5 Documentary Tips from a Director
Two years ago, I was privileged to lead an incredible team of filmmakers to produce a documentary about child poverty in the Philippines. Adam Collins and I spent a summer living among kids in a garbage dump on one of the Filipino islands to shoot this documentary. After we returned to the US, several other guys joined Adam and I in a production office editing the film for several months. It was my first (and currently only) documentary. It was an experience I loved and will never forget - and I learned a ton along the way.
If you're considering your first documentary, awesome! There are so many resources that really helped my team with the practicalities and planning (links at the bottom of this post) - but there are several documentary tips I learned along the way that will really help me going forward.
If I ever make another film, here are 5 documentary tips that my Filipino film taught me (that may help you as well).
#1 - Narrow Your Focus
We came back from the Philippines with 50 hours worth of footage. We had interviews about hunger, religion, PTSD, healthcare, overpopulation, sex trade, and all manner of abuse. We had footage of the most random things- and lots of it. I felt overwhelmed.
We ended up writing 5 different scripts because I couldn't decide what the film's focus should be. What I really wanted to do was to bottle up a little bit of everythinginto a single film. So that's what I asked for from my editing team and our writers. Looking back, it was a poor decision. Here's why I say that.
The most powerful documentaries don't begin with the issues - they begin with the story of a person.
The best documentaries - the ones that make the most impact - are driven by the stories of very few individuals. Then they add interviews with experts, statistical data, and a little narration to enforce the message.
But all those elements should only exist to uphold the story.
In our documentary, I had this reversed (at least in execution). We ended up using the stories of three children to support our expose on poverty among children. By focusing on hunger, violence, and mental distress, we disconnected our audience from an actual person.
Empathy is your most powerful tool. Let your audience connect with another human being. That's the point.
I should feel for someone else - someone with a different story from my own. Focus on doing that and you will have a story that changes people.
#2 - Don't Narrate. Show.
Probably my biggest regret in the planning of our documentary was how much narration was used. This was entirely my fault and an error of planning . While our narrator, James Hayward Brinkley, was so excellent, every moment in the film is narrated. It sounds like you're listening to a textbook on poverty being read while corresponding images display on the screen. Does the audience connect with the narrator? Is the narrator a character? Nope. He's just there, obediently reading a beautiful script about things that should have just been shown.
Only two years later, I am beginning to understand the power of the phrase, "a picture is worth a thousand words."
By showing a scene of a starving boy choosing to give his portion of rice to a younger brother, you bring your audience with you into the moment. They hear the sound of the spoon hitting the empty bowl. They see the longing in the older boy's eyes. They see sadness. They hear the gaping silence of the younger brother who understands the sacrifice. No words are needed here. If there are any words, they should come from the boys. Not a narrator.
Real life isn't narrated. Narration adds a level of disconnect between real life and your story. Just keep that in mind. Looking back on it, I would love to somehow have no narration in the film at all. But that decision really needed to be made in the planning of the shooting process- not post-production.
#3 - Invest in Audio
We had no money for audio equipment - and we paid for it in quality. Our team knew this was going to be a problem, but I think if we had made this issue known, someone would have donated audio equipment.
The majority of our time editing the film was spent refining the terrible clarity of our audio. And it is a tribute to the skill and determination of our editors that most of the audio is actually pretty good.
But personally, I feel that getting the audio right is actually more important than video. But that's a blog post for another day.
Music is really important too. If you use music (sub-tip: use music sparingly), find the best music you can afford to license. I've seen a ton of documentaries that I felt were ruined with the elevator music soundtrack that ran in the background. Yes, high quality, artistic scores are usually expensive to license. If you can't afford it, in my opinion, simply go without music at all. Bad music hurts your movie more than no music at all. This is something we did well on - our music ended up being a perfect fit (though we ended up toning it down in later edits).
#4 - Get to Know your Subject
Before we shot our film, we had never been to The Philippines. When Adam and I showed up to Mary Grace's home to film her family, they had never met us. The result was surprisingly devastating. What I learned was that the best documentaries provide time for the director/cameramen to become friends with many of their subjects.
This can be particularly challenging for international documentaries. In truth, I believe we could have had time for more intentional relationship building, but it just wasn't on our radar. We had to cut almost all of our interviews because our subjects were clearly confused, even a little embarrassed to be on camera.
We had not fairly communicated our intention or proven ourselves trustworthy for them to be vulnerable on camera - which is what makes a really great interview. It is unbelievably important for your subject to feel comfortable.
Become friends with your subject before ever hitting the record button. They need to trust you. And you need to be trustworthy.
#5 - Be Ready for the After Party
We spent hundreds of hours per week editing our film. Toward the end, we were working 16 hours straight per day (a tribute to the ethic and discipline of our team). Somehow, I thought our lives would become so much easier and less stressful when the film was done. Yet to my surprise, we were just as busy after the film as we were making it.
Film showings. Traveling. Speaking. Interviews with news stations and reporters. Answering fan mail. Planning distribution channels. Marketing. Additional products (shirts, stickers, posters, music, etc). Accounting and financial management. The new roles overwhelmed my already tired team. We were exhausted all the time.
I never saw it coming. The film demanded so much from our team that many of our plans for additional films and projects had to be tabled indefinitely.
If you can afford it, many of these responsibilities can be hired out. But many shouldn't be, especially if you're the director. A documentary is so much more than a product - it is your message to the world, and it demands accountability and credibility. Much of that can only be fulfilled by your involvement. By attaching your name and reputation to your documentary, you tell the world you are willing to put yourself on the line for its message. That adds a lot. Don't hire that out.
Learning Is a Good Thing
I wouldn't change anything about our film - it has made an impact on so many people and continues to raise support for our friends in The Philippines. And our production team was absolutely incredible. But as the director, these are just a few of the documentary tips I took away from the experience. These are things I will do differently next time.
Because of this documentary, I believe everything I make after it will be better because of it. I wouldn't change a thing.
You can see our full finished film (and the trailer) at the top of this post.