|Lost in La Mancha|
Not only do you have to eat, but you need to spend
time with your subjects as fellow human beings and not just as filmmakers.
There’s no better time to do this than over a meal. Put your camera
down occasionally and experience life with your subjects. How can
you hope to understand your subject’s life if you don’t experience
it a bit for yourself?
Turn off the air conditioner, and avoid waterfalls.
Bad sound is probably the worst thing you can come
away from a shoot with. Audiences will more easily forgive a grainy,
low-light scene or even an out-of-focus one as long as they can
hear what’s going on. Yes, you’re supposed to be documenting reality,
but reality always plays better when you can hear it. Your sound
mixer may be good, but there is no such thing as an air conditioner
or waterfall filter.
Turning the camera off is as important as turning
The more footage you shoot, the more footage you’ll
have to cope with in the editing process. Rather than shooting endless
hours of material, learn to start making choices in the field. Yes,
tape is cheap, but what you’ll pay an editor to wade through hours
of “shoe leather” footage will more than consume your savings if
you shoot too much.
Turning off the camera can also be a signal to your
subjects that you respect their privacy, something you’ll have to
do to keep their trust. You don’t have to have a camera trained
on a subject every second of the day to tell their story. Learn
to know when you’ve gotten the scene and can back off. It will always
be better if you back off before your subjects ask you to.
And don’t worry, if you miss something, you can always
come up with a creative alternative way of relaying that part of
Do what you must to tell the story.
The story is prime, and all formal concepts are in
service of the story. Break whatever “rules” you have to in order
to communicate the information. If a no narration approach doesn’t
work in your purely observational documentary, then scrap it; if
something as off-the-wall as animation does work, then include it!
If you tell the story well, no one will care how you do it.
Plan to hire an editing consultant.
Expect that somewhere in the long editing process
you are going to lose all perspective on your film. You will. And
your editor probably will, as well. Be open to the opinions of fellow
filmmakers, test the film out on different types of audiences and
get a sharp and authoritative editorial mind to step in toward the
end of the process. An editing consultant will help you fix all
the things that don’t work. Even more important, they’ll prevent
you from “fixing” all of the things that do work!
Make a film that you’d be proud to watch with your
Don’t make a film that your subjects hate. They’ve
given you their lives as raw material, so don’t betray their trust.
Always ask yourself, “Could I comfortably sit next to my subject
as they watch this film?” If the answer is ‘no,’ you should think
seriously about what you’re doing and why. You may be fighting for
social change or exposing political corruption, but you will always
be documenting people, and you need to know where you stand on the
ethics of what you’re doing before you send your completed film
out into the world.
Make a film that pleases you.
In all the efforts to be ethical, to respect your
subjects and to tell a good story, don’t lose sight of the fact
that the film is your artistic creation. It’s your film. You should
enjoy the process (or at least appreciate it if enjoyment is not
possible!) and feel that the finished film is as much an embodiment
of your artistic expression as it is a document of your subject.
If your film pleases you, there’s sure to be an audience somewhere
out there that it will please, as well.