Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Process

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Endless dance/theatre rehearsal scenes are of primary interest only to those in that discipline.

While I’ve previously written about doc makers who don’t successfully convey why their audience should be as enamored with their musician or visual artist subject as the filmmakers are, this DDF is a bit more specific to performative art topics, such as dance or theatre. I’ve run across scores of films that go behind the scenes of these disciplines, to show the development of a modern dance concert or the new staging of a classic play, for example. I enjoy being afforded a privileged look into the creative process – this can be illuminating, pulling back the layers between what the final version shown to the public is and where the project began.

However, unless you’re fortunate enough to be documenting the most exceptional, world-class performers/creators, there’s only so much an audience can take. The problem for me comes when the filmmaker doesn’t quite know when enough’s enough, and overindulges in scene after scene of the same kind of footage – for example, endless scenes of rehearsals in the studio or on the stage. For dance-focused projects, I personally feel that it’s incredibly difficult to convey to a general audience the meaning and intent of movement. Unless a viewer is well-versed in the discipline, either by having experience as a dancer, or having a lot of exposure to dance performances, s/he just doesn’t have the ability to read the vocabulary of dance that easily. Yes, a beautiful movement can be appreciated as a beautiful movement, but this can only go so far – and if you shoot a dozen sequences of movements being rehearsed, you’ll get diminished returns – your audience will start to get really bored.

Given its typical narrative focus, audiences generally have a more intrinsic understanding of acting, so you can get away with more if your subject is the stage. But, once again, if you are shooting a new mounting of Shakespeare, and just show your audience the actors rehearsing over and over and over, this can get tedious very quickly. Perhaps a seasoned actor or an aspiring drama student would gain a lot from watching this element time and again, but is that the only audience that you want to appreciate your film? Ask yourself why you’re including the footage you’re including, and is there something different that can add to the project instead. For example, better recent projects I’ve seen have smartly taken a more rounded approach to this kind of topic, spending time not just on acting or dance rehearsals, but also on what goes into the staging’s sound or music design, casting, art design, lighting, set design, blocking, etc. In this way, you give your audience that privileged look, but with a much wider scope than the myopic view into just one facet of what you find interesting about the creative process.

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Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

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