DOCUMENTARY FILM - TIPS for Documentary Film Production
THE FOUR BASIC DIVISIONS OF STYLE
"The proper route to an understanding of the world is an examination of our errors about it."
ERROL MORRIS director (The Thin Blue Line, Dr. Death)
A DOCUMENTARY DIRECTOR'S MAIN TASK IS LISTENING TO PEOPLE
Once you get an idea worth spending some time on ASK QUESTIONS
1) Is it practical?
2) Would it be high or low budget?
3) Does it have broad or narrow audience appeal?
4) What approach could we take to the subject?
5) Can we sell the brilliant idea?
6) And if so, how?
CONCEPT - A comprehensive idea that will drive the film in a distinct direction according to a clear plan
AMBIGUITIES - People who see they are being filmed want to know how to act in front of the camera
IN DOCUMENTARY FILM
ARE WE THE FILMMAKER TELLING THE STORY
OR ARE THOSE OF OUR SUBJECT TELLING IT
In Documentary Film, just like any other film, you need to write a script before you begin filming. You have to have a plan and an overall THEME in what you are trying to say with this film.
DOCUMENTARY SCRIPT FUNCTIONS
1) The script is an organizing and structural tool. A reference and a guide that helps everyone involved in the production
2) Communicates the idea of the film to everyone concerned. Helps everyone understand what the film is about and where it is going
3) Essential to both the cameraman and the director. It conveys to the cameraman a great deal about the mood, action and problems of the camera work
Also helps the director define the approach and the progress of the film, its inherent logic and continuity
4) Script helps crew answer a series of questions
-What is the appropriate budget for the film?
-How many locations are needed and how many days shooting?
-What lighting will be required?
-Will there be any special effects?
-Will archive material be needed?
-Are special cameras or lenses called for because of a particular scene?
As soon as you have an understanding of the subject, ASK YOURSELF:
Who are you going to show it to?
How will the project be cinematic?
How are you going to structure the film
What are you going to do?
What do you want to say?
How are you going to reach the audience?
What is the Target audience?
What is your own personal motivation to the subject?
Why is there a need for the film?
THEN YOU'RE READY TO RESEARCH THE SUBJECT
As a researcher you must be an observer, analyst, student and note taker
1) PRINT RESEARCH
Learning to see and to distinguish the important fact from the obscuring detail
-Remember biased and self-serving points of view
-There lies, more lies and statistics in a lot of research
2) PHOTOGRAHS AND STOCK FOOTAGE
-Talk to as many experts in the field as possible
-Get the best people -- the most knowledgeable, most open
4) LOCATION RESEARCH
-Getting the feel of the actual place
-Try to suck up the subject, getting as close as possible
RESEARCH IS LIKE AN ICEBERG -- SEVEN EIGHTHS OF IT IS BELOW THE SURFACE AND CAN'T BE SEEN
Make quick choice and select boundaries
"It's sad that too many documentary filmmakers set out to make a documentary and not a movie."
MICHAEL MOORE, director (Bowling for Columbine, Roger and Me)
The job of the director is to find the pieces that will come together in the editing to make a complete film
AS A DIRECTOR YOU HAVE TO BE TOTALLY SURE OF WHERE YOU WANT TO GO AND HOW YOU ARE GOING TO GET THERE
Director has to have the ability to listen - Need to absorb and pay attention. In trying to understand the progress of story, there is no other way but to LISTEN
YOU NEED THE INTELLIGENCE TO SHOOT THE RIGHT THING
-If you are uncertain, consult the crew and listen to their opinions
-When something happens that is completely out of your hands (and something WILL happen) you need to make fast decisions in order TO SAVE THE FILM
THE DIRECTOR'S EYE
Please remember VISUALS
The sense of what is VISUALLY important
Let the cameraman know your thoughts and feelings
Have a good sense of freedom and composition
Seeing the best angle from which the story can be told
HUNTING FOR THE SYMBOLIC SHOT
DIRECTOR AND THE CAMERAMAN
Getting the Cameraman to understand and translate your vision to film as accurately as possible. Then adding their own creative skills to the project
TALK OVER WITH THE CAMERAMAN ON WHAT YOU PLAN TO DO WITH THE FILM
Most build the relationship of openness and trust -- a relationship where each values and respects the other's creativity and judgement
REMEMBER: A shot doesn't stand by itself. It has to be edited into a sequence
DIRECTING THE INTERVIEW
You need to build confidence into the person being interviewed
-Make sure you get to know the person being interviewed
-You need to know your objectives and what you want to get out of the film session
Make the subject feel that he or she matters
You are concerned and involved in what they have to say
That you care about their opinions
EMPATHY - The more the interviewer feels this, the better the interview
THREE BASIC SETUP POSSIBILITIES FOR THE INTERVIEW
1) The interviewee looks, or appears to look directly into the camera
ADDS A CERTAIN AUTHORITY, POLITICAL STANCE - I'M YOUR FRIEND
2) The camera catches the interviewee obliquely, so that he or she seems to be having a conversation with an unseen person off camera - left or right
MORE FORMAL AND FRIENDLY
3) The interviewee is seen on-camera with the interviewer so that we are quite clear who is the second person involved in the conversation
WHEN THE HOST IS THE STAR OR WHEN YOU EXPECT A CONFRONTATION
Ask yourself --- How far do you want the viewer to be drawn into the film?
People perform most naturally when they are doing some sort of ACTION
DON'T BE OVERLY SENTIMENTAL OR EMOTIONAL
EDITING THE DOCUMENTARY FILM
The best EDITING is done with a FRESH EYE
The Editor sees only what's on screen. Suggestion is to get someone else to edit your film. They are not as close to the footage as you are
During filming, you should have ORGANIZED what you have shot for the editor
When editing a documentary film, it's just like editing a Narrative film. You have to make a STORY with the basic storytelling functions
The proper editing structure - CLIMAXES, PACE and RHYTHM
-Is there a smooth and effective opening?
-Is there a logical and emotionally effective development of ideas?
-Does the film have a growing sense of drama?
-Is it focussed?
-Are the climaxes falling in the right place?
-Is your ending effective?
-Is there a proper sense of conclusion?
CONTINUALLY ASK YOURSELF - Is the material really working where I have placed it?
Pay attention to the RHYTHM within the sequence?
Are the shots at the right length?
Do they flow and bend well?
NARRATION IN A DOCUMENTARY
Pictorial narration rhythm and flow should be the fist consideration and the words should be written to picture, rather than pictures adjusted to words
WRITING THE FINAL NARRATION
Can set up factual background of a film providing simple or complex information that does now arise easily or naturally from the casual conversation of the film participants
COMPLIMENT THE MOOD OF THE FILM
PROVIDE FOCUS AND EMPHASIS
LETTING THE READER KNOW THE 5 W'S
WHO, WHERE, WHEN, WHAT, WHY
You draw attention to certain situations and present evidence about them. The Judgement must come from the viewer
The basic RULES OF NARRATION
1) Don't describe what can clearly be seen and understood by most people
2) And then AMPLIFY and explain what the picture doesn't show
CLEAR AND EXPRESSIVE
SIMPLE POWERFUL SENTENSES
DIRECTING ATTENTION - LETTING THE AUDIENCE SEE WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO SEE
Remember that people remember the visuals - not the narration - don't be too wordy
LET THE PICTURES TELL THE STORY
"I never, ever want to apologize for a film. If it's bad I'll say it's my fault. And that's what I can say so far in all the films that I've done, that if you don't like it, it's entirely my fault."
KENS BURNS director (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz)
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