Documentary Film Production

There are as many approaches to documentary film production as filmmakers. It produces cliched films and meaning. Therefore, forget about doing it according to the book, pick up a camera and start shooting! Almost...

Ultimately, I think every filmmaker should find their own, personal and unique voice in addition to approach, style and form(s). Film has become so hegemonic that it's tragic. This is the failing of market forces that detract from expression and creativity in order to produce generic products in order to please and control a mass market. Nothing wrong with action, sci-fi, the blockbuster etc. (You might be surprised by how much I enjoy those movies...) but if you're interested in embarking on a journey of personal expression, those strategies and approaches won't do.

Do whatever is necessary in order to communicate what's on your heart. The notion of documentary film production instills expectations of production value, high budgets and often, rigid-approaches to filmmaking.

All you need is a camera, mic and a computer to cut the film together on. From there on, it's a question of whether or not you have something to say, a way to say it, a feel for images, motion, timing, sound, color etc. In other words, its not easy. Far from it. Nevertheless, it's possible and that's the most important thing. Most badly lit films look worse than those that embrace natural lighting. If it looks good and you've developed an eye, it is good. Period. Developing that eye however, take time and practice and the more you practice, the more free you become to improvise and shoot without needing to theorize forever over whether the shot works or not. You know.

Still, there are some things I would suggests apart from taking some courses and reading up on what comprises a documentary etc. Note that for me, documentary as reportage is not of interest in terms of what I do as a filmmaker.

Sound

More important than the image - this is one aspect of documentary film production that you need to take seriously. Trust me on this - people will forgive just about any shot if in the right context, out of focus, shaky etc., but not the sound. You need to get good, clear and directed sound. That means working with directional mics and making sure whatever you record does not pick up unnecessary background noise, humming, banging etc. Yes, you can “clean” up the audio to some degree in post, but if it's not there in the first place, it never will be. Replacing or creating sounds in post is a lot of work and rarely as effective as the atmosphere that was present during the shoot. (There are of course exceptions and cases where you might wish to fully produce the sound scape later for effect).

Try to gather sounds of different elements in the location where you're shooting such as water, wind, birds, cars etc., in addition to any dialogue that might be occurring which is the first priority. You can later mix these layers together to create and interesting effect.

Video

Try selecting the right camera for the location. Small and cheap might be good in public spaces, buses etc., especially if you don't have shooting permits. It's nearly never a good idea to give the appearance of a major documentary film production.

Bigger and better are normally necessary for wider shots and especially if you're shooting stunning nature or grand-scale city shots. Inferior cameras tend to produce so-so images with bad color sampling but can be fantastic for in your face or highly intimate shots. If all you can get your hands on is one camera, use that one camera and embrace it. Embrace whatever you have - that's the name of the game. It's senseless to attempt to get shots that require a huge production if that's beyond your scope and it's most likely not worth it.

Post-production (editing)

Depending on how much planning went into your film, this is where the bulk of the storytelling takes place and it's an extremely demanding task. There is a double-edged sword scenario to my approach here in the way that searching for the meaning and story of the film in the material is a long and complex process that requires patience and passion. The beauty of it, is that you work from intuition and can find and craft something that goes beyond the rigid constructs of a pre-scripted documentary film. This approach treats the medium as a tools for expressing oneself as an artist and is contrary to the industry approach so its extremely important to as yourself before embarking on this journey, what it is you really want?

Perhaps you have your own theories of documentary film production that you would like to share? I'd be delighted to hear from you.

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