11 Lessons from Taking Two Documentary Production Courses

During 2020, I had the opportunity to take multiple online courses thanks nimble film organizations hustling to make their courses available and to Zoom. I took two courses related to documentary production: Short Documentary Production with Thalia Drori Ramirez through Film North and DIY Documentary Mobile with Kia Anne Geraths through Northwest Documentary. The following post offers 11 lessons from these two classes.

1. Be prepared to talk.

The teaching of documentary production involves a lot of talking. People talk about their idea and its gestation, their intentions and executions, and their production and its challenges. People talk about their suggestions for revisions on your and others’ films. People talk about films they are familiar with and how those films connect with what we see in a student’s short film. And sometimes they just talk about whatever your film reminds them of. Instructors remain cat herders in even the most focused of production classes.

2. Listen to learn, not to respond.

As much as people talk in a documentary production course, they also must make an effort to listen. The point in listening is not to respond, necessarily, but to learn about what others are doing and to see how that might influence your own production.

3. Start where you are.

Both of these classes involved remote learning opportunities. In one class people joined from multiple time zones. We all were encouraged to start telling the stories closest to us, either through our own personal connections or through geographical proximity. One person’s documentary included shots of his neighborhood from his apartment window, and some of those shots even showed him walking down those sidewalks in contemplation. Others included parks, friends’ homes, their own homes, backyards, and many more in their films.

4. Use the equipment you have.

This point appears in several posts throughout this site. Start with the equipment you have, and avoid waiting for just the right camera or microphone before starting filming. And equipment need not be audio-visual. A personal computer or tablet might be useful in creating animation or editing archival materials. One person animated archival materials, using century-old newspaper stories to inspire animated sequences of the events.

5. Filmmaking elicits many metaphors.

Travel metaphors dominated the comparisons with a road, a journey, and a trip. Another comparison called filmmaking a form of problem-solving. The point with all the metaphors is that filmmaking is a process and that it requires flexibility to complete successfully.

6. Scripts are your friend.

For a documentary script, use a two-column format with video on the left and audio on the right. Alternate the rows between white and light gray.

These scripts serve as a way to edit on paper. They bring your ideas and footage into one place. They also make it very easy to see what visuals or audio are missing.

7. Just cut.

Just use the basic cut when editing scenes. Leave the fancy wipes and masks to the Star Wars franchise.

8. Use the rule of thirds.

This basic photography rule divides the rectangle into nine equal sections. Place your interview participants, particularly their eyes, at those upper intersection points.

9. Separate sound from image.

The synchronous sound accompanying situational or interview footage need not remain connected to those visuals. In other words, sound can be separated from its original image and used elsewhere, such as in a voiceover.

10. PLAN.

Preproduction involves extensive planning, even for a short. Use lists to guide you, such as lists of interview participants, equipment, and locations. Lists might include sublists. With location, for example, consider access, key people, weather, permissions, and limitations.

11. Interviewing is a complex negotiation.

Interviews generally involve more intervention on the director’s part than viewers may realize. Coach your participants as needed, such as asking or reminding them to use complete sentences in their answers. You may need to interrupt participants and ask them to repeat statements from time to time. Help them relax a bit before starting by asking them what they had for breakfast, and use open-ended questions to encourage them to open up more. Also encourage them with compliments throughout the interview.

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