Tell me all about documentaries
November 18, 2004 8:35 PM   Subscribe

who what when where why how, the documentary edition

ive always wanted to know (but have been too afraid to ask) how documentarians choose their topics, and how they go about negotiating the details. does anyone know of any articles that are a good expose on the documentary scene? we always hear about behind the scenes of making movies, but rarely it seems about documentaries. i hope you have enjoyed my presentation.
posted by GleepGlop to Media & Arts (4 answers total)
I think this is the equivelent of asking a writer or artist of any kind "How do you get your ideas?" The answer is the same place anyone gets any idea, whether the idea be to open a store, start a new business, whatever: It occurs to them and it's something they feel they can be passionate about.

The specific answers will vary from project to project. Sometimes people are hired to make documentaries because of their previous works (Georges Franju was hired to make Blood of the Beasts, for example; Peter Watkins was hired to make War Game). Sometimes they're making a documentary about one topic and thru that process discover a more interesting topic (the filmmaker behind Capturing the Friedmans, for instance, was making a documentary about Alan Friedman (I think his name is) because he is the most successful children's entertainer in NYC... then Alan mentioned his family). Sometimes they read a newspaper clipping about a person (Allien Wornous: the Making of a Serial Killer), book (The Kid Stays in the Picture), event (Spellbound or Horns and Halos), happening (Hands on a Hardbody). Sometimes they're intrigued with a person or people and their predicament/work/art (Stevie, Paradise Lost, Brother's Keeper, Thin Blue Line, Vernon Fla, Crumb, Salesman). Sometimes they're just interested in the world around them (Winged Migration) or making a difference about something that they think matters (F911, Titticut Follies). Sometimes they're filmmakers without any idea and someone just mentions something and there's a spark (Flyerman).

In short, the circumstances are as varied as the projects.

As for funding, that's a whole different thing. Depending on where you live, there may be arts or government grants for which you can write a proposal but unless you have a fantastic topic or a reel that shows you know what you're doing, it's unlikely you'll get far that way.

Because of the unpredictability of the subject matter, documentaries generally have very high shooting ratios (amount of film shot compared to amount of film used). This is also a reason why there are a LOT of short documentaries being made. They're pretty expensive.

There are a few books on the topic but I've never found any of them particuarly informative. I'm sure that NYU/Tisch (sp?) and a number of community colleges offer courses on the topic as well. There are also documentary film festivals (Toronto has Hot Docs, for instance) where you can volunteer and maybe meet other people with a similar interest and perhaps collaborate.
posted by dobbs at 9:04 PM on November 18, 2004

Response by poster: thanks for the response, you seem to know a lot about the documentary process! Yeah ive been to Hot Docs, im from Toronto. Good fun. Like you said, too many resources arent very informative. It seems to me like there are endless subjects for documentaries but it is such a marginal genre, so i assumed that its because it takes extreme dedication to bring about a documentary, as well as people that believe in you. Id love to hear about documentaries that failed to see the light of day. Kind of like getting to watch failed TV pilots. (hope that worked). Asking this question is kind of like asking to peek behind the curtain in the wizard of oz. Wanting to know the truth about the truth. I guess ill have to join a gang of documentarian misfits. Actually in high school we were supposed to make a documentary and my friend and i unbeknownst to the rest of our group turned it into a documentary about making a documentary, following us around as we tried to come up with a topic and tried to pull off various topics. Then editing was a nightmare and on the last day we just improvised a gunfight in the parking lot and handed it in. Life, you so funny.
posted by GleepGlop at 9:22 PM on November 18, 2004

Right. I'll scrap the answer I was writing, because dobbs' is much better.

I'll just add that what dobbs mentions about the high shooting ratio is often integral to the way a subject is chosen - the documentarist will often start out with a much broader subject than the finished product, and then constantly hone it down as the really intersting stories become apparent. Sometimes the 'subject' won't even be decided on until the editing stage. Case in point: DiG!, hilarious music documentary, was initially supposed to be following ten up-and-coming west coast bands. It became quickly apparent that two of them were far more compelling than the rest, and so the others were dumped.

Beyond that, a lot of documentary making involves a lot of either a) tedious work pestering people you're interested in to give you access, or b) "casting" real people who'll ensure you can tell exactly the story you wanted to tell anyway (as happened with the cinema verite tradition growing into reality TV, via An American Family et al.)
posted by flashboy at 9:23 PM on November 18, 2004

Slashdot just posted an interview with the director of Trekkies that specifically addresses this:
I am an accidental documentarian. Trekkies was Denise Crosby's idea. I cast her in my first film, High Strung (which stars Steve Oedekerk, and will be re-released by Steve next year), and a few years later she pitched the Trek fan doc idea to me. I said, "I can't believe nobody has done this yet. It seems so obvious." After shooting our first weekend, I was hooked on documentaries.
posted by revgeorge at 5:52 AM on November 19, 2004

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