releases when you can, but they also stressed that there’s lots of grey areas. One director said his rule of thumb is to obtain a release for anyone who speaks in the film, but not if they simply appear.
The concept of “Fair Use” was glanced on, without much clarity emerging on this foggy topic. Some directors said they wouldn’t use anything without it being “cleared” while others said it was fine to use news clips and other archival footage if they helped advance your story. For example, a song by a major artist might be fine to include if your subject is playing it on radio, but not if you use it to cut across multiple scenes as background music. Also you’re on firmer legal ground if you use only part of a news clip instead of the entire clip.
Trust is the currency of documentary filmmaking. As such, you have to earn it and build it, and you begin to obtain that by observing a simple rule: do what you say you will do. So if you say you’re going to be there filming on Sunday at 3pm, you be there. Also, important to let people know you’re rolling – tell them, “if I’m here and the camera’s out, assume it’s rolling.” One filmmaker stressed that you will also be renegotiating access throughout the story, and it’s important to keep the camera rolling especially in difficult situations, because you might not get a chance to come back to it later. You can decide what to leave in and out of the film in the editing room, but if you don’t record what’s happening, you don’t have the option. So get it.
Financial & Distribution
A large number of directors said they worked day jobs while making their films to support their filmmaking. You have to have another source of income, they said, to maintain your independence. Others said grants are possible but generally only after you’ve established a track record. One gave this quote by Ghandi: “Find a vision, and the means will follow.” They concluded with the advice that funding organizations will be much more comfortable if you can show that they are part of a group of other organizations that are also funding your project, rather than the only one. And I love this bit of advice: “I’m a small business owner first, and a filmmaker second.” The government certainly sees you this way, so it makes sense to remember that.
Everything is changing with regard to how films are distributed, most filmmakers agreed. Self-releasing is becoming a viable option. One filmmaker even pre-sold $12,000 of his DVDs before his film was released using the net. And the festival circuit is essential to build a pedigree for first-time filmmakers, McElwee said. On that, Slamdance is taking over the role that Sundance once held as a means of identifying truly indie films.