Dear Documentary Filmmakers: If you need to put an intermission in your doc, you could probably use more time w an editor.
No, I’m not joking. It may not happen often, but I can remember at least three recent docs that I’ve watched that have literally included an intermission because the bloody thing was so long.
I’m not going to tell filmmakers that your films must be a certain length – this is best determined by your project and its needs. Some films should be 90 minutes, while others can sustain a three hour running time, and still others are 15 minute shorts padded to feature length. You need to assess how much time your film needs to best tell its story, to best express your vision, and to best engage an audience.
Don’t lose sight of this last point! Yes, documentary filmmaking can be, for many people, a form of artistic expression, not just a vehicle for advocacy. As such, it can be a very personal enterprise – especially for documentary filmmakers, who often, out of necessity or choice, may work in isolation on their projects relative to narrative filmmaking. As such, it’s understandable that you’re making your film for yourself. However, most filmmakers aren’t just content with their film having an audience of one – they want their film to be seen and embraced by others. I’m not saying you should only make a film for others, but it’s important to keep an outside audience in mind, and consider how your film will or won’t work for them. You can actively choose not to care too much about this – that’s fine – but you might also let this outside perspective inform the choices you make about the film’s final form. Often this outside perspective can come from working with an editor – s/he can help you take a step back from your project, see if from a different viewpoint, and bring clarity where it might be lacking.
Speaking specifically to this week’s DDF – running time – this can manifest in a simple question: is there an audience that will want to watch the comprehensive, year-by-year recounting of the esoteric history of [fill in the blank]? Your exhaustive review of trivia related to this subject may be something that you’re excited by, but ask yourself if it really needs to be quite so exhaustive for a casual watcher. Can you instead distill whatever it is that interests you in your subject into a much easier to digest, closer to standard running time length, so that you have the potential of captivating someone who’s not already predisposed, as you are, to the intricacies of your pet subject? Hook them with the high points – if you’re successful, maybe you’ll end up converting them to your cause and they’ll seek out more information as a result. You don’t need to give it all to them right at the onset.