What To Know When Filming a Documentary

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Documentary film crew on location learning how to film a documentaryMaking a narrative film is difficult. Securing funding, hiring a cast and crew, getting all of the equipment you’ll need, and so on but at least you have an idea about where the story is going. Now think about making a film without even that safety net and you have the unique challenge of making a documentary in real-time.

Imagine trying to plot the direction of a film without a script, screenplay, or even an ending in mind. There’s no telling what was going to happen during the filming of My Octopus Teacher, the 2021 Academy Award winner for best documentary, a film that followed a relationship between man and beast.

What are your Top 7 Tips for Filming a Documentary?

But maybe that’s part of the appeal of documentary filmmaking. Jumping out of an airplane without a parachute can be quite exhilarating for the filmmaker, but it doesn’t always mean41 audiences will pay attention. So they become a labor of love. And while you may not be able to control the story (read about mentor Matthew C. Temple’s experience making the documentary Hardball: The Girls of Summer), there are ways to make the experience a little easier.

1. Hire Within Your Means

Depending on the scope of your documentary film, you might be tempted to gamble your resources on hiring the best film professionals you can find. But if you spend most of your resources on a prominent Director of Photography, you may not be left with enough to do anything else.

It’s better to find crew members who share your vision, know how to communicate, and offer flexibility even if you have to forfeit a little bit of experience. It’s important to be honest with yourself about what’s best for your film. This is going to be a learning experience for everyone, including your subjects.

2. Embrace the Insanity

What if while making My Octopus Teacher the octopus met an untimely end after a week of filming? What if the diver developed a health condition that prevented them from diving? Sure, there are issues with any film shoot—equipment malfunctions, crummy weather, last-minute casting changes to name a few. But at least you can schedule reshoots if needed.

That’s just not the case with a documentary. Missing an underwater confrontation because a battery pack went dead is inexcusable! So make sure your contingency plans have contingency plans, expect the unexpected, and get ready for long, long days. The real world has a funny way of getting in the way.

3. Mistakes Will Be Made

If you’re not learning something new during a film shoot, you’re not doing it right. What you take away from your mistakes is what helps you grow as a filmmaker and as an artist. It’s that mental file cabinet of past problems that helps prepare you for the next adventure.

Crummy battery packs notwithstanding, knowing how to scout and secure locations, getting enough B-roll to work with during editing, and inspecting equipment daily all comes with experience. And when you begin to think you know it all, it usually doesn’t take too long before real life makes you realize you don’t know anything.

4. Know When to Stick to Your Guns (and Your Vision)

Unless you’re a one-man-band hellbent on guerilla filmmaking, having a committed crew is one of the most important parts of making a documentary. Working with those that share your vision can help smooth those rough patches during a production schedule. And it doesn’t hurt to use those with more experience than you as a sounding board.

It’s your film, however – if you’re constantly butting heads with a DP, you may want to consider ending that professional partnership. Your budget may take a hit, but that’s much better than having the entire production on edge. There’s a reason ships only have one captain. Just don’t forget that even captains occasionally ask for advice.

5. Spend Time, Not Money

Unless you have a rich uncle (or an aunt who works at a production company), chances are you won’t have a lot to work with when making your first documentary. But that’s okay! Feature films have been made with smartphones, inexpensive video editing software is easy to access, and social media makes it a breeze to find crew members that’ll work on the cheap.

But don’t waste everyone’s time, either. Researching, prepping, and scheduling a shot list usually costs nothing more than time. So while waiting for a financial windfall before going into production isn’t advisable, it makes a lot more sense than moving ahead without a roadmap.

6. No Time Like the Present

Without totally ignoring the preceding tip, we should mention there’s no “perfect” time to start filming your documentary. Depending on the subject matter, if you wait too long, you may miss your chance entirely. As an example, let’s say there’s a local athlete that has a real shot of getting a D-1 scholarship or even getting to the Olympics.

It makes sense to start documenting their journey now and fill in the gaps as you move along. Wait too long and you could miss major emotional turning points. This could be an injury, early acceptance to a school, or being invited to the Olympic Trials. All of those moments are better caught on film instead of looking back and kicking yourself.

7. Ask for Help

Depending on your situation, you may have no option but to ask for help. Whether it’s financial, finding someone to hold the boom mic, or any number of other jobs that need to be filled on location. Just don’t forget about seeking intellectual support as well. Making your own mistakes is a hallmark of learning, but learning from someone’s mistakes can be helpful, too.

You may not be able to hire a local legend to help you shoot your film, but you may be able to bend their ear for 30 minutes about film production. Just like anything else, you don’t want to be pushy about it, but just about any director, DP, editor, or production head is willing to pass on some of their knowledge to the next generation. Chances are they were just like you once.

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