Tips on Making Your Next Doc a Success

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

by Chris McGuinness

Documentary films are becoming more and more popular.  From feature length to episodic documentary TV shows to short Docufilms for non-profit or corporate clients, there are plenty opportunities for filmmakers to practice their trade. Here’s a short list of things you may want to keep in mind while working on your documentary film.

1. Become an expert on your documentary subject.

If you get to pick your documentary subject, pick a subject that you are interested in or compelled to show others. This will make it easier to become immersed in the project. We believe that knowing your subject is crucial to making the best product possible. We like to study and learn as much as we can in our pre-production time.  If a client approaches us with the subject in mind, we try to find what most interests us about that subject and study outward from that point.  

2. Be well prepared for interviews, but be willing to accept unexpected tangents.

We write out all the questions we can think of, repetition is okay, then we come back and distill the questions and set them up in an order that optimizes the interview to build trust before we ask the more meaty questions. You can’t just sit someone down and immediately ask someone a questions like, “So your father died, how did that make you feel?”  To me, that’s the best way to get your interviewee to close up.

If the interviewee deviates from the question or brings up something you did not consider to find interesting, be willing to entertain it and see where it leads.  If it leads in a direction you don’t like, just fall back into your questions. If you feel that an interviewee is going to tangent off course too frequently, nip it in the bud immediately. We politely let them know we will redirect if we get off subject. This way they expect you to do this and don’t see you as the rude person interrupting them.

3. Try to find the honesty and emotion. 

How do people feel? What excites them? What angers them? What is their take on the information, not just the information? You won’t always have a subject that will have strong emotion, but you can usually find honesty. Honesty is created when you let the interviewee have their own voice and words about the subject they are speaking about, if you tell them what to say and ask them to parrot that back to you, you will lose that honesty. With that said, sometimes you may find an interviewee you have to coach. Don’t be afraid to re-frame your questions and even ask them again later during the interview to try and find the honesty & the answer you desire for that question.

4. If you are not a great editor, find someone who is…
There is an art to distilling documentary content into a film and if you are not a great editor, we recommend finding one and collaborating with them to tell your story.  You will know what you like and be able to collaborate in a meaningful way. When sifting through the footage we always look for the honesty and emotion first, pull that footage out and then work around that to create what we feel is the best story. 

5. When filming content or b-roll, try to show the audience something they have not seen. Focus on giving them a glimpse into the world of your subject. Show them what is beautiful and/or horrific and they may just be transfixed.

Make a great film.  You got this! 
Honesty and Emotion are the backbone we look for in all the stories created at PulseCinema, Inc.

About PulseCinema:
PulseCinema is a Maryland based company.  We’re humans just like you.  We are curious! We enjoy getting lost to find what’s new and fresh.  We have ideas, feelings, and desires.  Most of all we love to explore, collaborate, and take part in telling stories with emotion and honesty.  It’s what drives us.

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