5 Things to Remember when Making a Documentary
I've compiled 5 tips I've gleaned from a composit of many filmmakers I've worked with over the years who illustrate alot of valuable lessons for Doc filmmakers out there.
People just start shooting
They start out vague: Is their film about following characters? Is it an essay about the current state of affairs? Is the director a character? or not? Most commonly, the first camera person starts shooting the director, including her in the story. But it's tiring and by the time they got the second camera person, there's no more footage of the director. In fact the natural consequence of started out vague is not having the footage you need of the people and events you need it of.
When they start editing they rush
Always on a too short deadline for a too soon festival, they booked countless hours in the edit room cobbling together cuts that ultimately didn't say what they wanted, and ultimately weren't programmed in the target festival. The real downfall of this is that the filmmakers don't get to know their footage - and didn't take the time to work out the full Story.
They Don't bring in people for feedback
Smart filmmakers can make all the other mistakes, but if they bring in people to watch their cuts, they will realize their issues and have the insight to solve their problems. If they don't share their cuts, they won't.
Here is one example: The filmmakers have teamed with a foundation that wants to fund them, but the foundation wants benchmarks to make sure the filmmakers are on track. The foundation's board is on the fence with supporting the film, but if the filmmakers can show a compelling story and a clear call to action they will get $80K for editing the film.
The only problem is the filmmakers have been granted (I'm using made up numbers here) in the range of $5000 to cut a first rough assembly. $5000 might be enough for something - BUT it's not enough to go through all the footage shot over 5 years, shoot for several days, digitize and log that, and edit a new version that really brings home the compelling story and a clear call to action in a way that can convince non film people (the board) of what they are seeing.
SO - now the team is essentially cutting a whole film to get the money to cut the film.
That is a rough situation that might have been avoidable.
What can we learn from these various filmmakers?
1) Get a plan before you start
I know this is not always possible - but it is never wasted effort to think things through and work according to a plan - even if the plan is to stick with someone and see what happens. But it never hurts to think about what you want to say, and shoot accordingly. Take the time to think about what you want to say!
2) Don't rush your cut/cut to festival deadlines.
Of course you can - and some of you will anyway, but it doesn't work. You need to cut the film THEN enter a festival. That's what works. It's cheaper too.
3) Get lots of feedback.
4) Try to make manageable benchmarks.
5) Collaborate with great people as early as possible in the process - and keep them around.
I've got a continuing workshop running on Tuesday's right now. It's a great cost effective way to get an outside collaborator's input on your film. Remember, it's still YOUR film!!!
Good luck and tell great stories!