Help me make a movie
April 1, 2011 8:07 PM   Subscribe

I would like to make a short documentary. I want it to not suck. I know nothing.

Thanks to y'all, I have watched a lot of really great movies. I've read a little bit about movies - some stuff by filmmakers. I've made your basic home videos and done the most rudimentary of editing in iMovie. I've also done audio interviews and have a little experience with audio recording equipment and editing. But only a tiny bit. Besides that, I know zero. Oh, and I have no money.

My goal is to make a perhaps 1/2 hour film that would be good enough to show on TV or perhaps at festivals (I know! But a gal's gotta dream!) or at the least to show to my friends without being laughed at.

I recognize that my desire to make a good documentary with no experience and no money makes me something of a crazy person or moron, however, let's put that aside for a moment and just pretend my dream is possible. What should I do first? What are the minimum supplies I should beg, borrow or steal? Do I need to work with someone else? Is there an essential manual I should read first?

One possible challenge I can anticipate is the subject of my proposed documentary which is a very loud location. Think in terms of the sound level at a beloved local bar. Or maybe louder. So I guess I'll have to do a fair amount of off-site interviews? Or, uh, is there some kind of stuff I should be thinking about for that?

Thank you!
posted by serazin to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
My credentials on this front: I went to film school, and have both made and watched an astounding number of terrible films by beginners, many of them documentaries, and learned from the mistakes contained therein.

You can cut a lot of corners with these things. Particularly now, with the easy availability of high quality digital cameras, there is very little stopping anyone with a good idea from going out and making themselves a movie. In my experience, however, there's one area where it's more than usually essential to know what you're doing and get it right: sound.

An audience will sit through muddy, grainy video. They will deal with bad lighting. They will shrug off jerky camera work. But the sound has to be great -- clear, comprehensible, and free of distortion and other equipment noise.

You cannot use the mic on your camera, particularly if you're going to be in a bar. You need to do a little research on what's available in your price range, preferably get a friend whose only job is managing the microphone(s) (whether it be a boom mic they point at your subjects or a lavaliere that's pinned on people's collars), and do a few tests to make sure that your sound is clear, free of cable noise and recorded at the right level.

Read all the documentation; play around until you're completely comfortable with the equipment. Documentaries are all about capturing fleeting moments -- you don't want to be wrestling with your mic/camera/lights/etc while someone's spilling their heart out to you.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:31 PM on April 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

You should expect your first documentary to suck. It doesn't matter, just make another one. It will also suck. Make another one. Repeat until the documentaries stop sucking.
posted by instantlunch at 9:03 PM on April 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

I know nothing about making films, but am a heavy doc-watcher. I want to second Narrative Priorities insightful comment that bad sound is a dealbreaker when it comes to watching docs. Practice filming in different venues so you know what you're dealing with when it comes to sound. I do have some experience is recording audio interviews for research work, and can tell you that the interview I did in a hockey arena while kids were practicing on the rink (which did not sound that loud to me while I was speaking with my research participant) was an awful, awful thing to listen to and transcribe - the lesson being, you don't know what it sounds like until you listen to the recording.

Also, I wanted to add that the ethics of what you'll be doing will be an important factor in how people view your work. Avoid voyeurism or tourism with regard to poverty/disaster/plain old bad luck. It is painful to watch filmakers engage with people who are hurting, physically or emotionally, and to not know if anything is being offered in the way of help. Though I suppose "helping" can sometimes be presumptive and offensive, too... in any case, consider the ethics of what you're doing.
posted by analog at 9:07 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another bit to add to Narrative Priorities' point about sound that may be helpful in your loud location: See the sound. I do location sound for docs, and if we are in an especially noisy location I often suggest that we set up our shot with the source of the racket visible in the background, or at least get a cutaway shot of whatever it is. That way the viewer will understand why they are hearing trains/trucks/dogs/whatever throughout the interview or other scene.
posted by zoinks at 10:46 PM on April 1, 2011 [5 favorites]

A small point, it's okay to not try and do it all at once. It doesn't have to be the sum total of everything. That, and plan and prepare as much as you can before actual filming commences. I studied film making in school a million years ago and was always surprised by the lack of planning that made everything infinitely tougher when working on fellow student's projects.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 10:58 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh and I'm too tired to think of other stuff right now, but I'd be happy to try and help out with other specific questions if I can, email is in profile. Good luck!
On preview, Phlegmco(tm) has a great point, and it doesn't just relate to student projects - it is amazing how often we show up somewhere only to find that permits haven't been secured, there's a bake sale happening in the room we were supposed to use, nobody has any idea who we are or why we are there. Or equipment is missing/wrong/broken, batteries are not charged, etc. If you're on top of this sort of thing you'll save yourself so many headaches.
Releases - get one signed by everyone who appears on camera and the owner of any property you shoot at. They don't need to be the type of intimidating legalese used by Discovery et al, but something to CYA just in case.
posted by zoinks at 11:11 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would strongly suggest doing a short (3-5) minute documentary first, before you embark on anything you want to be taken seriously. You will learn a lot doing this. It doesn't matter what it is about, but rather than just doing something random, maybe try to do a story on how your parents met, or something else important in your family history. That way, even if you find that this documentary thing is not something you want to continue to pursue, you will have something special when you are finished (rather than if you did it on the local bowling league)

Sound is the most important thing.

Lighting is also important for interviews. Learn how to do it, and never rely purely on the available light in a situation (you may end up using just the available light, but only after you have determined that it does what you want)

Sound is the most important thing.

Make sure you shoot more B-roll than you think you need, and then shoot even more. B-roll is so important, and you want to make sure you always have enough to fill in gaps, but it has to fit what is going on.

Sound is the most important thing.

You will likely end up shooting a LOT of footage, and will be throwing most of it away. Make sure you have a system in place when you are editing to keep track of things. I like to divide up each interview into small clips right at the start, and then organize those clips based on what people are talking about. This will obviously change for each project, but if you have specific things at the start, middle, and end of the doc that are the main focus, use those topics to divide up your interviews.

Did I mention how important sound is?

If you are looking for a good resource, I'd suggest, which is filled with film makers who are more than happy to give plenty of advice.

Keep in mind, if you want something that can be shown at film festivals, be prepared to drop a lot of money on equipment (or know a good rental place). Whereas there are a lot of people making projects with a $500 camera and $300 in equipment, it takes sooooooo much more effort to get good results, and you will need years of experience before you will get there. You will want a good camera, good tripod, and good sound system. If you skimp on these things you will regret it.
posted by markblasco at 11:17 PM on April 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I spent a week doing a course with Aron Ranen from DVWorkshops. He knows his shit -- watch everything you can here. Lots of great advice that make me feel like I could walk out into the field and shoot something, edit it, and have it not suck (though it likely still would, but that's the experience side).

Above all, as others have said, audio, audio, audio. Everything else can be covered up, but crappy audio can't. You seriously need a lapel mic of some sort for any interviews, and a shotgun mic for everything else. And, don't forget to get at least a minute or two of room noise (audio recorded in the place you shoot your subjects), that you can use to cover up audio breaks later.
posted by liquado at 11:24 PM on April 1, 2011 [4 favorites]

I just finished shooting my third feature documentary, they are labors of love. Know that a "fly on the wall" AKA cinema verite style documentary can be more emotionally charging as you are seeing your characters over come their obstacles in the moment, but these take much more time and work to make. The educational, informational interview "talking head" style docs are usually easier to craft since you can script them, add narration, b-roll, licensed footage, etc.

If you do go verite style or a combination of the two, please know your "out."

If your characters have a goal that can give you an ending and an out to quit shooting it will help, otherwise you might not know when you are finished. Competitions or challenging events with an unknown outcome are great.

"American Movie" or "Mule Skinner Blues" where colorful knuckleheads try to make a movie, these are also known as process pieces.

And there are competition docs like "The King of Kong" (Donkey Kong competition), or "Air Guitar Nation."

(There is much controversy over some of the docs that use subjects to reenact scenes that happened int he past, but you can do that as well)

We have just finished shooting a doc featuring a Luke Skywalker impersonator Fanboy and his quest to find his father and George Lucas, and we had some interesting twists, he got cancer, and got to see Lucas. We didn't know when to stop, and it was very hard to find the ending.

There are a few sites with resources like and a site I think they have sample release form contracts, music contracts, etc .

Hope this helps.
posted by mugsydean at 2:20 AM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

I want to go repeat what mugsydean has said in a slightly different way.

Simplistically there are two types of documentaries: docos on things that have happened and docos on things that are happening. For a beginner it will be much easier to make the former - sit down interviews in locations that you can control with the people talking about the thing that has happened. You then need cutaways [aka B Roll] to cover up the places where you have edited the person talking so the picture doesnt jump [ie you have a 'jump cut']. You can cover the cut with archive footage and photographs. If there is no available archive then you may have to look at recreations [hard!]. Or you may be able to film shots relevant to the thing that happened.

If you are making a documentary on something that is happening, like mugsydean says it may be difficult to find your ending. On top of that it may be technically more difficult - you have to film in the locations where the thing is happening, you have to film sequences [hard!] and you may have to film on the move [also hard!].

And seconding the advice of making a little trial doco...
posted by meech at 3:33 AM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was going to post about sound quality issues but that's been covered. Totally the most important technical issue. A good editor will be able to build a coherent story if you have enough material, don't skimp on the B-roll (backgrounds).

Before you start shooting, tell the story to lots of people. If they loose interest, tune up the story. When they grab your lapel and insist you finish the story "and tell me more", film that.

Docu takes incredible tenacity, keep at it.

Go for it!
posted by sammyo at 6:10 AM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Directing the Documentary is a pretty good guidebook.
Planning--a scout of the location, shooting some tests there (with permission from the bar owner), writing a shooting script, storyboarding--all will help you once you start actually shooting. Leave room for serendipity, but serendipity favors the prepared director.

Having a couple of people really can help--someone who can wrangle the location and people (meaning who can spot cool stuff while you're shooting or interviewing, or keep crowds at bay so you're not jostled) and a audio person can really make life easier.

If you truly want to get it in a festival, you'll need releases from the location, the people you interview. If there's ambient music, really try to not use it, as music clearances are a nightmare. (If you're just going to show the film to friends, don't stress about this.)

Think about structure and the story you want to tell. A slice-of-life film (following someone around with a camera) that's actually interesting is incredibly hard--Wiseman does it best.

When interviewing, don't be afraid to have people tell the story twice--you can always cut, and most people get better when they can condense their thoughts.

Move when your subject moves. Static camera is as bad as constant jiggle sovieting camera. A skateboard, a grocery cart, a wheelchair--all work pretty well as dolly tracks.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:37 AM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow, thanks for the great advice so far. I will definitely try this idea of doing a 5 minute practice doc first. And, uh, I'll look into this whole, "audio" thing you all keep mentioning (:

Feel free to add more if you think of it - and thanks again!
posted by serazin at 8:14 PM on April 2, 2011

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