The best way to make your first doc is to keep it short. Everything you need to do and understand about doc filmmaking applies the same whether it’s a three minute documentary or a three hour feature documentary. You must have an entertaining story that comes out through an interesting subject while emotionally drawing in the viewer.
You may want to try a day in the life of an interesting person. Find someone with passion about something. Passion is always interesting because even though most people probably don’t have the same passion as your subject, they can be fascinated by it or at the very least be interested in it. The person could be your retired next door neighbor who spends most of his time in the basement running his trains. Or your uncle who tells great war stories about Vietnam or even a friend you have who collects beer cans. It does’t have to be an incredible story it just has to be interesting. Placing the camera on the track as the train approaches, getting photos and sound effects that enhance Uncle Jimmy’s war stories or just asking the right questions…who drank all those beers? This is where your job as a filmmaker comes in.
But don’t feel obligated to do any heavy interviewing. Let the subject talk on their own in the most natural way possible. It’s always best to follow their story in their own words as much as possible without leading them. Film your subject in the car, eating dinner or any other place you find yourself. If an unexpected guest arrives or phone call comes in let them take it and keep filming. We sometimes learn more about our subjects when they are talking to someone else.
Keep an eye on lighting in the rooms you are working in. Turn natural lighting on where ever needed when filming but don’t use your own artificial lighting if you can avoid it. Same thing with the audio, don’t get involved with clipping a lavalier mic on your subject if you don’t have to. Buy a decent shot gun mic that you can mount on your camera and you should get good sound. Make sure there isn’t any music or TV playing in the background.
Once you finished your first edited cut, called a rough cut, you then work on ways to improve it by making adjustments. Just like a feature documentary filmmaker does, watch it over and over and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Keep asking yourself what’s important to the story and what’s not. Edit down anything you can to make your point with less time. The process of editing a good film is normally try this and then try that…try it this way and that way. Keep working on it until you are 100% satisfied that you told the story in the most interesting and entertaining way possible. Then start showing it to people who will be honest with you. Listen to what they say about the film. You should also watch other docs on the subject and study their style and ideas. All of this is a great learning process for documentary filmmaking.
One of my earliest docs was only three minutes long. I came across a video contest on the internet sponsored by the Pulitzer Center in Washington DC. The Pulitzer Center partnered with Sony and YouTube with hopes of bringing attention to how social media and video can bring important stories out to the world. I just happened to be going to the Dominican Republic a few weeks after I heard about the contest. I already planned to film with a man named Elio who was building these small houses for families living in shacks. So when I got to the DR, I filmed a day in the life of Elio and ended up being a finalist in the contest. Sony sponsored the contest and sent an editing computer along with a professional HD video camera to my house. Below is the three minute video.
What do we learn at the end of this short film that we didn’t know when we started watching it? What was the unexpected outcome of his story that gave us that story arc that is needed to complete the story? The answer is we learned that out of everything he has done to help other people, it is Elio’s legacy that he will leave to his children and grandchildren that is most important. More important then any kind of inheritance that he leaves, he wants his family to understand how important it is to be charitable and help less fortunate people. That’s an incredible statement from someone who gave up 20 years of his retirement to do charitable work in a third world country.
You don’t have to go to the DR to find an interesting subject for your doc. Many times you don’t even have to leave your own house to find a fascinating person that you can do a day in the life video about.