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AFI Dallas: Documentary 101


by Stephen Becker 28 Mar 2009

The title of one of the panels Saturday afternoon at the Nasher Sculpture Center was “Documentary or VLog: What’s a Documentary Really?” And that proved to be the subject of the panel. For about five minutes. The rest of the time, though, was an education for anyone who has ever thought about making a doc […]

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The title of one of the panels Saturday afternoon at the Nasher Sculpture Center was “Documentary or VLog: What’s a Documentary Really?” And that proved to be the subject of the panel. For about five minutes. The rest of the time, though, was an education for anyone who has ever thought about making a doc from three guys who know their way around one. Here are the best pointers that emerged:

YOUTUBE HAS MADE THE JOB HARDER: People being interviewed have always tended to clam up when the cameras start to roll. But the ubiquity of YouTube, with all its videos passed around of people looking less than their best, has caused doc subjects to pause before offering their true self.

“The cameras are doing two things. We either get a measured approach when we talked to them or they sort of shutdown,” Haze director Pete Schuermann said of the college students he interviewed about his binge-drinking film.

So how do you get people to open up more? Rock Prophecies director John Chester has a strategy.

“I take a camera right away, because I want to immediately start the process of wearing them down,” he said. Most people will eventually start to get more comfortable.

GET THEM BUSY: Still having trouble getting people relaxed? Have them do something they would be doing anyway.

“I think you set up situations where they are preoccupied with the task at hand,” Chester said. If you are interviewing chefs, talk to them while they’re cooking.

SHOOT IN MINI DVD AT THE MINIMUM: If you have any hopes that your film will make it onto television, you’ve got to be in HD.

GIVE ‘EM A TASTE: Once you’ve got your film made, consider offering more than just a trailer. Eric Mofford, a producer on the forward-thinking Houston We Have a Problem, suggested putting a long enough clip of the film online so that people really get a sense of the film (as opposed to some quick-cutting, pack-in-the-info trailer).

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS: And speaking of those trailers – be sure you know your fair use rules backwards and forwards (or at least know a lawyer who does). The example was made of Super Size Me, the 2004 film about America’s fast-food addiction. In the movie, you see the McDonald’s logo throughout as director Morgan Spurlock eats there everyday for a month. But in the trailer, you won’t find it. The difference is that it can be argued that shooting in McDonalds, and consequently showing their logos, was vital to telling the story. The law doesn’t care about your ability to sell your film, though.

Want to read up on fair use now? A good start is the Center for Social Media’s Documentary Filmmakers Statement of Best Practices in Fair Use. It’s not beach reading, but it might save you some heartache down the line.

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