How do I make a decent cheap documentary?
September 23, 2005 11:54 AM   Subscribe

Help me make a low-budget documentary that doesn't suck!

An on-campus club that I am associated with wants to make a documentary to raise awareness about its cause. Basically, the idea put forward is to follow around a couple of couples for a day and show that visible differences aside, the different "types" of couple we are profiling are not all that different.

I know that to be interesting, even a documentary needs some sense of narrative, some tension. How do I work that in when we are going to be following people to the supermarket - people who are probably going to be pretty uncomfortable in front of the camera and will be on their best behavior?

What are the planning stages? The main person involved wants to have taping done in two weeks, but has not written up interview questions or anything.

What are the things that hallmark a crappy student film? I would like to know those so that I can avoid them.

Please help me! I want to be involved with this project, but I don't want the product to be something I am embarrassed of.
posted by arcticwoman to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
No, don't worry about narrative or tension. Just get a decent microphone that'll cancel out all of your background noise.
posted by jimmy at 12:02 PM on September 23, 2005

What is the on-campus club? That could help in our answers. What does the club do? Why does it need to attract members? What kind of people does it want to attract?
posted by billysumday at 12:03 PM on September 23, 2005


1. Make sure you get good quality audio - this will REALLY help the overall quality of the film.

Wireless lavalier mics are really great to patch into a camera - never use the camera's mic if you can help it.

2. Try to have an edit at least every 5-6 seconds...
posted by mildred-pitt at 12:03 PM on September 23, 2005

You might want to give this book a read.
posted by nitsuj at 1:12 PM on September 23, 2005

Most documentary filmmakers come up with their narrative, point, structure, or throughline in the editing process, not pre-production. Otherwise you may end up influencing what you shoot with your opinions.

For instance, the point of making your documentary shouldn't be "to prove these couples are 'all the same'", but to "see how different types of couples behave".

I mean, what if you find the couples don't behave the same? Are you going to scrap the documentary or twist the footage to make it prove the opposite of what you set out to be.

Ideally, you, as the filmmaker, will learn as much about your topic, or more, than your audience. This is why people like Ken Burns make documentaries about things they know absolutely nothing about. To educate themselves. Otherwise, you're not making a documentary, you're making a commercial for your beliefs.

Try to have an edit at least every 5-6 seconds

I couldn't disagree more. The key to good editing is to make sure every shot is exactly as long as it needs to be. Do that and your film will be exactly as long as it needs to be.

re: people uncomfortable with the camera.... That's natural. The only way around that (when shooting people who aren't used to being on camera) is to shoot a lot--until your presence is a given. Once you get past that point, you'll get amazing, and usuable, footage.
posted by dobbs at 1:13 PM on September 23, 2005

There may be aspiring documentary-makers at your school and/or academic programs that support them. For instance, at my college there were several levels of "video production" type courses. I would suggest that they may get class-credit for it, but with a 2-week turnaround probably not. But, if there are such classes you may want to contact the instructor about possible media/film students that would like to help, simply to add to their portfolio.
posted by jacobjacobs at 1:19 PM on September 23, 2005

also re: people uncomfortable with the camera: check the camera manual to see if you can turn off the "tally" light, the little red light on the front that screams "You're being recorded right now!". That gives subjects one less camera-related thing to think about and focus on.
posted by Pliskie at 1:28 PM on September 23, 2005

Best answer: Oh, who am I kidding? I can't stop there. This is too much fun to do and talk about. I've done a bunch of this, in my day, and it's some of the best project-based fun you can have. Seriously.

dobbs is right on, you don't know what you're writing until you get to post, especially if you're counting on subjects "in the wild". Here are some hard-won tips, though.
  • Don't chat up the subjects off-camera. They'll give you all their perfect, natural sound bites, and you'll wish you'd been rolling. The same bites will be forced or flat if you have them repeat them for the camera.
  • Make sure they really believe that you're going to edit what you're shooting. They will get much more comfortable once they know you're going to edit out that spontaneous curse or unconscious ear-picking.
  • As several above have said, good audio can make or break it. Use external mics, always. A cheap external mic or wireless lav is better than the best on-camera mic for moving subjects.
  • Mix up your shots. If everything is a medium shot of people walking, your edit will be hell and the product incredibly boring. Get wide shots to establish where they are, get tight shots if the situation allows, get extreme CUs of the subjects if they're discussing something with passion. Get cutaways like legs walking, hands writing or doing other things. Get lots of shots. Vary handheld and tripod (or otherwise stabilized) shots. Get many more shots than you can imagine you will need. You will need them. You will wish you had more. Be prepared to go back a day later and shoot that statue they walked past.
  • Once you get to post, your job is to tell a story. Throw out any footage, no matter how lovely the shot, that doesn't advance the story. The story is what keeps the viewer watching, and what makes a good documentary seem "pro". By "story" I mean, express the point of the piece, use footage and interview to expand the point, and then close out with why the viewer should care or what his call to action should be.
  • While keeping all the above in mind, try not to show too much visible stress. Subjects pick it up and it will prevent them from relaxing.
  • When you're halfway through and it seems like a crashing mess, have faith that it will come together. It will, so long as you have the perseverence to make it do.
  • Be prepared for the sometimes painful "arc" of postproduction work. The horizon seems to get closer, then recedes. Then it seems to get closer again, and it recedes again. Don't freak out - this is normal postproduction. Just keep working until the piece really works. If you say "good enough" at any point, that one thing you let slide will drive you nuts every time you see the piece. Hunker down in the suite like you're waiting out a storm, and get it done.
Oh man, just have a good time. It's hard, but damned fun.
posted by Pliskie at 1:51 PM on September 23, 2005 [6 favorites]

Sound, lighting, and editing are probably 95% of it.

Your raw material must start with good sound and lighting, or you're sunk. Then edit, edit, and keep on editing 'til it doesn't suck.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:59 PM on September 23, 2005

Practice. My friends who make low-budget films have made huge leaps in quality with each new project. If possible, you should film, edit, and screen some short works before starting a bigger project.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:24 PM on September 23, 2005

You'll have an idea of what kind of footage you'll need based on the interview footage. Think about the "b-roll" you will need to cut to during the interviews to make it more interesting. This will save you some time in the long run, not having to shoot every little thing they do.

Also, use the camera zoom as sparingly as possible (or none at all, unless you are following some important action- and zoom slowly and steadily if you have to!).
posted by starman at 2:52 PM on September 23, 2005

I have Hampe's book as nitsuj suggested and it is a very good guide. You do need to have a pretty good idea of what is going to be in the documentary from start to finish or you'll just be confused throughout the production. If you have no ideas of the finished product, how are you supposed to come up with relevant footage?

Get as concrete an idea as possible of what you want to say in the film before you shoot one second of film. It will pay to be as detailed as possible. It is a tedious process so get started right away by brainstorming with friends. What makes a couple unique? What makes them the same? Try to imagine how this can be visualized.

Ken Burns does not get started with filming before he knows exactly what he wants to do. To think otherwise is pure bullshit. In the big league, filming is expensive so everything is planned beforehand to waste little time and effort. Editing is never the time to start deciding what you want to do.
posted by JJ86 at 3:39 PM on September 23, 2005 [1 favorite]


Can I try to talk you out of it?


Documentaries are planned at 10-20 min of raw footage for every finished minute. Realistically, how long do you want this to be?

They don't know *what* they're going to get...but they have some general idea before the lens cap is taken off...what the footage will be like. Interviewers who know how to elict a good sound bite.

Let's say you go out and follow around three couples for a day. Just an eight hour day. That's some 8x3=24 hours of footage. Another 24 hours of capturing before you edit (do you know how to edit?)

Film school cliches:
Bad lighting. Bad sound. Bad editing. No story. Pieces that go on far too long (when was the last time you saw something that you though, gee, I could have watched another hour of it?)

Realistlcally, you need to make lots of bad junk, before you can seriously get stuff done well.

Idea: Why not approach the film/video production dept and see if you can gain their interest to havng it be done by them (say each group of students follows the couples..) and the collegiate filmmakers go from pre production through post.

Or hire someone to do this.
posted by filmgeek at 4:22 PM on September 23, 2005

Best answer: To think otherwise is pure bullshit.

JJ86, Burns himself has said repeatedly that he intentionally knows nothing about his subject before embarking. In interviews regarding the Civil War series he specifically said this is why he was the perfect person to make the film.

I'm not suggesting you not have a plan (which questions to ask if it's Q&A; where to shoot or equipment to use, who to interview, etc. etc.). I'm saying deciding on the thesis of your documentary pre-making it limits you far more than the other way around.

Capturing the Friedmans, a terrific documentary from a few years ago, began as a documentary about David Friedman, the most successful children's entertainer in NYC. If you've seen the film, you know that it ended up anything but. In interviews the director made it clear that the only reason he got the film he did was because he was open to the film taking on a life of its own.

Two of the best documentaries I saw at this year's Toronto Film Fest had directors, post-film, declare that the films we had just watched were in no way what they had thought they were going to make.

One was about a girl who exceeded at basketball and then, due to personal problems, ran up against difficulties with leagues and beuracuracy. The film was originally supposed to be a documentary about a Coach (who wasn't even that girl's coach when the film began production). In fact, the director cut the film about the coach--the film he was "supposed to make"--and submitted it to film festivals and was declined from all of them. He then went back to the footage, found the real story, recut, shot some more, and made a first-class documentary, The Heart of the Game.

On the other hand, the worst film I saw at the festival, 51 Birch Street, suffered miserably because you could tell the filmmaker was trying to force the film to say something that not only wasn't in the footage, but which the footage contradicted! It was painful to watch.

I myself produced a short documentary in the mid 90s which was "supposed to be" about an author I admired and who I thought was overlooked. After many interviews we realized that, as a person, he wasn't who we thought he was and to present him as that would be disingenuous. We let the footage dictate the structure and ended up with a film that played to sold out audiences and sold to television.

Prior to that film I directed a short documentary about comic book artist Chester Brown. I had specific ideas about what I wanted to 'say' or present about Brown and that's exactly the film I made. It sucked and I was so embarassed by it I never even showed Brown the final cut.

Again, I'm not suggesting you not be prepared. Do your research. Know what to ask. Think of visual ways to present "data" (if need be). But starting out with knowing exactly what your film is about ("the different 'types' of couple we are profiling are not all that different.") can either warp the perspective of your film or send you off in the wrong direction altogether.
posted by dobbs at 4:43 PM on September 23, 2005 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: The club is a gay and lesbian alliance and the plan is to follow around some straight couples and some gay couples and see how they are the same and how they differ.

Filmgeek, I understand why you want to talk me out of this, but that's not an option. The project is going ahead and I just want to provide some damage control. I guess that's a little cynical... I want more than damage control.

Thanks for all the tips everyone.
posted by arcticwoman at 6:38 PM on September 23, 2005

I interned at a documentary production house last year, their non-profit division runs a site dedicated to Youth Media Distribution. You might want to take a look at their toolkit, it can walk you through the making of a film from budgeting (there's a great interactive calculator to help you figure out costs) all the way through to showing your work.
posted by lia at 12:43 AM on September 24, 2005

Any good journalist, whether they be film, television, writer, or photographer never goes out on an assignement blind without knowing almost everything they will encounter or how they will approach it. Check National Geographic for the way the best in the business handles all manner of journalistic assignments. They research and plan everything in incredible detail before heading out into the field. Their photojournalists are never sent on blind year-long travels without any planning. The shots they need are pretty well imagined before they even board the plane. In the real world, field time with a full crew is expensive. Real crews waste no extra time shooting "maybe" footage unless they have Terry Gilliam budgets backing their Don Quijote pipedream. Ken Burns might not know anything about a subject but that doesn't mean he doesn't find out before he starts shooting footage. There is a major difference.

artcicwoman, interview the couples and get to know the couples BEFORE you start filming them. Know what you will say before you beg, borrow, or steal a camera. With an extensive knowledge of your subject, there will be no unwelcome surprises when you do start filming. The difficult thing without film experience or study is knowing what to shoot when you have a camera in your hand. Conveying abstract ideas visually is not obvious. Comparing the similarities between straight and gay couples will be next to impossible without some foreknowledge of how the medium works. filmgeek has some solid advice that if you don't have this knowledge that it will be a guaranteed flop. If your school has a film program, then round up some knowledgeable students to help plan and produce the film.
posted by JJ86 at 2:16 AM on September 24, 2005

Making a documentary film is not rocket science. However, the actual operation of camera, audio, and editing system takes some skill to do properly.

I suggest that you look for a student who is well-versed in these things so that you can act as a "producer" and "director," and let him/her handle the technical side. Most film students are always looking for a new project to put on their "reel," so I'm sure you'll have lots of candidates.
posted by MrZero at 8:31 AM on September 24, 2005

Try to get some (semi-)experienced help. If you don't already have a Film & Video club on campus, you may be able to recruit folks from your local cable access station for the price of a few burgers and beers.
posted by zanni at 2:50 PM on September 24, 2005

There's some excellent advice on making documentaries here (from dobbs and Pliskie especially). But you should be aware that what you're making isn't a documentary. At least, not entirely.

As others have said, documentaries frequently turn out completely different to the original plan. From what you've told us, that's just not an option for you. What you're making here (in terms of the processes you'll need to go through) is a lot closer to a factual entertainment or reality show, where a certain type of outcome is desired from the start. Mediating the reality to ensure you get the footage you need - without ever making it dishonest - is the key. And 90% of that is planning.

Firstly, good casting helps. As you say the project is going ahead imminently, I assume you've already got couples lined up, but if you have any options there at all, use them to your full advantage. As JJ86 said, interview them, in depth, beforehand (try to get them both as a couple and as individuals). And don't make the interviews only formal affairs - you've got to see them behaving naturally, off-guard. It should be just like hanging out, only with you recording it or taking notes.

Make sure you've done all the interviews, with every couple, before you shoot any footage - you'll need to cross-reference their answers to pick out common themes and issues. Plan your shooting schedules around these themes. If you have any leeway in which couples to use, focus your time and resources on the ones who'll give you the best comparisons - the ones where, for all their differences, you'll still be able to make those few telling cuts between them to show a moment of commonality (or difference, or whatever). It's those cuts that will give you the tension, narrative and humour you want.

Do not try to get the filming of each couple done in one day. You're on a tight schedule, yes, but you really want to have at least two shooting periods with each couple. The first one is to get them used to the camera and crew (it's amazing both how uncomfortable people are when they're first around a camera, and how quickly they get comfortable), and to give yourself backup footage if the main shoot goes tits-up. The second is where you go all out to get the shots you've planned.

Don't let the notion that you're "following the couples around" go to your head. You're not following them, you're leading them. (Gently, of course - but don't be afraid to prod them a little.) Based on the interviews, you need to get them doing the things that'll tell your story for you - if several of the couples mention how they always get into petty little arguments when they go grocery shopping, you'd be insane to not have footage of them all grocery shopping. Don't leave it up to chance. 'Script' the scenarios you want, the dynamics you want to capture. Just don't tell them about the script, and be prepared to change it all at a moment's notice because something great or terrible happens...

You'll need maybe three of these points that you can hit throughout the film (no matter how long it is). Simple things - meeting for lunch, going shopping, seeing friends in the evening, phonecall to parents, preparing for bed... It's not a question of putting words in their mouths or setting up artificial situations (which wouldn't work) - but it is about planning ahead to ensure scenes that give you the best chance of getting the action you want, and that at the very least will give you reliable points to cut from and to.

Leave the couple who seem the most comfortable on camera, and the most willingly biddable, to last. You'll already have good sense of what stories are emerging, what moments of commonality are apparent, and also what you're missing. There'll be some pretty specific scenes that you'll know you need at this point (try to build up a draft paper edit as you go along) so it's a good idea to have the compliant, easygoing, photogenic guys as your fallback.

If you can do it without it being completely artificial, get all the couples together for some kind of event. Yes, it's cheesy and obvious, but if they're all there amongst the crowd at a gig/sports event/party/public stoning, it gives you excellent introductory and concluding footage, provides a sense of connection, all that sort of thing.

And yes, in the name of all that is holy, what everybody else said about getting good audio.
posted by flashboy at 6:36 PM on September 24, 2005 [3 favorites]

Good god, I'm longwinded. Try to make your film more concise and snappy than my answer, and you can't go wrong...
posted by flashboy at 6:40 PM on September 24, 2005

If you're like me (very handy with the tech), the toughest part about making a documentary will be the shooting. As mentioned above, a lot of work gets done in the editing, and you'll find some very interesting things appear in your footage that you hadn't thought of while filming. One of my pet peeves about student filmmaking, especially where documentary is concerned, is the tendency to force a thesis on a subject—I find a lot of student documentaries are very rigid and have an obvious stance on whatever issue they're trying to examine. I prefer a more cinema verité approach: have a general topic, keep the cameras rolling, and see what happens. This is where some of the "always have the camera on" advice comes from; some of your most interesting moments come when you least expect them.

Good sound and lighting are very important (sound more than lighting, for today's cameras are much better at adjusting to even crappy fluorescent office lights), but more so is to get your subjects comfortable with being in front of a camera. The simplest way to do this is (again) always be shooting. People adjust to the presence of a camera very quickly, they stop being shy (or stop playing to the camera, which is possibly worse), and that's when things start to flow. Don't worry too much about trying to construct a narrative beforehand; the scary part and the exhilirating part of documentary versus fiction filmmaking is you don't know what the story is. Unless your couples are lifeless corpses, there'll be something interesting to latch onto.

Shoot everything in sight. As stated above, a variety of shots helps to mix things up visually in the film, but also remember that the editing process goes much more smoothly if you've got things like cutaways to cover up problems (like shots that are too short or changes in ambient sound). Detail shots are good for this sort of thing: closeups of a couple holding hands; low, long shots of a couple walking down the supermarket aisle; closeups on items in the shopping basket.

That was a bit rambling, but everyone else has good advice as well. Most of all, enjoy your time behind the camera and in the editing suite. I wish I were still editing crappy student films at 2 in the morning.
posted by chrominance at 7:27 PM on September 24, 2005

One tip for the interview segments:

Never ask yes-or-no questions, because you will get an answer that consists of "Yes" or "no," and nothing more.

BAD QUESTION: When you first met Joe, were you attracted to him?
GOOD QUESTION: What was your reaction when you first met Joe?
posted by yankeefog at 7:47 AM on September 29, 2005

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