Lessons Learned in Documentary Production

While making What Stigma? (which, incidentally, looks like I’ll be holding off on for a bit longer, while waiting to hear back from a few film festivals) I got a taste of what it might take to make a feature length documentary, essentially working in every role and turning hours upon hours of footage into twelve and a half minutes. Here’s what I learned in the process.

Plan

I mean really, really plan. Plan everything. Write a script, even if it’s just an outline of what you want to cover. I started with a treatment that very vaguely set out what I planned to do and even that made a huge difference. The project being my dissertation also meant I had an enormous amount of academic background research to do. I mostly ignored the written part of the work because I became so wrapped up in editing, but what I did actually served me well. I knew the subject and that informed the edit, the interview questions, the structure, everything. I assumed documentaries were made to find answers, that directors had questions. How wrong I was, in the end any deviation from my original narrative was superfluous and ended up on the cutting room floor. I only answered the questions I didn’t need to ask.

It sounds cynical, as if I’m going in with pre-conceptions about the subject, but that’s not the whole picture. Research answers the questions. If you interview someone, you have a reason to; you think they’ll have something interesting to say. You already know what it is because you researched contributors, not because you impose your ideas and beliefs, but because you seek out the people who can answer the questions you want to ask, and in doing so, find out the answers in advance. Without doing this, interviewing would become messy and unfocused.

An example: Initially I wanted to include some colourful events to avoid the usual treatment of mental health in media, so I contacted David McCarthy of Mad Pride, and went to their Cork City event. I knew about Mad Pride’s goals as an organisation, but I wanted to stick to stigma as a topic. While interviewing David, however, he spoke about forced treatment, electroshock therapy and other very interesting issues. I desperately wanted to include this, but because I hadn’t planned for this human rights element of mental health to be part of the film, it had to be cut. If I had left it in, David would have been alone on an island speaking about a topic no one else mentioned.

The best laid plan would have interviewees answer in an almost scripted manner, but that removes their individuality and spontaneity. At times tangents can provide great content, and the unexpected can be brilliant, but there is a limit and it has to make sense. So plan, but be flexible.

Content

There’s no such thing as too much content. When interviews fell through and I organised replacements I realised that I should have been interviewing as many people as possible, for as long as possible. That’s not to say they all need to be used, but having them gives the editor (or me, in this case) more options, more to draw upon in constructing a compelling narrative, and avoids that awful moment when there’s a massive gap in the plot and no way to fill it. It happened to me, I don’t recommend it because fixing it is incredibly stressful. Do be clear about what you want to cover and make sure you get it; twice if possible.

Visuals are even more crucial. Having a massive b-roll to draw on allows more creativity in editing interviews. Sometimes people make a great point in a long and roundabout way, extra footage allows extra cuts. Again, you don’t need to use it all, but it’s always good to have.

Length

Shorter is better. I wanted to include points such as David McCarthy’s aforementioned deviations from stigma, but that would have taken more time and required a longer film. My brief was 10-20 minutes, leaning toward shorter, and the film needed maybe 30 minutes to cover the human rights aspect as well as stigma. With a single issue to cover it can be seen as a miniature version of a feature, or a chapter in a feature. For me it was both. In terms of contributors, I had a large number for a short doc – 8 in total. Had it been a chapter of a feature, half that number would make more sense. The idea that it could be a chapter gives me an idea of how a feature is constructed, point by point, and in the same way, the film moves from point to point, but with two minute chapters. By leaving out some points and cutting to 12 minutes, the film is direct and clear about the single topic of stigma, which was the original plan. A whole new, larger and more detailed plan would be necessary to make a longer film, but the process is the same. 90 minutes would require as much concision as twelve and a half, and so each point would have to be carefully approached and structured to keep the viewer engaged. An important lesson for future work.

Sound

Don’t mess around with sound. It rhymes, remember it. I lost interviews to bad sound, with others I lost hours trying to fix audio issues that emerged at the editing stage. Check the sound on location and at home on the shoot day, and be prepared to re-interview someone if there are issues. Stop interviews if you make a mistake. I had to stop Kathleen Lynch after she answered my first question because I forgot to turn on one of my two mics. And yes, have backup microphones.

Use the best equipment you can too. I ended up buying a whole new microphone setup that cost close to the price of my camera halfway through the project to improve sound quality, and it was worth every penny. Sound tells your story, not pretty images. I left in a few things I was unhappy with sound-wise, and the major thing I’ll take away is an utter disgust for poor sound. Move interviewees, stop them, interrupt them, and ask questions again, whatever it takes. Better to have them sound a bit grumpy, than have no usable sound at all.

Structure

As you reach the editing suite/corner of the living room with a computer in it, define a structure. Do not put everything in a vague order on your timeline. Write notes, use post-its, anything to get a set structure before the actual editing in your software. Putting your content on a timeline is a sure way to frustrate yourself unless you’re 90% sure of the structure you’ve chosen. I made the mistake of placing five minutes of content on the timeline, only to move it around repeatedly. If I’d just used notes or post-its, I could have avoided the slow process of moving, cutting, adjusting and tinkering that comes with editing on the software itself. Go analogue and use paper. It saves time in the long run to plan your edit before you touch a mouse.

Trust Other People

This is the single biggest lesson I learned. Everything else is just experience; this one requires a personality change.

I’m willing to admit that I have had, in the past, serious difficulty showing other people my work. I wanted it to be finished, and perfect, before anyone saw it. This is absurd. Other people are a very small sample audience, and in the long run, you want to entertain, inform and engage an audience. Listening to what people told me during the editing, filming and planning phases made the finished piece better. I took on every piece of advice I was offered, and while I didn’t implement every suggestion, between my idea for what I wanted, and the advice of others, the film emerged stronger, shorter and tighter.

Of course, you need to develop a thick skin. It’s hard to hear things such as ‘James has been seduced by his contributors’ or ‘the first chapter is too long and boring’ but it’s necessary. The final cut solved both problems, and had I ignored or not sought advice, then it would be a bloated mess.

It’s easy to become very wrapped up in the process. As director and editor, I filmed the interviews, asked the questions and then tried to edit. I knew the context of every word, so it became very difficult to separate myself from the material and be critical. The input of others is important to avoid this eventuality. Watching something a few hundred times makes judgement more difficult in many ways. I know what an interviewee is talking about, but did I cut so much that it no longer makes sense to someone who hasn’t seen the entire uncut interview? It’s hard to tell yourself, and hard also to ask for advice when you feel like another day of editing might kill you, but the end product is worth taking that risk. Just remember to ask people you trust and whose opinions you respect.

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