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How to be a Documentary Filmmaker Part I

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Have you ever wondered how you can make a documentary? Here is the three step plan:

  1. Spend the equivalent amount of money for a small house on a film school diploma/degree.
  2. Drink way too much coffee during the school year to acquire the “seasoned” filmmaker-look.
  3. Start shooting and bragging about how you are the ONLY person on earth living consciously.

Okay, if you don’t have the cash and you don’t like coffee, here is the REAL five step plan that I recommend:

Step One: Purchasing a camera. I have film school classmates who graduated and sold their camera. I was flabbergasted. A filmmaker without a camera is like a cowboy without a gun (in the Wild West days). If you see a story happening around you what are you going to do? Sketch it in sand and hope someone will find it?

A camera is a camera is a camera. Does not matter if it is just your phone, a camcorder, a high-end SLR or a professional, broadcast quality beast of a machine (unless of course the machine becomes self-aware, in which case, unplug the machine and call 911). The camera has one function: to record a story well. Take some photography courses through your local library; watch some Youtube videos; do some research on what constitutes a good camera and put down the investment for your new weapon.

If you are green you can buy a camera from a store with a good return policy. Try it out for a week or two then return it if you don’t like it. Don’t feel guilty because they can still sell it as open-box item. You just helped out a fellow filmmaker/photographer who wants to buy that camera.

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Here are some things I look for in my camera:  a) High Definition resolution (at least 1080P), b) External Audio Input (can add external mic), c) Detachable Lens (can be used with different types of lens), d) Ease of Use (I don’t have time for a 600 page menu before I eat ), e) Good Reputation (Real customer reviews). I own a Canon 5D MkII (bought it open-box) with L-Series Lens and Sennheiser Shotgun Microphone. From time to time, I also use other cameras like my phone and my DJI Phantom.

Step Two: Finding a Story. Great stories are happening all around us. If you don’t think so, either you live on a very isolated desert island or you need to develop your eye for story. You also need to be very extroverted and social. I was a very private and shy boy, but one day my psych prof. showed me a graph of how type A personality people have more fun. So I evolved out of my shell. Now I am a talkative outgoing guy with a talent to hold any conversation with almost anyone. Acquire this skill, you NEED it!

To uncover stories you need to talk to interesting people. Hear their words and feel their emotions. Make them trust you and at ease with you then yell “Action!”. This works 99% of the time. There are people who for whatever reason do not want to share their experiences. Filmmakers respect that. We are not annoying peeping Toms. So I say thank you and I move on to the next story.

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For your film to work you really need one thing: Emotions. You cannot just tell a tale from beginning to finish. You are not a simple tape recorder, you are a filmmaker. Filmmakers are like pigs digging for truffles. We push on, squeeze through, pry on, bite through, chew on, pull through piles of dirt, roots and crap until we get the golden prize: Raw Emotions. Capture this on camera and you are well on your way to becoming a great filmmaker.

Step Three: Shooting the Story. Next you need to know how to shoot the story well. Film schools help but who has the money? The best alternative is to read filmmaking books, watch great films, listen to audiobooks and podcasts on filmmaking. When you feel you are ready, go shoot something, anything. Rince and repeat.

When I asked an old fisherman how to become good at fishing, his answer was simple: fish. A filmmaker needs to shoot. The more you go out and shoot the better you will get. Learning from doing is the only way to improve. I graduated film school in 2012 and in the next five years I made three documentaries. Each one gets a bit better. Look at each film you make as a step ladder to your next one. Make each film as perfectly as your time, energy and patience allow then move on to the next project.

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Here are some pointers on how to shoot the story well:

a) Use a Tripod, Unless you have a great steadicam don’t try handheld. Tripod is your savior. Get a good one with a fluid head that will give you smooth motion.

b) Good Lighting. Sun is your best friend. Think of it as a free 30K colour-balanced light, but make sure it is not too harsh on your subject. For indoors, stay away from fluorescent lighting and never point the light straight at your subject like you are taking a mugshot. Experiment and have fun, but take note of what works.

c) Sound is Key. You will thank me later but get a shotgun mic for your camera, even an entry-level one is 100 times better than the onboard mic. If you can afford it get a high-end mic on a pole and hire a friend as the boom operator.  Separate digital recorders are cool but I find it is not worth their trouble at the indie level.

d) colour and composition. Take a photography course at your local college or through the library and you will be good. Get free photography magazines at places like Henry’s and learn from the masters.

e) Shoot Extra Footage. Always shoot more than you need. It is free, you are there, your subject is ready so why not? Some of my best footage are from casual conversations when I intentionally left the camera on. Get shots that establish the mood, the environment, the time, the place. Shoot like you are a toddler who just stepped into a playground. What pulls your attentions? The swing? The slide? The sandbox? Whatever. If a toddler finds it interesting to look at, chances are your audiences will too.

(To be Continued…)

In the next part I will be discussing Step Four: Editing the Story and Step Five: Showing your film.

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