Starting production on your first documentary can be an exciting — and scary — moment.
On a couple occasions this summer I asked Twitter followers about their favorite or most memorable advice to new documentary makers. This post rounds up some of those responses.
Seriously, start. Do something, anything. Conduct some background research, find someone to interview, consider the audience you want to reach, conduct that interview, film a tree for B-roll. Either way, seriously, just start.
2. Avoid perfectionism.
A completed documentary is better than a perfect documentary, which is impossible anyway.
Throughout production, moments will happen that might be seen as obstacles — sound equipment glitches, pet or child interruptions, weather and flight delays, memory card erring, and so on and so on. Be careful in how you react to these incidents. Easier to roll with than to let the hiccups disrupt your entire production.
Sometimes the disruptions offer even more interesting results.
In The Thin Blue Line a camera failed to work so a key interview with the killer occurred only on audio. The director showed an audio recorder playing with the conversation, giving the conversation — and the confession — more weight than the visual might have.
3. Use the tools that you have.
A strong temptation exists to wait until you have just the right piece of equipment before starting. Equipment manufacturers know and take advantage of this with regular new releases and updates to their products.
Use the equipment you have. If you have a smart phone, you have everything you need to make a short documentary. If you have some cash, invest in a basic kit you can afford now but maybe can upgrade later. Consider buying used. Consider renting.
Arowe Films is more direct in their advice on gear:
go shoot and stop buying shit…. handing you a Red or an arri will not make you better and if you do not understand the basics you may still have a crap video quality…and no matter what a targeted ad says there is no such thing as the film look its clickbait…
— Arowe Films (@AroweFilms) August 4, 2020
4. Embrace mistakes.
No matter how careful you are, know that mistakes will happen. Mistakes are just lessons in learning. Emily Carrolls builds on this point:
Not every screw up is a mistake. Sometimes it’s an opportunity. https://t.co/P2VgQtHmvr
— Emily Carroll (@ecarroll01) May 5, 2020
5. Learn how to handle advice.
Everyone, qualified or not, will offer you advice about your topic, your angle, your interviewing, your production style, and more. Learn how to take advice with grace.
Sarah Rachael Wainio explains this one best:
Many people will give you advice. Many will be right. You can can listen to all of them, but don’t incorporate all of the feedback.
Remember to listen to others. Remember to listen to yourself.
— Sarah Rachael (@SarahRachael) August 5, 2020
6. Hone your pitch.
A pitch is a short description of your work that draws people into your project. It should be short — one sentence, maybe two. Think of the time it takes an elevator to go from one floor to another. That’s how long you have, perhaps even less.
Pitches help with generating coverage in the media and in blogs. POV Magazine offered another reason for having a pitch:
Pitch your projects to outlets for coverage during festival season and/or release! (cough, cough.) https://t.co/KA3Xy4jbyg
— Point of View (@POVmagazine) August 4, 2020
7. Process, not procedure.
Documentary production is a process, not a procedure. A production never will follow an exact, prescribed order with discrete steps. And makers often have their own preferences on how to proceed.
Take, for example, interviews. Some makers prefer to enage in a preinterview with the participant, reviewing questions and other concerns beforehand. Other makers prefer to engage the participant during the interview only because it appears more spontaneous and feels more natural. Still other makers claim that the approach really depends on the participants.
Adam Benzine bypasses preinterviews:
No, definitely not. You don’t want to lose the energy of having them organically answer the first time. If you pre-interview, then the on-camera interview will be a more polished/staged version of them answering the Qs you asked beforehand.
— Adam Benzine (@adambenzine) June 2, 2020
Nick Geidner finds value in preinterviews:
Yes. Extensive pre-interviews. Both for background info on issue/topic/space/community and to understand a character.
— Nick Geidner (@ngeidner) June 2, 2020
For another example, what might make sense during production might make less sense during post-production. Double Door Inn 43 explains further:
Flexibility. We had a terrific narrator lined up, but found that the story told itself better & more organically via on-on-one interviews.
— Double Door Inn 43 (@DoubleDoorDoc) May 5, 2020
8. Consider the time investment.
Documentary production takes time. Some productions take more than a decade to complete. Filming on 17 Blocks started in 1999, and the film was released in 2019.
Insert Coin director Josh Tsui offers this perspective:
Don’t be surprised if it takes you 5 years
— Joshua Tsui (@JoshYTsui) May 5, 2020
9. Be on time.
People agreeing to appear in your documentary are offering you their time in addition to their voice. Honor that by conducting proper communication and respecting their time.
10. Ignore the doubts.
Documentary making is hard work. It takes time, perseverence, and guts to stay on what might be a rather rocky and winding road.
At times, doubts might creep in: Should I be doing this? Am I wasting people’s time? Is this story even worth telling?
Ignore the doubts. You got this.
Listen to your crew, listen to your participants, and listen to your gut. While documentary-making involves a lot of talking, it also should involve even more listening.