Category Archives: Dear Documentary Filmmakers

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: First Impressions

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Submit artwork-free DVDs – don’t pre-dispose programmers to form opinions- it could hurt you.

Although I’m immediately thinking of film festival submissions, this DDF could easily apply to sending your film in for consideration by sales agents and distributors, at least to some extent. At the core, this advice is about the first impression your film (and you) make to those individuals who potentially may select your film to gain wider exposure.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Navel-Gazing

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: You’re enamored w your artist/musician subject – don’t assume that the uninitiated will be too.

This is a common problem I’ve found with docs focused on art or music. To speak specifically about music docs, by far the more abused subgenre of the two, many filmmakers make the mistake of assuming that just because they like a musician or band, it’s self-evident that everyone else does too. They get permission to follow some band on tour and/or in the recording studio, and the result is a generic behind the scenes “band on tour” doc. Unfortunately, more often than not, it doesn’t go much further than this – minimal or no effort is made to convey why the filmmaker thinks they’re worth following as subjects, or why the audience should care if they aren’t already fans.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Excess

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Too much of anything can be annoying. Take it easy w graphics effects, cards, etc…

This could be expanded to include many other things that can be done to excess, such as narration, but I’ve basically addressed that elsewhere, or music, but that merits its own DDF sometime in the future, and I’d rather keep this one visually focused.

Generally, the advice here boils down to “less is more,” at least a lot of the time. I was specifically inspired to write about this by a doc maker who seemed to be so enraptured with Google Earth that s/he used it in their film about every other scene. I get it, you want to use a cool new technology to add visual interest to your project – but take a step back and assess its impact on your overall film. Is its use distracting, or diminishing the impact of other elements in your film? Is it fun to look at the first time, but more and more irritating each time you go back to that well? Is it necessary or are you just indulging yourself by playing with a new toy? I’m not advocating eliminating all visual effects, of course – I’m simply saying think about the most effective and appropriate ways to employ them.

The same thing can be said for storytelling elements like text cards. I happen to prefer cards over narration as a general rule, if you feel characters’ dialogue doesn’t explain your situation clearly enough, but, again, rein them in. Be succinct and strategic about how much text you put in front of a viewer and at what points. I’ve seen projects where it felt like I was reading the opening scrawl of STAR WARS every 10 minutes or so – if you need to provide that much exposition via cards, something’s clearly amiss with the way you’ve put together your film.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Director-As-Subject

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Every time you’re on camera, your doc drags. Why are you IN your film? Focus on your subjects.

I wish I knew where this trend was coming from, but there has been an increasing number of docs in the past few years where the filmmaker has decided s/he needs to be on camera, even if the film is not a personal one. The worst of these place the director in the position of an on-camera subject and/or host, and usually end up distracting the viewer from the film’s true topic, becoming instead all about the filmmaker, leading the audience through his/her filmmaking journey. Let me state this emphatically – unless the film is about you as a central protagonist, or unless your absence would severely jeopardize your project, you don’t belong in it.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Noise

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: If there are disruptive kids/pets around, you may want to reschedule your shoot.

This one is pretty basic, I’ll admit, but it still bears consideration. WC Fields famously offered the following advice: “Never work with animals or children.” I wouldn’t go quite so far as to ban them completely from your films, but, seriously, if you’re trying to get an interview with an important subject, you want your audience to be able to concentrate on what s/he is saying, not on the dog barking in the next room, or the precocious brat competing for his parent’s (or the camera’s) attention. Unless you’re a one-man crew and your subject is alone, there must be someone else around to distract the loveable little moppet and puppy, right? Otherwise, maybe consider filming that interview when Junior’s at school or walking the dog…

While I can understand to some extent if you’re capturing verité footage, even in that case, you will still want to be able to include something useable in your film – ie, something that audiences can properly understand. If noisy verité footage is not pivotal, you shouldn’t use it – it will be too disruptive to have the impact you want it to have anyway.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Presentation

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: On-screen titled chapters can make your doc look like an educational film- be careful.

This might seem like more of a pet peeve than past DDFs but this really is a question of presentation – how you communicate not only your film’s creative/informational content, but also how you demonstrate your own filmmaking skill.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Unpredictability

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Some stories don’t have happy endings- be wary of ending your film on a false note.

This note is pretty self-explanatory, but it speaks to a larger issue at the heart of much non-fiction filmmaking. Depending on the kind of project you’re making, one of the most exciting aspects of documentary is that you might not exactly know where your story or subjects will take you – unlike fiction projects, you’re typically not working with a script, at least not one under your total control in all cases. Following the potential twists and turns of your story can simultaneously energize you (keeping you engaged with a project that will take months or more likely years to take to completion) as well as freak you out (how is that unexpected development going to fit in with the story you originally planned?).

This unpredictability at the heart of some non-fiction filmmaking is also exciting for your audience – truth is stranger than fiction, after all. Watching how your film takes off in unforeseen directions can often leave a lasting impression, moreso perhaps than a more expected trajectory would allow.

Resist the urge to try to make what your documentary actually turns out to be into what you anticipated it was going to be when you started. Be true to your story and trust in your audience to roll with it. If your subjects don’t end up in the place you wanted them to be, that’s too bad. If this ruins the concept for your film, then rethink it – don’t just manufacture an artificial way to get to that point – it’s intellectually dishonest and your viewers won’t buy it.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Self-Indulgence

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Watching someone else’s therapy sessions isn’t necessarily as interesting as you might think.

I appreciate the various forms that non-fiction projects can take – from social issue-oriented docs to essay films to guilty pleasure competition docs. That said, there can come a point where the personal doc crosses the line from potentially interesting and relatable to a wider audience to a completely self-indulgent vehicle that’s only going to be of interest to the filmmaker. I want to be clear here – I’m not even talking about films that are “commercial” or “non-commercial,” as in what will or won’t potentially sell. I’m just talking about films that can successfully engage a viewer who doesn’t happen to be you, yourself. You can certainly make films which are really just for yourself, but, if you choose to do so, you have to keep in mind the very distinct possibility that no one else is likely to get much out of them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make these types of films, but it does suggest that maybe they’re not something you should necessarily share with others, or expect others to embrace. I liken these types of films to diary entries or therapy sessions – I love that making these kinds of projects help you sort through some personal issues, but unless I happen to know you really well, and know what your issues are, I’m not likely to appreciate them or want to spend time watching them. Bottom line – seeking festival/broadcast audiences for your film suggests that you think an audience will get something out of your project, so be reasonably certain that your project reaches beyond yourself to involve others – otherwise, it’s likely to fall on deaf ears.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Subjects

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: I don’t have to like your main subject, but you need to engage me enough to care what happens next.

Viewers don’t necessarily have to like your protagonist (I actively dislike a lot of them…) but s/he has to inspire some emotion or at least have a story that’s intriguing enough to keep an audience watching. This is character fundamentals 101 – as a documentarian, at some point, you became convinced that this subject was worth filming for some reason – most filmmakers don’t select bland, boring protagonists. Over the long process that it often takes to get your film made, don’t get too close to your film and lose sight of that initial spark, and, especially, don’t forget to convey it to the viewers – otherwise, we may fail to connect with your subject the way you did, and we may ultimately give up on your larger story.

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Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Here We Go Again

I’ve taken a long break from tweeting/posting new entries in my “Dear Documentary Filmmakers” series, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been idle. Over the past several months, I’ve been busy watching a lot of documentaries, for various purposes, and a fair amount of these films have inspired a new cycle of DDFs which I’ll be expanding upon here. I should note once again that I never identify what films inspire my DDFs, nor for which entity I was considering them. I take pains to make them general because, more often than not, the issues I have with one doc show up in other films as well, so I’m not interested in singling out the shortcomings of a specific film or filmmaker.

As I’ve explained in the past, while there’s bound to be a certain amount of snark in these tips on occasion, ultimately, they’re meant to be instructive or at least to provide a much-needed reality check.

That brings us to today’s:

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Your collection of random YouTube videos is not a doc. At least not a good one. Stop it.

I mean, really, this almost says it all, but let me briefly expand. In its five years of existence, YouTube has emerged primarily as a place for short form content. Some users have been successful at building followers by posting series – confessional or diary-like vlogs and the like. Yes, it’s in the realm of possibility that some talented filmmaker out there might be able to craft an intelligible documentary out of a series of shorter pieces originally posted to YouTube or a site like it. However, that’s not what I’ve been seeing – instead, neophyte (at least I hope so) filmmakers have simply burned a series of unconnected or loosely connected pieces together with absolutely no rhyme or reason (or maybe the reasoning is that if it’s feature length, it must be a feature?) on a DVD and submitted it as a “feature.” Doing something like this neither results in a feature, nor in a documentary, that is well-crafted or is likely to be seen outside the confines of YouTube. It betrays a lack of filmmaking skill and a lack of understanding of the kinds of projects that are typically considered by festivals or broadcasters. Plus, while it might be mildly amusing to watch Charlie biting my finger on YouTube for a minute, it would become incredibly tedious once expanded to feature length…

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