Documentary Filmmaking – Planning and Shooting
For the last several years, we’ve been diving hard and headfirst into the world of feature-length documentary filmmaking. HOPS. How Yakima Valley Changed Beer Forever, is a passion project that started with an ember of inspiration and has since sparked off into a bonfire of production activity. Planning and shooting documentary films is not exactly what we specialize in, but Dan had a dream.
As a production company, of course, we were uniquely positioned to turn this particular dream into reality. Still, we’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way. This is our attempt to share those lessons, along with some tips and tricks that might sound familiar or, if you’re early in your video production career, may be new. Some of this we learned the hard way, and some we learned by listening to those filmmakers who got there first. If this article saves you some time, money, or pain, then we’ll consider it worth the effort of writing.
A Little About Us
We are Sierra Media, a production company just North of Seattle, specializing mostly in live action, lifestyle videos for commercials and marketing. Although, to be honest, we do jump at the opportunity to do more “outside-the-box” filming whenever the opportunity arises. I, specifically, act as the copywriter/story-producer for the team. Our Creative Director, Daniel A Cardenas, has been in the business of film/video for a good few decades. We’ve worked together for just over one of those decades. That’s a lot of years of telling stories, from products to people. The rest of the team consists of the usual BTS (behind the scenes) experts who keep the video production train rolling from sales and marketing to post-production and digital distribution.
What Makes a Good Documentary Film
The barest definition of documentary filmmaking rests on the deceptively simple term: non-fiction. The film documents a slice of reality, be it a person or a place, an event or a movement. But reality is pretty broad and open to interpretation. With the advent of reality television, which strikes me as pretty far from “documentary” in every way, the water gets even cloudier! Ethically speaking, your audience is going to expect a certain degree of truth if you’re going to call your film a documentary. But that doesn’t excuse you from telling a story. People go to the movies to be entertained, after all. Make them laugh, make them cry, make them angry. Make your audience feel, about your subject, the way that you feel about it.
When you find a subject fascinating, it’s easy to assume that everyone else will find it fascinating as well! But as someone who has had to listen to a child drone on and on about under-the-sea creatures for a good hour, I can tell you that presentation is everything. Under-the-sea creatures are interesting, it’s true, but poor presentation can suck the life out of even a great subject. Our documentary is agricultural in nature. Hops, specifically, the flavoring agent in today’s most delicious (my opinion) beers. I could list many interesting facts about hops for you, but I guarantee you would excuse yourself to buy another beer if I got started. To get the rest of the world, including the non-drinking documentary viewer, on board with our obsession, we needed to find a story. That means a little drama, a little conflict, a little…flavor.
Answer the Question
We found that by asking ourselves a lot of questions about our subject, from the very specific to the very broad, we were able to settle on a few big, thematic ones to give our story the focus it needed. “How did the humble hop change beer and, in doing so, change lives both locally and globally.” The next question, the conflict: “What are the greatest threats to hop farmers today, and how will those threats drive the next big change?”
With documentary filmmaking, we let those big questions drive us.
Of course, Dan was out chasing this dream for months before we settled on those big questions. Still, I would never say we wasted interview time before we knew the broader question. For our director, Dan, his research often happens face to face. He heads out with a camera and his natural curiosity and he just talks to people for hours. Those conversations, all filmed along with loads of beautiful footage of the farms themselves, helped us find our core story. I work a little differently; my research tends to happen behind a computer screen before I talk to a single person. I like to know ahead of time what my interviewee is going to say and, in some cases, what I need them to say.
If you have the time to explore, or if the story is unfolding in real time, Dan’s impulsive approach can yield unexpected gems that might change your direction or, at least, take you down a side road that informs the greater story in interesting ways.
I suggest a combination of our approaches. When you know what you need, but remain adaptable and open, you’re going to win at interviewing in documentary filmmaking.
INTERVIEWING 101 – tips & tricks from the pros
- Avoid yes/no questions.
- Have a list of must ask questions and check each one off when you have a good answer. Mark the timecode.
- Unless you are also being filmed as part of the interview, ensure that their answers make sense independently. It can help to have them phrase their answer to include the question.
- Example: If the question is, “What made you want to form a partnership with the other hop farmers?” The answer should sound something like, “I decided to try partnering with the other farms because…”
- Develop rapport. This is tough to teach. If you’re not naturally good with people, you may want to phone a friend to run your interview while you hide behind the camera and tend to the visuals. An interviewee needs to be put at ease before the camera even starts rolling. During the interview, the best interviewer will be really listening to the answers and looking for opportunities to dig deeper. Don’t shy away from emotional moments, and don’t let your subject slip away without answering your questions.
- Gear up. This isn’t easy for everyone, and it certainly ups the budget if you’re not already equipped. Interviewing in the field (in our case, in literal fields) can be visually stimulating enough to not require a lot of fancy camerawork. That said, if it’s just you and your camera out there, shooting in 4K can open up more options in post for changing up your frame. If you’re doing a lengthy, sit-down interview in a static environment, you’re going to want to create some visual movement just to maintain flow. In this case, a slider can be a huge help for holding the eye. If your subject is prone to umms and uhs and various other subconscious verbal tics, you’re really going to want a second camera so you can cut those out later. And, of course, get ALL the b-roll. (Can’t afford to gear up? At least you’ve chosen the right genre – documentary will always place content above quality. If the subject is good enough, and the audio is clean, focus might be forgiven.)
Mind Your Audio
We wrote a post a while back about the importance of quality audio. Since documentaries are often about 50% interviews, you’re going to learn all about getting good audio. To save you a little trial and error, in case you skipped that day in film school, here’s what you’ll learn in the field.
- Gear up! Again, the equipment is important. There’s a mighty big difference between a hundred-dollar mic and a thousand-dollar one. I mean, besides the price tag. If you’re in this filming thing with both feet, don’t skimp on your audio gear. Spend the money, spend the time to learn how to use it all, and then take really, really good care of it. Worst case, you can resell it later.
- The world is NOISY. It’s amazing, really, how many ambient sounds our brains filter out until they show up in our film and we find ourselves screaming at the edit screen, “What the heck is that weird tinking sound!?” When you settle into a semi-controlled environment for that personal interview, take a moment to really LISTEN. Is there an A/C unit that keeps clicking on and off? A humming refrigerator? A dripping sink? Some of it you’ll be able to stop or, at least, muffle. Some of it you’re stuck with. The “stuck with it” bits are why it’s important to get half a minute of “silence” at the end of your interview. It’s actually “room tone,” because silence is a myth.
- Quick tip – that mic should be about 6 inches away from the subject’s mouth. I know, that’s often impossible. That’s why you need to be very aware of all ambient sound.
- Carpet and drapes are your friends. Fabric muffles echoes.
- Cell phones are the enemy. They should all be OFF.\
- If you need to unplug something that absolutely, positively must be plugged back in, find a reminder you can’t ignore. The famous example is leaving your keys in the freezer. Can’t leave without ’em, after all.
- Your equipment is noisy, too. I know, even after you spent all that money on the good mic. The sound of someone shifting their hands on a boom is audible. The sound of a lavalier brushing against a tie is just plain loud.
Always be Filming
You wouldn’t take on the endeavor of documentary filmmaking if you weren’t enamored with your subject, whatever that may be. You have a unique perspective on it and, when you talk about it, people can see that spark. Like moths, they’re drawn to the light. So, shine that light. There is no better medium to let the world see what you see, to share your love or anger or curiosity. Stay true to your vision and just keep pressing forward, interviewing first, second and third parties. Explore every avenue and kick over all the rocks. Just keep filming as you go. Between the interviews and the hours upon hours of beautiful, evocative b-roll, you will find a story thread to sew it all together. At the end of the day, documentary filmmaking is not unlike what we do day to day. It’s a bit more methodical and goes deeper into the subject matter, but it all comes back to story.
Just remember – Back up everything in three different places. There’s no story so great that failure to back it up can’t ruin the whole thing!