If you’ve never attempted a feature documentary, the first thing to know is that completing one is difficult. It’s a craggy mountain of work in which it’s easy to become lost. Just as you would spend weeks in preparation before hiking the John Muir Trail, making good decisions from the get-go will pay big dividends over the years it will take to complete your doc.
What follows are three key areas of pre-production that, if given sufficient forethought, can help set your footing as you begin your journey through to completion. The best part is that they cost nothing other than the time and effort it takes to work each one out.
There’s a saying in screenwriting, “Write what you know.” The idea is that phoniness can be smelled by audiences, and it stinks like rubbish. To avoid writing rubbish, write what you know.
This same concept can be applied to documentary filmmaking. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that such a diversity of stories are for the first time being told, as minority filmmakers are inspired to take up the camera and share their own experiences. Perhaps this is the very reason you have decided to make your documentary. This is a beautiful thing! You are the best person for the job.
A vital aspect of sourcing a topic from your own circle is that it all but assures you crucial access to people, places, and things needed to tell the story fully. You’re already in; it’s a cinch you’d be the one to do the doc. Without that level of intimacy, your film may never have been made at all.
Of course, the difficulty in telling these types of stories is that they are woefully common to you; it’s hard to see them as anything special. What might be an unbelievable, soul-stirring narrative to a stranger never even enters your mind as a potential documentary because you’ve heard Aunt Billie tell it every Christmas Eve since your youth.
This is perfectly natural. As humans, we take for granted the things that are around us constantly. They become invisible. This is why you “hurt the ones you love.” This is why you “don’t know what you have until it’s gone.” It’s why your hometown looks so different every time you return from travels.
Look around you. Think. What are some things that you have experienced that might make a great story? Who do you know that is not at all like other people? Chances are they have not been the subject of a documentary. Might they be yours?
Do Your Homework
Research. Such a dirty word back in school. Dreadful hours in a library reading musty books on a topic I didn’t choose.
It still means that, but those hours are now weeks and the topics are at last my own. But the biggest change is that I have come to truly love research. It signifies the beginning of a new journey of discovery, the imminent solving of a mystery, the growth of understanding of what it means to be human.
While research continues throughout a documentary’s production, it doesn’t commence only after a topic has been chosen. It starts long before that and is one of the indicators that can help you decide upon a suitable topic. It can answer questions like: Is there a story? Has it been told before? Where? Are there supporting documents, images, clips? Is anybody still alive who was there? Do they remember events clearly? Do you have a mutual acquaintance who might introduce you?
Keep in mind that just because something is not online does not mean it didn’t happen. Indeed in considering potential topics for my second feature doc, the complete absence of anything online related to the Hollywood Shorties was a compelling reason for choosing it. A lack of online presence might make your doc more difficult to research, but it could also mean that you get to be the one that breaks the story!
While you may be able to sit down and envision your entire documentary in your mind, that exercise will get you no closer to actually planning how to obtain and edit the footage that will constitute the film itself. Writing can.
The Outline is the natural outcropping of the film’s Treatment. It takes the raw, swirling, emotional mass of the Treatment and distills it into the nuts-n-bolts flow of a film. While the Treatment uses a bounty of language to describe as much detail of the film as possible from the backstory to musical score, the Outline is written practically in shorthand. Somewhere between twenty and forty brief sentences—each a thumbnail sketch of an individual scene—are placed in the order in which they are intended to appear in the film.
In your Outline, these 20-40 sentences will read something like: “[Main Character] gives her mom a tour of her new apartment.” Or: “Montage of archival photos of [Main Character]’s elementary school years.”
In addition to this one-sentence descriptor, include a column with an estimated runtime for each scene. Keep in mind that any individual scene is going to last anywhere from ninety seconds to five minutes. And though it’s only an estimate, the ability to look at your entire film in outline form, complete with runtimes, will give a good feeling for pacing. These two columns (Scene Descriptor and Runtime) can tell you where your story might be thin, and you can plan accordingly before you ever start rolling camera.
With your Outline, you will be able to create a shot list for your film, and against it you will be able to measure all footage obtained. As the story of your film evolves in the course of making it, you will be able to revisit your Outline as often as needed to accommodate these unexpected twists and turns to weigh how they fit into the big picture.
About the Writer
Ryan Steven Green is an award-winning documentarian whose words and work have been published by VICE, Al Jazeera, CBC, Zócalo Public Square, and NPR. While his personal work has screened at festivals across North America, he has also contributed to the Emmy-winning PBS show Travelscope, the non-fiction films of Jay Duplass, and the global collaborative documentary One Day on Earth. He teaches documentary filmmaking at ArtCenter for Teens in Pasadena, CA.