What I’ve Learned: Launching Your Documentary Film Career & Tips from the Field

Written by Joshua Bell, director of In Between Songs.

I got into documentary film as I thought it would be an inexpensive way to get my feet wet with filmmaking. I read National Geographic magazine as a child, while Ron Fricke’s Baraka had made an indelible impression on me in college. Now nearly 15 years later, I know that despite the diversity of my professional film endeavors, I will always be working in the documentary genre.

Making a documentary is, on some level, one of the most challenging forms of artistic expression. Taking a real person, a real place, or a real event and turning it into a real story is really, really challenging.

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It’s also risky, because in most cases you are relying on gut instinct to guide you through a process that is decidedly unclear. Unless that story already took place and you know the beginning, middle and end, the journey of the film is totally unscripted. With narrative film, the script is your blueprint and there is a certain amount of safety there, provided your actors and your crew are capable and the material is good.

With documentary, you have to delve deeply into your subjects’ lives, earn their trust and unearth some hidden truth that will be interesting to your audience. Some stories are there, just waiting to be told, while others must be uncovered like hidden treasure.

Some stories take place in the past and it takes work to reimagine that experience for the viewer in a way that’s engaging and authentic. Other stories unfold over time, or are revealed with careful probing over days, months, and years. Sometimes, in very rare instances, there’s not a transparent story at all, but a filmmaker is so deft at crafting story, or juxtaposing concepts that story can crafted out of very little.

The bottom line is that unless you are sure that this story needs to be told, and offers a unique look into a world or story that most people don’t know, the chances of you making a successful documentary film are slim.

Here’s a few simple tips that I’ve learned over the years regarding how to make a successful documentary film:

1) Choose your subject carefully – Choose a subject or topic that is fascinating to you, but also may be fascinating to a larger audience. First time documentary makers often fall into the trap of making a project that is so close to their hearts, that they have a hard time viewing their story objectively. Knowing too much is almost always a hindrance to the process, because it prevents discovery on some level and your own mind fills in the details that your viewer needs to know.

2) Show some respect – Filmmaking is full of long hours, sleepless nights and an unbelievable amount of dedication. Generally, documentary subjects are not paid, as there is an implicit understanding that you want to tell this story and your subject wants this story to be told. Money usually talks, but paying people to share their story can be very tricky business, even if you have the budget to do it on some level.

As people’s time is valuable, no matter what side of the camera you are on, you always want to carry yourself as a professional. Show up on time, do what you say you’re going to do, follow through, lend a hand, and be honest and upfront about your intentions with the project. No one wants to be tricked and no one wants to feel like they’re wasting their time.

The more you open yourself up to your subjects, they more they will open themselves up to you. This mutual respect will serve you well in the process.

Also, thank your team and your subjects at the end of every day. Showing appreciation for everyone’s hard work will go a long way and they will work even harder for you moving forward.

4) Shyness is a challenge – In general, a shy character as the subject for a documentary will be very challenging to access both for you the filmmaker and more importantly for your intended audience. On the same point, if you yourself are shy or guarded, it’s going to be difficult for you to create a rapport with your subjects that you will need in order to access their humanity.

Many people, especially non-trained actors, get shy or self-conscious around the camera. It’s important to introduce the camera slowly to your subjects and work with your cinematographer, soundman and crew to minimize it’s perceived presence in the room. There are many techniques for doing this which you will develop intuitively as you go.

5) Story, story, story – It is without question, much better to focus on authentic human emotion than trying to craft a cool shot. Learn how to utilize wide, medium and close-up shots during your interviews, and try to anticipate where to be and when.

The cadence and timing of your questions during interviews plays a strong role in the comfort level of your subjects. Ease yourself and your subjects into interviews, especially ones that may be sensitive in nature.

Ask for clarification, don’t interrupt their responses, make eye contact when they are speaking to you and watch their eye line. Situate yourself as close to the camera lens as possible as the weight of your subject’s response will invariably have a stronger impact if they are looking just off camera.

Also, don’t stress excessively about technology as it relates to achieving your desired result. Shoot with what you can afford, two angles are better than one, and focus on yielding the best story you can, rather than getting bogged down in the ever-changing sea of technology.

6) Three Act Structure – If you don’t understand that good stories have a beginning, middle and end, don’t attempt to make a documentary, or any film for that matter. That said, most documentarians rarely know what “their end” is, especially if the story is unfolding during the shooting process. Even if the story is well known, the film should provide new and engaging insights into the topic, otherwise, why should your audience care enough to watch the film? Make sure there are emotional highs and lows that create tension, drama and suspense. Do not underestimate the power of laughter, even if the subject of your film is tragic or sad.

7) The Edit is King (or Queen) – Documentaries are made in the edit room. Again, without a script, it’s hard to know what the exact structure of your film looks like from the outset of production. Choosing solid creative references for your work and understanding what resonates with you artistically is extremely important before you ever start filming. However, there is so much wonderful surprise that takes place during the editorial process of documentary, it’s important to not shy away from trying new approaches. Find an editor that you trust, and collaborate fully. Documentary editors should be considered co-directors. Let go, have faith and take risks.

8) Rely on instinct – Filmmaking on most levels is effectively problem solving. Know when to push forward and when to pull back. Know how to earn your subject’s trust and respect, and don’t be afraid to ask questions of your team. Feedback from your trusted crew cannot be undervalued. Some days you may be totally mystified by your objectives for an interview, knowing what B-Roll to gather, or why you even chose to embark on making the documentary in the first place.

That questioning is 100% part of the journey. If you don’t hit that wall and push through it, you will not succeed with the project. The important part is that you don’t give up on the idea, unless you are putting yourself, your crew, or your subjects in harms way. . . or you somehow decided it’s a really bad idea.

Your instincts as an artist and as a human being will most certainly pull you through the darkest of times during the process. Sometimes taking a break is the best thing you can do, as a good nights sleep, a solid meal, or breath of fresh air can be immensely helpful. Sometimes projects need to be put down for extended periods of time – and it’s okay. Trust yourself and trust your work. If you don’t listen to your instincts and your heart, it will be hard to make a successful documentary.

There are countless stories to be told – find one that you love and tell us with as much detail, excitement and passion as you can imagine.

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