Documentary-making for dreamers with only pocket change to spare
May 15, 2016 11:33 AM   Subscribe

This is a two-pronged question about making documentaries with limited resources. 1) What methods should I use for finding, choosing, and honing in on documentary subject matter? and 2) How can I maximize the limited benefits of using an iPhone 6S Plus to make a low budget doc? (Note: I've read and own Shut Up and Shoot, but I'm seeking additional opinions and advice.)

For at least a decade, I've wanted to make documentaries---inspiration includes but is not limited to the documentaries of Agnes Varda, Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Kopple, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, Ross McElwee, and Alan Lomax.

Problem is, I have "OK" skills with camera-work and sound recording, more limited skills with lighting and editing, an even more limited budget, and would probably be doing this entirely by myself (possible partners include my sister, who's a pro photographer, and a modestly successful filmmaker who I know from my neighborhood).

Either way, I'm not banking on working with anyone other than myself, so let's assume for now that going at it solo is my only choice. I know the consequences of this - I've already accepted that it will mean an inconceivable amount of hard work and long hours. This is fine.

I want to know more about affordable equipment and accessories (lenses, mics, lighting equipment, etc) I can use with my iPhone 6S Plus - I'm looking at the Moment wide-angle lens and a few other iPhone lenses, but am not sure about external mics for the iPhone. It seems like the consensus online is to get a clapper and use a separate device for recording sound (I have a Zoom H4n), then sync everything up in post. Yay or nay?

What (free/affordable) film editing software would you recommend for a newbie? I'd be editing on a PC, not a Mac.

Also, what are some best practices for 'brainstorming' and narrowing-down documentary subject matter? I'm interested in anecdata/your own personal advice, as well information and advice you can link to online from other people who work in documentary film, radio/podcasts, print journalism, etc.
posted by nightrecordings to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Here's an interesting post about the equipment and apps used to shoot Tangerine (not a documentary). It looked great visually and didn't look amateur or obviously shot on budget equipment.
posted by cushie at 12:13 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's not about the equipment, it's about being sure you are able to get what you need to tell the best story. You can start on an iPhone and then edit and see what people think, then go back and do more hopefully with them joining you or mentoring you.

If you get caught up in production quality / cost you will lose focus and probably stop again.
posted by parmanparman at 1:25 PM on May 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'll give a documentary with bad video quality and ok audio a try, but a documentary with bad audio is something I will immediately turn off. If you can't hear what people are saying there is no story.

The H4n is a solid piece of recording equipment, but for excellent audio you'll need the H4n to be close to the subject. If you can't get the H4n close enough you'll want to use an external microphone. If you're going to do sit down interviews, you might want to get a lavaliere (lav) mic that you can plugin into the H4n (use the lav if you have setup time). There are many cheap lav mics on Amazon ($2-$25) that are of different cord lengths that should plug into your H4n. If you're going to be finding people on the street having a little shotgun microphone on the H4n would be helpful (use the shotgun if you don't have setup time).

I'm not sure I would bother with lenses for your iPhone. They just don't look all that good. The iPhone lens is already pretty wide, so I'm not sure that the moment wide-angle will be all that helpful. (Plus if lenses for the iPhone cost a hundred bucks, you could just be buying used DSLR lenses. For a couple hundred bucks [$250-350] you could buy a DSLR on ebay with a lens or two that shoots video. [Folks might argue about a DSLR or an iPhone being better, but being able to set things manually is helpful.])

I would get some kind of tripod attachment for your iPhone and a tripod. It's hard to hold an iPhone still.

You might check out Grammar of the Edit and Grammar of the Shot.

As for editing, you're going to be hard pressed to find something as comprehensive as Adobe Premier. Not sure exactly what you mean by affordable, but you can essentially rent Premier from Adobe for $20/month. If you're associated with a university many times there will be a discount. (Premier does magic syncing of audio from an external recorder to the video. It's totally amazing.)

This is my experience: It's really hard to run sound, camera, and ask interesting questions at the same time. I would try and get your audio/video setup in a way that you **don't** have to worry about it; set it up, make sure it's working, then focus on thinking about asking interesting questions of your subject. Also if you can afford it, having a second camera at a different angle on your interviews of people will make the interview way more enjoyable to watch.
posted by gregr at 7:33 AM on May 16, 2016

Just to start off, why not keep it simple and shoot a 5-minute doc on the gear you already have? Just find an interesting person, interview them for half an hour or so, shoot 10 minutes of B-roll depicting whatever they're talking about, and then go edit it (try using the free trial period of some kind of editing software to see if you like it before you invest). Get a feel for the shooting and the edit workflow, so you know what works for you and where you'd want to invest more. You can shoot something in under a day and have it done by the weekend.

Here's a great 6-minute very simple doc that I really enjoyed: The New Yorker's Who's Your Daddy: My Son Is NYC's Naked Cowboy. It's so simple: basically focussing on a charismatic person with an interesting story, and a few simple images to help bring the story to life.

Documentary interviewing tips:

Ask open ended, somewhat vague questions: "How does it feel to have a famous son" might yield a really interesting answer... rather than a narrower question like "are you proud of your son?" - which leads to a yes/no answer and also prompts the person to frame their answer in terms of a specified emotion. You can ask specified questions of course, but it's good to ask general questions first to sort of probe the territory and that way your specific questions will have more weight.

Avoid sitting directly across the table from your interview subject- it feels too formal and will make them self-conscious. Sitting at a 90' angle is better (like how they sit on a talkshow). Mind your body language- don't cross arms or legs, keep your chest open and warm towards them. Mirror their comfort for eye contact- if they look at you, look at them, if they seem to want to avoid intense eye contact, keep your eye contact light too. At the beginning or at any emotional parts, if you think of it, breathe at the same rate they are breathing at (you might find you actually do this naturally, it's just a thing humans do), it will help you empathize with them. Subtly matching body language helps build rapport.

When the person is talking, nod and keep your face alive and empathetic with their words, so they know you're listening- give a lot of visual feedback- but avoid making noise, speaking, or say mmm-hmmm or anything like that- it's good to keep your voice off of their audio (this is called keeping their audio "clean", if you interject over them it's "dirty" audio). Clean audio gives more options for editing. Also when you think they are done talking, give it a couple extra seconds before you say anything else- sometimes their afterthought comments will be gold.

Start simple and polite, delve deeper as you go. People open up as they warm up. Warm people up with simple, general, basic questions: "how long have you lived here?" "What's the area like?" before delving into more personal, emotional subjects "You mentioned hitting rock bottom, can you talk about what that was like?"

Research the person and write out maybe 10 questions, but then don't refer back to that list- put it down beside you. The convo should flow naturally. If you get off on a tangent and need to come back to the list, it's there... but don't just machine-gun through your questions- much better to listen to their answers and invent questions on the spot based on what you hear and observe.

Have fun!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:59 AM on May 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Here's some insights from AU professors.
I'd also watch as many docs as you can and see what makes them really work. Try watching with no audio--the pictures should tell the story.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:35 AM on May 17, 2016

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