How To’s

5 Quick Techniques for Better On-Camera Interviews

On-camera interviews with subjects are often key parts of a documentary film. They go beyond just simply asking your interviewee one question after another however. Here are 5 quick techniques for improving your on-camera interviews from Sanora Bartels, Chair of Documentary Filmmaking at New York Film Academy Los Angeles (NYFA-LA).

 

 

Don’t Start with the Cameras Rolling

If the interview is taking place in the Interviewee’s space, one of the first things I do when I arrive “on set” is to ask about something interesting in the room or comment on the view. I do this in order to have a conversation about something other than the “subject at hand.”

When you discuss unrelated topics, it gives you an opportunity to find common interests and build trust. Related to this, you might find that you’ll need to do a preliminary interview without crew in order to form a relationship with your subject. Interviews are really good conversations. In-depth conversations only happen when the two people trust one another. This trust will show in the footage.

Once we start rolling, I start by asking easy questions about family history, their personal background, educational background, etc. These allow them to settle into a rhythm of conversation and then we’re off and running. 

Don’t Fill in Pauses 

Because an interview is very much a conversation, we’re sometimes too tempted to set someone at ease and try to “rescue” them from a perceived lapse in memory or pause. It’s almost never beneficial to fill in these pauses. The interviewee needs time to think and explain themselves and, more importantly, if it’s an emotional topic, they may need time to gather their strength to go on. At that moment, there is a line they cross from “the facts” into deeper meaning and perhaps more personal revelation. One of the best examples of this is in the Errol Morris documentary Fog of War with Robert McNamara.

Use Other People’s Labels

If your subject is talking about their supervisor whose name is Sandra and referring to her as “my supervisor” then you should use those word labels/markers as well. Don’t refer to her as Sandra if they refer to her as “supervisor.” Example: “How did your supervisor communicate the change?”

Ask Open-ended Questions 

Leading questions lead to one-word answers, which aren’t very informative or compelling to watch. Interviews look for much more in-depth answers, information that helps tell a story. Interviewers need to think about phrasing their questions to invite longer explanations. Questions that invite explanation often start with “how” or “why.” Alternatively, you can follow up an opening statement with: “Tell me more about that” or “I am not sure I understand.” 

Repeat A Single Word for More Information

If I feel the Interviewee has stopped just short of going deeper into the story, I use a trick that comes from everyday conversation: repeat their last word or phrase to prompt them to continue.

For example, the Interviewee may end their statement about their livelihood being threatened by climate change saying, “it’s just not sustainable.” The next question from me could simply be “Sustainable”? This simple cue allows them to explain and the conversation continues!

Written by Sanora Bartels, Chair of the Documentary Department, NYFA, Los Angeles.

When is it Right to Expand Your Documentary to a Docuseries?

There’s no denying the growth in popularity of documentaries in the last 20 years. From Morgan Spurlock’s fast food adventures in 2004’s Super Size Me to the focus on SeaWorld’s controversial orca in Blackfish nearly a decade later, documentaries have been making a difference as more people show interest in factual and not just fictional stories.

Docuseries, however, have shown the greatest surge of late, almost entirely due to the rise of streaming services like Netflix and the expansion of HBO’s original content output. Audiences have a better ability than ever before to watch what they want when they want — the perfect platform for episodic content.

If you’re entertaining the idea of expanding your documentary to a docuseries, consider the following to help you decide if it’s the right (or wrong) move for your project:

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You have something truly unique

Perhaps one of the best ways to gauge if your documentary would be more effective if expanded into a docuseries is by asking yourself one question — is your subject fresh and exciting?

Elaine Frontain Bryant, Executive Vice President of A&E, shared an interesting nugget of information concerning how vibrant and competitive the docuseries market has become: “In the world of the DVR and trying to be Netflix-and-streamer-proof, it’s the subjects that people haven’t seen before that feel the hottest,” she said during a talk with realscreen.

Additionally, your access to the story should be unique. Whether that comes through your own personal drive and good research (see below) or a natural, personal connection to a subject, your documentary should be one that only you can tell. It is this unique angle that will make your story fresh and interesting to an audience looking for something new.

You have a story you really care about

If you’re putting in the effort into making a film, be it documentary or narrative, you likely already have a personal investment in the story. When it comes to creating a docuseries that requires following a subject or people for an extended period of time, you will need that passion throughout the process.

Docuseries often need extra time as you research, plan, shoot, and edit each and every episode. The less interest you have, the harder it may be to maintain a high level of creativity and dedication. Find a subject that you’re so passionate about that you are willing to give your all to tell its story.

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Your subject is interesting enough

If you feel that your subject matter is unique and you have a lot of passion for it, the next thing to ask yourself is if people will still be interested after the first two or three episodes of your series.

Many of the most groundbreaking documentaries in recent years were effective because they formed an emotional connection with viewers. Although docuseries can provide powerful and thought-provoking content, the story needs to be especially captivating if you want to preserve interest for several episodes as opposed to single feature-length sitting.

You’re ready to do the work

Filmmaking is tough endeavor, no matter what kind of project you have in mind. The fact that docuseries are episodic and require additional hours of content means you’ll inevitably have that much more work to do.

This includes through research, following leads, fact-checking, creating outlines, shooting and editing content, and so much more. If you don’t think you’ll have the time or energy to take on such a feat, expanding your documentary film into a docuseries is probably not the right choice.

Interested in studying documentary filmmaking? Check out more information on New York Film Academy’s documentary school programs here.

IDA: Window to the World of Filmmaking

by Sanora Bartels

When students ask me what’s the best thing they can do when starting out as a documentary filmmaker, I always tell them: “Join IDA!”

IDA is the International Documentary Association and students can join for $35 a year — a small price to pay given the wealth of access to high-level documentaries and their directors, producers, writers and editors.

To give a “for instance,” on Jan. 6, 2018, IDA held a Master Class with Rachel Grady & Heidi Ewing in Los Angeles, CA at Netflix Studio facilities — a beautiful new building next to the old KTLA building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.  Driving onto the lot was a pleasure and everyone involved with the day was enthusiastic and welcoming, including Netflix’s Director of Original Documentary Programming Jason Springarn-Koff.  In other words, attendees were rubbing elbows with the people in charge of obtaining new work for Netflix.

More important than the welcoming atmosphere was the opportunity to hear Rachel and Heidi share their experiences making documentaries: Boys of Baraka, Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware, Detropia, and their latest, One of Us.

They shared clips of their films and spoke specifically of the individual challenges faced with each project. Tickets were limited (100 people were in attendance in the filled to capacity screening room) and there was time for Q&A throughout the Master Class.

NYFA documentary alum Valentine Rosado and classmates on set.

One of the most important pieces of advice Heidi and Rachel gave that day (and there were many) was to hold off pitching your project until you have secured unique access to the subject or story.  

In this era of internet and email, the most important tool to help documentarians secure access is the phone. The filmmaker must make the call and connect one-on-one with the people important to the story. Once you have developed a relationship with the people involved, you can then pitch your story without fear of a production company saying, “Yeah, great idea, thanks for bringing it wrapped in bow, we’ll get right on that,” And then proceeding to put their own team on it.

Yet access can be tricky and often it’s not just as simple as a phone call.

While researching One of Us, the filmmakers learned about Footsteps, an organization designed to help individuals leave the Ultra-Orthodox world of Hasidic Judaism.  With the permission of the organization, they hung out in the lobby of the non-profit for months in order to develop relationships with individuals and possibly use them to tell the story of the difficulty in leaving an oppressive community. Heidi and Rachel estimated that they spent nearly a year developing access and casting their documentary.

Spending a few hours with Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady reminded me that Documentary Filmmaking requires patience and steel-eyed persistence tempered by a genuine compassion for your characters as they share their lives and story.  

The reminder came at a bargain price.

SERVICE INDUSTRY: How to Work with Cinematographers

“What can I do for you?”  

The above question is the first thing I ask my director.  You, the director, answering it ensures that you’ll get the most out of me – your cinematographer or DP (director of photography).  

Before you meet with your cinematographer, you should have a good grasp of what the film is about and the story you want to tell. What do you want your documentary to look like? Start with visual references (documentaries, narrative films, still photos, paintings, etc.) ready to show and discuss. After reading the script or treatment, it’s the first thing a cinematographer will want to talk about.

As a visual artist, my job is to translate words and concepts into images. Cinematographers bring loads of ideas to the table. Once I know what a film is about, I shift into visual hyper-drive.  

In the meetings — there will be more than one — you’ll want to discuss the tone of the movie:  Should it be pretty or gritty? Formally composed or “fly-on-the-wall?” Some handheld work perhaps? Why? Will the subject matter benefit from cool, somber tones, or warm, inviting colors?  

Once you’ve discussed tone, your documentary film is well on its way to visual coherence. Some directors just like to chat and pull up images to discuss. Others spend a considerable amount of time preparing a lookbook. Either is okay. It’s whatever works for you.

The style of your film is comprised of more technical questions – the different modes of documentary (See Bill Nichols “6 Modes of Documentary”) beg for different approaches.

Some questions to answer for yourself and communicate to the DP:

  • What lenses will best depict the characters?
  • Is the style up close and personal or are we taking a long view?
  • Will the interviews take place in a home, a workplace, or some neutral ground?  
  • Are you thinking formal compositions, or something more edgy?  
  • If there are re-creations, will they be stylized or realistic?
  • Finally, and not least important, you’ll want to discuss visual metaphors and transitions that serve to link the sequences.  

But what about “shooting from the hip,” some will ask? Let me share an experience I had in the field.

A while back, I was starting a documentary television series that, in addition to archival footage, involved interviews, re-creations, and establishing shots. In pre-production, we spent some time discussing the re-creations, but the director and producer weren’t ready to discuss overall tone. I knew it would come back to haunt us.

On day one, our first interviewee waited patiently while we went back and forth about the location, then the background, then the lighting. It was decided the lighting should be soft with strong contrast. It became the interview tone for the show. We met later to clarify things going forward and avoid further embarrassment of the interviewees watching a confused approach.  There were new challenges for sure, but the solutions were more intuitive for me because the tone and style were set.

The DP is the director’s confidante, the “ace-in-the-hole,” the side-kick to the superhero. But most importantly, he/she is the director’s collaborator, who wants to help make the best documentary film possible. To do that, communication is key.

Ready to learn more about documentary filmmaking? Check out the New York Film Academy’s Documentary School.

Written by Carl Bartels. Bartels is a director and cinematographer whose credits include “Taken,” “The Fantastic Four,” and “Greedy Lying Bastards.”

10 Documentary Essentials


Today’s 21st century documentary filmmaker has more tools than ever available to them. The cameras are smaller and offer higher resolution. The audio equipment is smaller and hears better than ever. Editing software is intuitive and easy to learn and use. Those are the sort of broad stroke items which are essential to successful documentary film shooting.

Documentary film crews are significantly smaller than a narrative feature crew. This means everybody on a doc crew should know how to operate all the gear, and be able to take on any job in a pinch.

This article is not about any of that stuff. Instead, it’s about the smaller things you will need along your journey to becoming a documentary filmmaker.

Here are 10 absolute must-haves on any shoot, the base minimum for professional-level work.

  1. Flashlight – You never know when you will be in low light conditions or the dark, wrapping after a shoot, prepping before a shoot, lost a nut, somebody else lost their phone … you get the idea. The point is that a flashlight is an essential tool for every filmmaker.
  2. Hat – When you are outside shooting in the sun a hat is another piece of essential equipment, and it can help in a light rain too. It keeps you cooler and keeps the sun out of your eyes. I recommend a full brimmed hat, rather than a baseball cap, to protect the back of your neck. Keep $20 hidden in the crown for emergencies.
  3. Belt – I like to wear a belt so that my tool pouch is always where I expect it to be. I can clip various items to my belt (see glove clip) including my flashlight. It provides easy access to immediate use items, and allows hands free carrying, and frees up your pockets for items best kept secure. Holds up my pants too.
  4. Sturdy Shoes – these are one of the best investments you can make. On the set you will be on your feet for long periods. Having good shoes will save your feet, make you more comfortable, and protect you from injury. A foot injury can keep you off the set for weeks, if not months.
  5. Gloves – Good leather work gloves are an inexpensive insurance policy against hand injuries and burns.
  6. Glove Clip – this holds your gloves on your belt for immediate and easy access.
  7. Pouch – I would say that a First AC pouch is best. If you have so much stuff that a First AC pouch is too small you have too much stuff to carry.
  8. Pen – see below.
  9. Paper – A pocket-size notebook will allow you to take notes and record details. Yes, this is an old school, analog way of making notes, but phone batteries run out and writing things down imprints them into your memory. Think of it as a way to cross-check the work. Documentary filmmaking is, by its nature, an exploration — with plenty of room for extemporaneous events. Record new questions and ideas as they come up to help you make your documentary the best it can be.
  10. An iron-clad plan and the ability to adapt it to changing circumstances – One of the most important things you can bring to your documentary shoot is an open mind and insatiable curiosity about your subjects, and finding the truth of the story. You should have a plan (and a point-of-view, of course). You should know about how long you expect to spend interviewing that person, or shooting that activity. Your research will have given you a strong foundation of what to expect and where your documentary is going. But don’t be so rigid in your preconceived agenda that you aren’t open to unexpected new information, or serendipitous occurrence in the field. It is better to have the footage and not need it, than to turn away and wish you had it later in the editing room.

 

Want to know what else you’ll need to know on a professional set? Learn documentary filmmaking at New York Film Academy.

Written by James Coburn

6 American Documentary Film Funding Programs to Consider

Documentary films are generally far less expensive than fiction, but they do have a price tag.

Luckily, funding opportunities abound for the documentary filmmaker. Crowdfunding is especially successful for documentaries. And with a clear artistic vision, an articulate artist statement, and a team that you can call on when opportunity knocks, you may be in a good place to secure nonprofit or foundation funding. For some, you may need a fiscal sponsor, which is essentially any 501c3 organization that agrees to sponsor your project — there are also 501c3s with a specific mission to fiscally sponsor film funding. Often, it’s a great alternative to starting your own nonprofit, which allows you to seek grants and solicit tax-deductible donations under your sponsor’s exempt status.

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As a general piece of advice, be patient and get organized! These programs can be tedious to apply to, with a lot of competition. Funders don’t just hand over money to anyone with a good idea. We all have one! Each application takes time and precision, but the payoff can be significant.

Many countries have funding set aside for film. And some of the American funders are open to a production from any country!

So take out your calendar and start thinking about which materials you need to compile, in order to meet program requirements and deadlines.

Get your story told!

ITVS Open Call

Independent Television Station (ITVS) is one of the biggest players when it comes to funding documentaries, but applicants take note: this is not a grant. ITVS acts as a co-producer, investing in your film and providing creative development, feedback, and in some cases, the publicity and marketing needed to help get your film seen. They’ll also work on your behalf with public television programmers to get your film programmed on their networks.

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To date, ITVS has funded 533 films, with each one receiving an award of $150,000 to $350,000.  Many have aired on PBS series like Independent Lens, POV, American Masters and Frontline.

With the next deadline in February, this is one program that can certainly offer a great reward if you can take the time to complete the application, which generally, can take 1-2 weeks.

And if you don’t get accepted the first time, keep applying. Persistence rules the game!

(Check out the ITVS Diversity Development Fund and Digital Open Call while you’re there)

Jerome Foundation

Started in 1964 by artist and philanthropist Jerome Hill, The Jerome Foundation offers production grants, of up to $30,000 for emerging film, digital production and video directors who reside in NYC or Minnesota.

These grants support specific projects, and only production and post-production expenses (not pre-production, marketing or distribution costs) are supported. Deadline is August 24th.

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BONUS

The Jerome Foundation also has a Travel and Study Grant Program which, for the 2018 cycle, will support emerging artists who create new work in dance, film/video/digital production, and literature. This program is meant to provide support to periods of domestic and/or international travel for study, exploration and growth.

So if you are still in the development stage, for example, where you are deciding which questions to ask in your documentary, who is best to answer them, and perhaps, how to give your story a definitive arc, this program may be well suited to helping fund this critical period. Eligible activities include preliminary research, the development of collaborations (whether artistic or organizational), taking part in specific non-academic training programs, time for reflection and individualized study, and field investigation.

Deadline is Thursday, December 7, 2017 at 4:30 pm Central/5:30 pm Eastern.

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Catapult Film Fund

Catapult Film Fund offers grants for up to $20,000 each and requires both a written and online application. Meant to catapult filmmakers’ careers, funds are intended to help in the crucial next steps in the development of films, which include a first shoot and editing pieces for production fundraising. Once accepted, recipients also have access to an informal mentorship program with Catapult’s co-founders, particularly in areas that include story development, production process, fundraising and distribution strategy.

This is definitely one of those funding programs that will require you to have a fiscal sponsor, as Catapult will only make grants to 501(c)(3) organizations.

National Endowment for the Humanities

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National Endowment for the Humanities (or NEH) offers a media production grant with an application deadline coming up on August 9th. Meant to support projects that engage general audiences in the humanities such as history, art history, film studies, literature, drama, religious studies, philosophy, or anthropology, grants help filmmakers inspire their audiences to explore the broader significance of pertinent issues. Projects can be short form or broadcast-length video.

Filmmakers with programs intended to encourage cross-cultural and international collaboration with scholars based in the U.S or abroad, can also receive support by working with an international media team. While partnerships should address broad cross-cultural perspectives on proposed topics, they should be geared primarily to a U.S. audience.

BONUS (again!)

NEH also offers a development grant for film projects with the same August 9th deadline. And while these are just two grant programs, NEH has an online database which allows you to search for a plethora of grant opportunities that may better suit your subject and the current stage of your project.

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New York Foundation for the Arts

With a longstanding commitment to supporting artists from diverse cultural backgrounds at all stages of their professional careers, the New York Foundation for the Arts’ (also known as NYFA, just like us!) grant cycle is also one to look at. In 2017, NYFA awarded 92 grants to 95 awardees with 3 collaborations totaling an amount of $644,000.

NYFA Artist Fellowships, are awarded in fifteen different disciplines over a three-year period, with $7,000 cash awards made to NYS or NYC based artists for unrestricted use. While these fellowships are not project grants, they are meant to fund an artist’s vision or voice, regardless of the artist’s development level.

Notable alumni of the NYFA fellowship include Junot Diaz, Tony Kushner, Suzan Lori-Parks, and Spike Lee. Application period opens in fall 2017.

New York Foundation for the Arts also will act as a fiscal sponsor for selected projects.

Fledgling Fund

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With an open rolling application process, Fledgling Fund offers grants to support outreach and engagement for documentary films that have the potential to inspire positive social change on some of the most critical social issues.

The filmmaker must complete an online application with a project description and its goals for social change. Generally, films must at least have a rough cut.

While grants typically range from $10K – $25K, Fledgling supports strategy building for outreach and engagement and can also be used for a project that is already complete and is ready for launch. Grants are NOT available to support production or post-production.

And they make it very clear: the film must in some way inspire, educate, and mobilize audiences to create positive social change. To apply, filmmakers must have a fiscal sponsor.

Are there any other documentary film funding opportunities we neglected to include on this list? Let us know in the comments!

 

How to Reconcile Personal Bias in Your Documentary Film

Is your bias getting in the way of your documentary? In documentary filmmaking, your opinion can enrich your creation with information and insight, but it can also hinder it if not at least considered. When filming a documentary, it’s important to reconcile your personal bias with the topic at hand. Reconciling your bias may not only expand your viewpoint, but may help to enrich the perspective you’re trying to convey to your audience. Learn how to balance your viewpoint with other perspectives and information out there. Your documentary will thank you for it!

What is a bias?

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According to Google, a bias is a “prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair.” For instance, you may have a bias towards a certain political party due to your pre-existent beliefs and opinions surrounding subjects like gay marriage or gun rights. Consider details of your background and experiences as predisposition towards certain points of view. Depending on your documentary’s topic, it may or may not reflect your personal bias.

What are your biases and how did they form?

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It’s important to be aware of where your biases come into play and how they can help or hinder your film. First, you must have a clear understanding of your own viewpoint. You may come from a demographic that is involved in and impacted by a topic covered in your documentary. For instance, it wouldn’t be surprising for a medicaid recipient doing a documentary on health care to be in favor of public health care versus privatized health care. Details like these factor into biases.

Here’s how you can get around your bias.

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There may be nothing wrong with your opinion, but you cannot let it minimize your documentary’s focus in any way. Naturally, the audience is going to wonder about the other side of the topic at hand. Give your audience information that allows them to think critically and draw their own conclusions. For instance, if you’re doing a documentary on the health care crisis, you could try to include information about privatized healthcare. Interviewing a representative from a private healthcare company would accomplish this while not straying from the focus of your documentary. You want to balance your perspective with footage and facts that broaden your viewers’ perspective.

Your documentary is presenting a perspective to your audience. It’s up to you what that perspective is.

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When you reconcile your biases, you can refine your opinion in a way that strengthens and expands it. Researching arguments that differ from your own can help you a lot. Let the audience think for themselves and make sure your documentary gives them the information they need to be able to do that. Give them facts to consider that ultimately amount to your documentary’s purpose. After all, your audience has their own biases they will have to reconcile upon watching your documentary.

Interested in learning more about making documentary films? Check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking programs!

How to Prepare and Conduct a Documentary Interview

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You’ve got the story of the century and some great subjects willing to bare all on camera. It’s a one-time opportunity to make some great documentary footage, so here’s how to make sure the interview goes swimmingly.

Getting Set Up

As with any shoot — not just documentary interviewing — the key to perfect footage lies in the setup. A few things to consider:

Background: You’ll want think carefully about where you place your subject, both from an aesthetic and exposure point of view. It’s worth reading up on our guide to filming in natural light for an in-depth look at how your choice background can make or break a shot.

Multiple Cameras: Having two different camera angles (or perhaps one recording wide while another does close up) will give you additional options in the editing suite, as discussed in more detail further down. It’s standard practice to have the subject looking at you and at a slight angle to the camera rather than directly into it.

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Ambient Noise Level: Do a mental check of any background noise that might pose problems later on. It’s easy to overlook constant, low noises (like air conditioners) on the day, but they’ll stick out like a sore thumb when you listen back!

If time allows, try to factor in some time with the subject before the interview, especially if you don’t know them — it’s good to build rapport before you start firing questions at them, and it’ll help soothe everyone’s nerves … it can be quite an overwhelming experience for those who aren’t used to being interviewed! Finding small ways to make the process as comfortable as possible for your subject is always beneficial.

And of course, the main piece of preparation you need to focus on is the questions themselves…

Interview Preparation and Conducting

A few well-worded questions are all it takes to transform an interview from “good” to “great.”

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Naturally, what these questions will entail depends entirely on your subject and nature of the discussion, but some good rules of thumb on both the writing and asking of your questions include:

  • Avoid yes/no questions. Rather than, “Did you feel under pressure during the incident,” a more open-ended approach such as, “There must have been a lot of pressure on you during the incident,” will yield more usable results.
  • Have the interviewee repeat the question as part of his or her answer. You’ll find it much easier to edit afterwards since the context is built into what they’re saying.
  • Avoid interrupting. You can always make a cut when the answer goes on too long, but it’s much harder to edit around an interviewer’s interjections.
  • In fact, avoid making any sound whatsoever. Outside of actually asking the question, don’t make the mistake of adding non-verbal noises (such as “hmmm” or gasping) while listening to your subject.
  • Have a solid idea of where you’re trying to lead the interview. Think of your time with the subject as one part of the whole documentary; you’ll have a clear idea of the overall narrative, so use pointed, structured questions that’ll lead you neatly onto the next part of the film.

Knowing when to let things veer away from the prepared questions and when to bring things back is a skill that can only be learned with time and practice, but trusting your instinct will get you most of the way.

 

Get as Much B-Roll Footage as Possible

You may be absolutely riveted by your subject while conducting the interview, and with a bit of luck they’ll give you more useful material than you could ever hope to use in the final cut.

However, a static shot of someone talking isn’t always that appealing for long periods of time from the audience’s perspective. You’ll probably want to overlay contextual B-roll footage to illustrate what your subject is saying, give the viewer a visual break, and add a little flavor.

It’ll make your life a lot easier to get as much B-roll footage as possible ahead of time rather than heading back out during the editing phase, particularly if you want the subject to be in the footage themselves.

However, there will be moments where the interview gets really good and you don’t want to switch to B-roll, particularly in emotionally powerful moments. For that, you’ll want to use a slider.

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Creating Subtle Movement

If you want to zoom in on a subject (or pan across the room) during a documentary interview, you’ve got two options: manually zoom or move the camera, or make the adjustment during post.

The latter isn’t ideal from a quality point of view, and the former is tricky to do effectively on the fly (especially when you’re trying to conduct the interview at the same time).

The solution? Use a slider.

It’s a low-cost, highly effective solution that will add a level of dynamism to your interview footage.

Never Stop Filming!

It’s not uncommon (in fact, it’s usual) for the real gold to happen outside of the interview. Keeping the cameras rolling both during the setup and long after you’ve finished asking questions may prove to be the best documentary tip you ever implement.

Hopefully you’ll have way more footage than you’ll ever need, so now the fun begins: click here to read up on how to edit your interview footage for maximum impact.

How to Shoot a Documentary

As we’ve covered previously, 2014 was a solid year for documentary filmmaking, and this raises a question…

… are you going to be part of 2015’s legacy?

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Whether you’re still grafting at documentary filmmaking school or already qualified and shooting out in the field, it’s never a bad idea to take pause and reflect on some of the best practices of crafting a documentary (while you work on innovating and finding your own ‘voice’.)

No matter what level of experience you may currently find yourself, let’s revisit what’s at the very core of our artform:

1. The Golden Rule: There Are No Rules

It sounds corny, but there really isn’t a blanket tip that will bring the best out of every documentary. If there’s one single thing that should be kept in mind, it’s that every story will require different telling techniques: you’ll have to rummage through your cinematography toolbox and figure out which tool is right for the job, and that kind of intuition (as well as acquiring the tools in the first place) only comes through practice.

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Another thing to keep in mind is that no amount of practice or experience will ever see you knowing it all, so with that in mind…

2. Surround Yourself With Talent

We can think of very few documentaries that are written, directed, shot and produced by a single-person film crew. In fact, Gasland is the only critically notable example that springs to mind, and even that ended up having a few people working on it by the end of production.

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We’re not saying it’s impossible to go it solo, but unless you’ve got absolutely no other option, it’s not going to be an easy (nor probably enjoyable) experience and you’ll inevitably end up not doing the documentary the justice it deserves.

Instead, seek out people who are gifted in their respective fields and you’ll set yourself up for success. This may sound difficult – especially when on a budget – but you’ll probably find it’s easier to find folk that share your vision for a documentary than for a feature film. It’s not hard to convince people to take part in covering an issue they’re also passionate about, whereas trying to explain why your script about zombies in space is going to be the ‘next big thing’ can be an uphill struggle.

This is also one of the biggest benefits of documentary school: you’ll never be short of bright stars with which to collaborate.

3. Shoot a Film, Not a Documentary

Michael Moore is one of the most controversial documentary filmmakers of the modern age; love him or hate him, he certainly knows how to push buttons and get his documentaries seen, so his views on the craft are worthy of consideration.

Michael Moore documentary tips

Amongst many good points raised during a candid interview with Indie Wire, Moore observes that people go to see movies for the exact same reason they see documentaries: “They want the lights to go down and be taken somewhere. They don’t care whether you make them cry, whether you make them laugh, whether you even challenge them to think – but damn it, they don’t want to be lectured, they don’t want to see our invisible wagging finger popping out of the screen. They want to be entertained.”

In short, your documentary should provoke an active emotion out of the audience – whatever that may be – not just give them information…

… there are Wikipedia pages for that.

4. Exposition Bad, Bad Reenactment Worse

As you’ve probably already figured, an exposition overload rarely makes for engaging viewing. One way that documentary filmmakers try to get around this is to reenact past events using actors – surely it’s the only way to portray a real-life event when no actual footage of it exists?

thin_blue_line_04

Quite often, yes; but a terribly executed reconstruction scene can be more jarring to an audience than any lengthy voiceover possibly could be. Check out some great documentaries like the Thin Blue Line, Man on Wire and the recent 1971 to see how it’s done well and try to emulate their techniques, but if you don’t feel like you’re going to be able to do it effectively, it may be time to pick another tool from the toolbox.

5. Ignore the Big and the Small

Too many documentary filmmakers first starting out worry about whether or not they’re covering big enough stories. Why focus on a homicide in a rural, Midwestern town when you can expose the entire US government, right?

Wrong. A thousand other people are going to try and tell the story of the NSA, but only one is going to end up making CitizenFour. On the other hand, only one Kurt Kuenne could have created Dear Zachary.

dear zachary poster

By focusing solely on a huge story just because it’s huge, you run the risk of being totally blindsided by it and never really finding ‘your’ angle to the whole thing. But if you stick to the age-old adage ‘shoot what you know’, you’ll be able to really own the project. You’ll also find that the locality or niche-nature of the documentary won’t hamper the chance of it getting mainstream appeal in the slightest.

If you think a story is worth telling, it almost certainly is.

Just get out there and tell it well.

How To Deal With Ethical Challenges In Documentary Filmmaking

Documentary film crew interviewing a subject

Documentary filmmakers are lurking in murky waters when it comes to ethical challenges. They are aware that boundaries need to be set and that there should not be an abuse of power, yet there aren’t any clear solutions to ethical challenges. These filmmakers are conveying a message and they obviously need material that supports that message so if they have the right material but not the right emotion, they may ask to redo an interview that takes someone to their breaking point. This scene creates a powerful impact for everyone involved, the subject and the filmmaker in the moment and also to all of the viewers who witness this scene. There are many people in the industry who are calling for more parameters when dealing with ethical challenges.

There are three main ethical challenges that arise for documentary filmmakers; their subjects, viewers, and their envisioned artistic presentation. As of now, there isn’t a specific documentary code of conduct for ethical standards, simply a floating version that most, but certainly not all, abide. Some of these ethical codes that are universally adopted include doing no harm, protecting the vulnerable, and honoring the viewer’s trust.

Ethics are certainly the baseline of most documentary films given the content and the realism of these projects. Filmmakers are documenting real people, with real issues that generally come from dark places to shed light on the focus and bring it to the world’s attention. If these matters were light, there may not be such a need for an ethical code of conduct but when dealing with people who have been brutally beat and are retelling their story for the public to hear first hand, these subjects certainly need to be protected.

Documentary filmmakers interviewing children in the street

As of now, most filmmakers make their ethical decisions on a case by case basis. Some filmmakers felt there wasn’t a need to protect certain subjects because the harm inflicted was self-induced or those subjects have access to the media and representing themselves in the eye of the public such as a celebrity or politician. Filmmakers also admit to rearranging facts and sequences of events in order to tell a more effective story that actively captured the overall truthfulness of what is occurring.

Matters are complicated with financial pressures, productivity and deadlines, and social pressure. Dealing with ethical challenges needs to be regulated with emphasis on these issues rather than relying on each filmmaker’s independent moral compass. One of the ways to achieve such an understanding would be to openly discuss these active ethical challenges that filmmakers confront regularly and develop a common understanding of how to balance the demands of external factors (funding, production, deadlines) with the conservation of subjects and preservation of facts.

How To Write A Documentary Script

Notes and drafts for a documentary script

Documentaries are fascinating and capture the brilliance of humanity when executed thoroughly. Every director and producer has his or her own routine of writing a documentary script, which can be very liberating to those who are starting out. Depending on the subject of the documentary, the schedule can be incredibly pressing, which means that having a system in place prior to embarking on a new documentary project can be quite rewarding. And don’t forget to check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking programs to find the best hands-on, intensive program for you.

Here are 7 steps on how to write a documentary script:

1. Short Pitches Green-light Projects

Before a script can even be written, you need a clear, precise, and short pitch. This pitch should be no longer than 5 pages because producers and executive producers are busy. They want to know that what you are offering is of quality and can be green lit.

2. Find Funding

Funding can be one of the hardest parts of the documentary business. Nowadays with technology, we can do a lot on a budget. However, you do want a quality feature-length budget that adequately fits your needs. This on the low end can amount to about $300,000. Find someone who shares your vision. This can be an individual with capital, a nonprofit organization, or even a network. What’s important to your funders is what will they get out of it? This can include recognition, promoting their cause, money, etc.

3. Blueprint Your Documentary

This is the time to organize and plan how the story will be transmitted to your audience. The outlined story is detailed in regards to how the film will play out. When you have this outline clear in your head, shooting the frame is much easier because you already know what you want. Some ways to organize is breaking down the outline into acts and having a topic for each one. Each of those acts culminate in the overall message that you are trying to convey. There may be some tweaking along the way, but the plan is there as a guide.

4. Writing the Script

Documentary script

A sample documentary script

You must work backwards. It is the only way to write a documentary script. Once you have collected your research, data, and interviews, only then can you write the script. It would be impossible to conceive what an interviewee is going to say and how that ties into your message. Once you have all of the facts and materials, then you can sit down and write the script and voice-overs.

5. Compel Your Viewer

Viewers want to connect with your project. Find compelling personal stories that will enthrall viewers. Emotionally, your viewers will open up and understand the complexity of the issue while making the issue entirely relatable. Every viewer wants to be transported somewhere else, learn something new, and then be motivated and moved by this information.

6. Declare Your Point Of View

Presenting the facts and reality isn’t always clean cut and unbiased. That isn’t to say that directors and producers spin a project a certain way but there is information that stays in a documentary and information that is cut. So what is it that you want your documentary to transmit? You will find that when you have this message, putting the entire script and production together is much easier and it is clearer to the audience regardless of whether or not they agree. They can still connect because of the clarity of the message. At the very least, the audience is given something to think about moving forward. As a director/writer/producer, you can be flexible and allow your story to unfold even if it’s not in the precise direction that you thought it would go.

7. Finesse Your Project

Be thorough with your writing and voice-overs. Writing and rewriting parts of the script is part of the process as you continue to define your message and refine the story. If you are using a narrator, you may have to readjust to your narrator’s style. Sometimes while you are fact checking, there may be some discrepancies so you want to make there that everything that you are presenting to the viewer is accurate and this is reflected in the rewriting process.

Documentaries aren’t an observation of humanity, but rather an opening door into our nature, into what drives us, what makes us fill with joy and weep with sorrow. Documentaries are real, with real people and dealing with real issues that are powerful and hit us at our core. Let your writing reflect those deep, moving messages and capture your audience emotionally.

Interested in learning more about the craft of creating excellent documentaries? Check out NYFA’s documentary filmmaking programs to find the best hands-on, intensive program for you.

Creating Emotion-Driven Documentaries: Five Excellent Examples

At its heart, filmmaking is about telling stories. Whether real or imagined, the job of the filmmaker is to communicate the story well and connect with the audience on an emotional level; when it comes to documentaries, the recent trend has been to really pack a punch with extremely impassioned subject matter.

Over the last ten years, we’ve witnessed the release of some of the most heart-rending non-fiction documentaries ever filmed. Of course, it isn’t easy to deliver highly sensitive material without coming across as insincere or over-the-top, and it’s a fine art which can take some time to perfect during documentary filmmaking school.

In the spirit of standing on the shoulders of giants, here are five documentary masters at work which serve as excellent examples on how to do it right.

Grizzly Man

See the trailer:

We don’t need to spend any time discussing the brilliance of Werner Herzog, one of the most celebrated cinematographers in the field of non-fiction. If you’ve ever seen one of Herzog’s documentaries—even one of his worse ones—you’ll know that he has a knack for picking fascinating subject matter and bringing the best out of it.

Grizzly Man is no exception. Covering the life and (rather terrible) death of Tim Treadwell, it’s hard to imagine what drives a man to live without protection in the midst of grizzly bears but Herzog gets as close as it’s possible. Treadwell’s hubris in the face of nature’s most powerful predators is much debated and proved to be his (and his girlfriend’s) end, but everything leading up to this finality will stir your emotions and have you sympathizing with the man…for better or worse.

Jesus Camp

See the trailer:

Very few documentaries get as much rise out of viewers as Jesus Camp, and the emotion most elicited in this documentary is usually ‘rage.’ Even by just watching the two-minute trailer above, you’ll quickly understand why this is the case.

Where does the line between ‘cult’ and ‘religion’ lie? That’s one of many controversial questions raised in the coverage of the Kids on Fire ministry and its operator, Becky Fischer, who spends her life aggressively preparing young children for spiritual warfare in the run up to the impending ‘end times.’ It drew the ire of both religious and secular organizations to such an extent that it was forced to close.

One of the crowning achievements of Jesus Camp is that it doesn’t impose any kind of viewpoint on the part of the creators, but simply lets the material speak for itself.

Dear Zachary

Only one word can be used to describe Dear Zachary.

Devastating.

Without wanting to reveal too many spoilers about this harrowing and tragic story, let’s just say this documentary is the emotional equivalent of a sledgehammer and will reduce most humans into floods of tears long before the credits roll.

Kurt Kuenne’s magnum opus and very personal memorial to his deceased friend (and the injustices of his death) is better watched than described, even if it’ll leave you so drained you’ll never want to watch it again.

Man On Wire

If Dear Zachary is the most harrowing documentary out there, Man On Wire has got to be the antithesis—very few movies will leave you feel as uplifted and awestruck as this telling of the Philippe Petit story.

Aside from being an impeccably crafted documentary from a technical standpoint, the man at the center of this biopic is a fascinating character. If you’re unaware of his madcap stunt—and few were before the documentary—Petit planned and trained extensively to pull off a single idea he’d obsessed about for years. In April 1974, he snuck into the newly constructed World Trade Center in New York and fired a tightrope wire across the roofs of the twin towers. He then walked across them.

The horrors of 9/11 are purposefully kept out of the documentary in an effort to make sure they don’t blight this incredible tale of a great man and two great buildings. It works.

Paradise Lost

See the trailer:

The story of the West Memphis Three is a well-known and complex one. In 1994, three teenagers were sent down for life for the murder of three other boys. The case and investigation—and subsequently the teens’ innocence—was fiercely debated over the course of two decades, before the three were released under a complicated innocence plea owing to new forensic evidence.

Numerous films have been made during this time and undoubtedly there’ll be many more to come, but the best among them is Paradise Lost. It provides an impressively objective take on the failings of the case and those involved, all the while not holding anything back. Be warned, however, that some of the footage can be upsetting at times.