Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Technical Considerations

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Fascinating characters can let you get away w a lot, but pay attn to your doc’s tech aspects.

I can think of few things more frustrating for a programmer than sitting down to a documentary and being simultaneously enraptured by a topic or interview subject but repulsed by the shoddiness of the filmmaking. It pains me to have to pass on some otherwise promising projects because they just don’t measure up professionally or aesthetically.

In a perfect world, a viewer could overlook inadequate lighting, shaky camerawork, and bad sound to focus on a stimulating interview subject, but the reality is, that’s asking a lot. You might be able to get away with one of these shortcomings, to a limited extent, but you do your film, your subjects, and yourself as a filmmaker a disservice by paying short shrift to these critical aspects.

I mention aesthetics above, which I should clarify: I don’t mean your film has to be pretty, nor does it have to be slick – I’m often distracted by projects that are overproduced (a topic to delve into another time) – but it should display at least some level of technical aptitude that doesn’t make it difficult or painful to watch. If your audience is so distracted trying to make sense of the sound or the images due to their inferior quality, that makes for a miserable viewing experience.

As I’ve often noted, I recognize that many doc makers try to pull off too much out financial constraints, functioning as one-person crews and rarely having state-of-the-art equipment. So I realize that you’re not always in a position to be able to hire additional sound, lighting, or camera people, or to rent the latest camera package, but I caution you to be cognizant of what you’re realistically able to accomplish on your own. Check your footage and try to make adjustments to improve its clarity. Show your footage to a dispassionate friend or acquaintance to get a second opinion before you get too far along in the process. Unfortunately, given the lack of funding options out there, documentary filmmaking is about nothing if not sacrifice. You may end up having to dig into your wallet for a better microphone or to hire a DP for select shoots – the alternative is you spend countless hours and limited resources putting together a technically deficient-to-unwatchable project, no matter how intriguing its subjects or themes.

Note: With Sundance mere weeks away, I’ll be suspending my regular Dear Documentary Filmmakers series for awhile to get through the Sundance Docs in Focus.

1 Comment

Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

One response to “Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Technical Considerations

  1. Great post. I’m a DP and I can’t tell you how many otherwise strong films I’ve seen asphixiated by poor or uniformed technical and aesthetic decisions. I wish I could say that the problem is strictly financial, that the makers just didn’t have the resources to hire crew who know what they are doing. But the truth is that more often than not the culprit isn’t the budget, but rather hubris: the idea that a good idea is sufficient to make a good film, and that the craft of filmmaking is something that you can just pick up along the way.

    If you’re a first-time filmmaker with a great idea, it’s OK to admit that you don’t know everything. The answer is to employ the strategy that entrepreneurs have been using for centuries: if you aren’t an expert, surround yourself with people who are. The cinematographer isn’t there just to point the camera, he’s there to take the vision for the project that’s in your head, understand it, help you take it to the next level, and then translate it onto the screen. A good DP will probably save you money in the end. He can see problems coming from a distance, help you avoid them, and ultimately mitigate some of the risks you are taking with your project. He is there to advise you on what will be necessary in order to make the kind of film you want to make.

    Thanks for touching on this, Basil.



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