Making Your First Documentary: 10 Practical Tips
The decision to make a documentary is usually pretty simple. It’s the process of making it that is complex. As a filmmaker, I’ve always focused on subjects that mattered to me. I can only tell a story that I care about, that’s the starting point. If you believe in the story and its message, you should consider making a documentary about it.
Many articles have been written about the bureaucratic process of filmmaking: from the early research to the distribution of the film. In this article, I’ll give more practical tips, based on my experience:
1. HAVE A PLAN
Before shooting, you have to write some kind of script, or at least an outline. You need to have an idea of the way the story will develop. Obviously, the story will be completely different when it's released, because of the nature of a documentary. But being prepared and organized, and knowing what you want to achieve, is the basic of any creation.
2. TRUST & RESPECT
Always respect the person that you film. It must be clear that you will "watch out for them" throughout the process of making the film. Your subject should trust you that when the film is released, viewers will be inspired by them, will identify and even admire them for who they are. This needs to be like an unwritten contract between you and your subject.
I think that one of my biggest achievements in making documentaries is the response that I receive from my main "characters" after making the film.
This also guarantees the footage will be much more personal. If you build trust with your character, he'll let you see and film his best and worst moments. And this is what documentary is all about in my opinion: showing the real life, with no masks.
3. SHOOTING DAYS
It's important to make the shooting days close to each other. Don't shoot today and wait a month until the second day of shooting. When you shoot 4 days a week, the subject will get used to you and the camera, and the masks will disappear.
Shoot as much as you can. Even the most "usual" situations – for example: your subject goes with his/her father somewhere on the street. I found out that sometimes the most exciting scenes happen when we film those small everyday situations. Also, shooting all day would help your subject feel comfortable with the camera. However, if you feel like your subject needs a break, don’t hesitate and turn your camera off.
Although you have to be prepared with a script and some ideas for the next scenes, you should "flow" with your subject's real life situations - don't get "stuck" with your script. If something happens (and things will happen!), "flow" with them and consider changing your original outline when necessary.
What's your film about? What's the message? Even if you think that you know exactly what you want, be open minded and consider adjusting the plot. The filming process is long, and you may discover new insights as each shooting day passes. You'll find that the message of the film sometimes changes during the filming process, and that's okay.
Passion, to me, perfectly connects with SUCCESS. If you keep your passion at a high level throughout the process of making your documentary, it will succeed.
Even if it's a story that happened in the past (a man wounded in war many years ago), try to find what's interesting about your subject's life in the present. What are their goals? Why are they having a hard time getting them? Once you find the conflict that is happening today in the subject's life, you will have a real drama that will excite the viewers and make them feel part of the subject's journey.
9. SCENE BY SCENE
To keep the viewers engaged from the beginning to the end of your film, you need to get them to ask themselves at each scene: What is going to happen to that man/woman? The main goal of the subject should appear in every scene. The drama is created from the subject's attempt to achieve that goal. The main goal can change throughout the story. There may be a situation where the subject succeeds in achieving the goal, and then marks for himself a new, greater goal.
10. GET TO KNOW YOUR SUBJECT
Speak with your subject a lot before your first shooting day. Learn more about them, try to find what's unique about them, and which of their characteristics you relate to. Also, try to figure out what would make you go and watch the film about your subject. Don’t get panicked if they tell you the most amazing story while you’re not filming. This only means that you build trust, which is, again, the basis of every relationship.
And YES, you and your character are officially “in a relationship.” Congratulations!
If you would like to share more practical tips from your experience, or if you have any questions, please comment here and I’ll do my best to help!
Good luck with making your film, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.
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