There’s nothing better than a series of challenging shoots to improve your video production skills. For me and my partner in crime, we thought we had nailed the art of the short documentary after producing, shooting, and editing weekly documentaries all over Alaska, featuring eccentric subjects in some of the harshest of conditions, for 65 weeks in a row.
But then we were hired by PBS to create and produce a series called “Indie America,” featuring ordinary subjects, in the most uneventful locations across the country. It turns out, creating engaging documentary videos about regular people who live in suburban America is a lot more challenging than tracking a cabin dweller who keeps wolverines for pets.
In the two-year process of making these videos, however, we’ve picked up some tips that can help just about anybody improve their documentary skills. And that goes for not only short, web docs, but also for anyone making a longer feature or program for broadcast, as well as corporate videographers. For us, at the end of our cross-country tour, we applied these lessons to our corporate and commercial work and were honored with a couple Emmys this year. Maybe these tips can help you, too.
1. Find a subject who is not the worst but not the best
When you have complete freedom to pick a subject (or group of people) for a documentary, it can feel a little overwhelming. For the Indie America series, we had to find subjects across the country in places we’d never been before, and we had to be sure that whomever we selected, we could come away with a great documentary.
What we learned was that the quality of the video doesn’t entirely depend on finding the best subject or topic, even if the story is all about one person. In fact, trying to find the most interesting person in the world, with the most fascinating story, can crush your project even before you begin.
It’s during the process of filmmaking that everyday people and stories are elevated into highly inspirational and engaging video stories.
So while it’s important to choose a subject and topic with interesting visuals, it’s not fruitful to fixate on finding the most amazing story, subject, or topic. In fact, a subject with an amazing back story is difficult to shoot, because the B-roll has to support a story that happens in the past. Instead, your goal is to find a subject with action you can show, rather than tell.
One simple trick we used to pick ordinary subjects with interesting visuals is to ask ourselves, “Can you describe this person with a visually descriptive noun?” For example, an urban beekeeper, a harmonium repairman, or a unicycle maker. If all we could come up with was something like “a guy on a couch with a really good story,” then we’d move on.
The exception to this tip is if you’re seeking to fund a documentary before you even begin shooting. In this case, your selling point is a subject, topic, or story that is so intriguing that the idea alone will turn heads.
2. Schedule with purpose
Once you pick a subject, you’ll want to get in touch with them to pitch them on the idea of the documentary, and settle on a day and time to shoot.
Believe it or not, the phone is not the best way to cold call potential subjects. Neither is email. Many subjects (who don’t know you) will be distrustful of whatever it is you’re offering, especially if you’re asking them to give up a day of their life for your documentary.
What works for us is to message people on Facebook with a short introduction. If your subject isn’t on Facebook, find someone who is connected to them in some way. In this way, they will be able to see you’re a real person, they can do their own research on what kind of work you do (assuming your Facebook profile has a couple videos shared in your timeline), and you can guarantee that your message was at least read. Facebook does require you to spend a nominal $1 to message people you’re not friends with - otherwise your message will disappear into their “other” folder.
Once you get your subject’s attention, you can arrange a phone call or send a longer message with more details. If your schedules are flexible, ask them if there’s a particular day or time when they’re doing something visually interesting that you can capture. Or perhaps they could re-arrange their schedule to give you those visual actions on the day you’re shooting.
After you agree on a day, you’ll also want to have a rough shoot schedule in mind. For a short documentary under five minutes, we have found 5-6 hours (and definitely no more than one full day) is the sweet spot for amount of time you’ll need to get everything you want, without over taxing your subject and their voluntary time. That includes B-roll action sequences in several locations - as well as your main interview and any shorter, secondary interviews with people related to your subject.
On our initial phone call, we’ll ask our subject if they can think of not only one visual action we could capture, but also a few different scenes in other locations. Varying sequence location is one of the best ways to improve your documentary, even if you’re shooting different sequences in different parts of a house or building.
For example, in a short doc about a Michigan burlesque dancer and circus performer, in our phone call we found out she didn’t have any upcoming performances, but she does teach burlesque to other women, and in the evening she trains young children in the art of aerial dancing. So we arranged a day where we could shoot her teaching in multiple locations, as well as in her natural environment at home with her family. And it turns out she already had beautiful footage of a previous performance, which rounded out the short video perfectly.
Finally, we make sure our subject knows we’ll need a quiet interview location, preferably at the end of the shoot day (more on that in tip #4). And now that you’ve put together a highly strategic shoot schedule that incorporates multiple locations as well as the interview, you’ll have a schedule to guide you through the day. As a bonus, you can shoot the walk, bike ride, or car trip between locations, and often those shots will make it into your doc as a moving sequence.
3. Pack your best gear that you can carry
I could write about documentary gear for ages, because the gear you bring and use really does impact the kind of video story you can achieve. For us, we’ve found it’s most useful to think of our documentary production as such: not the fastest and cheapest, but not Hollywood either.
So instead of running around shooting with a simple handheld camcorder, we use highly portable gear that still gives us cinematic results. For us that means shooting with a Canon cinema camera, along with a variety of lenses, a slider, a gimbal, different types of lights, and both a lav and a boom kit for good interview audio.
We make sure to bring as much equipment as we can possibly bring, that we can still carry on our backs and shoulders for quick transportation between locations. The goal for us is to shoot as rigorously as possible, and to come away with as many shots as we can have in order to give us options for a good edit. But we still want each of our shots to be solid, with proper wide, medium, and tights for sequencing, with subjects entering and exiting the frame, and with good shot depth that provides subtext to our story. And specialty shots like slides, gimbal shots, and quick aerials can definitely add nice touches to your documentary, as long as they don’t get in the way of your bread and butter shots.
On the opposite end of the documentary gear spectrum is the Hollywood approach. I’m certainly envious of the type of DP who can storyboard an entire documentary, bring in a good crew, take out a set of beautiful cinema primes and carefully set up a handful of amazing shots - all of which will make it into the final video, without shooting any excess or unnecessary footage. And somehow they’ll still end up with an authentic documentary with real subjects telling their stories with natural emotion. We can all shoot for that, but in the meantime, I’m happy with striving to be the best of the middle ground.
If you’re interested in an extensive look at the gear we use for documentary productions, check out our list here.
4. Which comes first: Interview or B-roll?
This is a question that starts many arguments between documentary producers. If you interview first, you’ll then have a good grasp on what’s important to your subject and the story. So then you can go out there and shoot relevant B-roll that will genuinely improve your documentary.
This strategy is completely true, if after your interview, you have the ability to quickly arrange your day’s shoot around precisely what the subject talks about in the interview. Or alternatively, if you have the flexibility of shooting on a different day, when you can arrange for the right actions, locations, and people to come together for a highly efficient shoot. Maybe this is how the world class documentary DP is able to do it (see the previous tip).
But for the rest of us, we arrange our shoot day, locations, people involved, and the action we’re shooting long before we start the shoot. So it makes more sense to adapt the interview strategy around the B-roll you’ve already shot earlier in the day. Or if you have to shoot the interview the first thing, for practical purposes, you can still formulate your interview questions based on the B-roll shoot you’ve planned for later that day.
In the process of making hundreds of these kinds of short docs about people, I’ve also found that the interview at the end of the day makes for a natural wrap to an exhausting shoot. The subject has gotten to know you, they trust you, and hopefully they give you an amazing interview that will cut together into an emotional story. When that happens, the subjects tend to be pretty drained after the interview, and that’s a good place to call it a day. On the other hand, trying to elicit intensely personal questions after only meeting your subject a few minutes earlier can be incredibly difficult.
And that’s a wrap!
About Slavik Boyechko