Let's talk about Documentary Film
Let's talk documentary. It's something I'm super passionate about after 10 years of honing my craft. It's something I've been spending a lot my time on lately as most of my projects are leaning towards a docu-style approach to content or full on documentary films.
I want to use this blog to write about some of my philosophies and opinions about process, and what defines good or bad work. What lessons I have learned over the years. What is ethical, and moral and what qualities are needed in any piece to move the craft forward into the future. These are my opinions, some will be unpopular, and some will be common sense. For better or worse, here it is.
** These are my opinions backed up with facts and past experiences. Not all filmmakers will agree with these views, and that's sort of the point of film isn't it? Every person is unique and so is every subject. How we express ourselves through the medium should be as well. **
Defining Documentary: What is documentary? Well rather than bore you with a long winded explanation of what true documentary is currently and has been before, I'd like to talk about two types of documentary content. Documentary Journalism, and Documentary Film.
Most people agree the first film was a documentary film. It is titled: L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (translated from French into English as The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (US) and The Arrival of the Mail Train, and in the United Kingdom the film is known as Train Pulling into a Station) is an 1896 French short black-and-white silent documentary film directed and produced by Auguste and Louis Lumière. Its first public showing took place in January 1896. (Source: Wikipedia).
Legend has it that the audience was so freaked out by its realism that most of them hid behind their seats or left the theater in a panic. If you put this in the context of 1896, it must have been an alien experience, likened today to showing your parents VR for the first time. ;)
The reason I bring this up is that it's a classic definition of what documentary is to most people; a single static camera passively observing reality. However we have come a long way from this first film, and today we take great creative liberties with how we do this, and what information we withhold or transmit. This brings us to my two categories: Documentary Film and Documentary Journalism.
Some of you might be saying in a sarcastic tone, "Well Nick, aren't those the same thing?" Well that's a hard no smart ass. I don't think so at all.
Documentary Journalism: This is the Walter Cronkite of documentary. It's presenting information to an audience that's perceived to be devoid of meddling and manipulation. It's often referred to as raw, and un-biased or un-filtered. To me, documentary journalism is that boring history class you had in high school. The monotone teacher transmitting to you dates and information in a sterile and detached way. (Bueller?) It's the lesson plan on paper. It's a way of communicating that seems to makes sense for the nature of the craft, It's un-biased. It's transparent. (I will make strong arguments later, as to why being unbiased is impossible, but for all intensive purposes this approach is closest to that.)
Solid (on the surface at least) examples of this style to me include Icarus, Citizen Four, Oliver Stones The Untold History Of The United States or anything Ken Burns has done throughout his career. It's communicating information over time that is perceived as factual, and very to the point. It's often observing things as they unfold, or recreating the past with historical footage or still images. While it can be fascinating (especially if you already have interest in a subject) It can also leave us wanting more.
To use the history class metaphor, It's dates of history being told to you as straightforward textbook information; "Cortez Landed in Mexico in 1519 with 500 men and 11 ships".
Documentary Film: A documentary film to me is defined like any other film. It's a piece of art that leaves you with awe and wonderment towards the world. Some lesson was imparted, some new perspective or nugget of truth. This could be your truth, or a universal truth. It's a message created and crafted by the director, which mirrors his/her existing view on the world or a lesson he/she learned through the process of making the film. It gifts wisdom. It makes you think, and most importantly, it makes you feel. Often times it's poetic and understated. It treats the viewer as an equal, not less than. It's human and raw, while also conveying a deeply engrained perspective (bias) which is a unique viewpoint. It's factual, but it's presenting that information through the eyes of the person creating it. This becomes very important later on, as we discuss the why in what you do. Some examples of this in modern doc films would be Grizzly Man, An Honest Liar, or even my film on Derek Hess Forced Perspective. (shameless plug)
To liken this to history, it's the lesson being illustratively explained by a masterful storyteller while communicating facts:
"So Cortez leaves Spain in the 1500's right... and he sails these 11 giant Spanish style ships with ornate wood carvings all over the hull. When they left Spain it was horrific sailing conditions, rainy and windy. So they lost quite a few men to infections and accidents the whole way there. When they finally land on the beach it was that calm tropical island weather with almost electric humidity in the air. They cruise up to the sandy white beach and plop out of the ship one at a time. After the last man leaves the ship, Cortez lights a small torch and catches the ornate hull on fire. The men stood by with a look of horror as they knew they would never make it back to the old world they called home."
So who cares? What's the difference? Is one better than the other? These questions all have super subjective answers, but since this is my blog and the goal here is to convey my perspective I will go ahead and pick one. I believe a Documentary Film is better. The reasoning from my side of the table is that there is no such thing as true Documentary Journalism.
Think about it, even our world history is colored by the people who conquered and wrote the history books. The Bible was written on dead sea scrolls (408 bc) translated from Aramaic to Hebrew, Hebrew to Latin, Latin to German, German to English. Thousands of years passed, and the people who translated the text from the original intent had completely alien cultures in comparison. Not to mention alphabets. It's silly for us to think what we are reading in that small leather book in your hotel room droor in 2018 is exactly what was intended or what actually happened. The Bible is nothing but old storytelling.
Our films are shaped by each hand that touches it. The director, the cinematographer, the editor, the producer, the composer. Each one of those people have their own background and perspectives that shape the final outcome of the film. I'd argue even more than the physical act of directing or editing or any of the technical is the intent. The intent shapes the tone of the piece before a single frame is ever exposed. It's important for us to understand these things as content creators and storytellers before we make anything of our own. It will allow you to make calculated technical decisions that help realize and communicate your vision effectively. Education is empowerment.
Selecting a Subject: OK, now what? So we discussed the two types of Documentaries, where do I go from here? When I speak at schools I always get asked the same question. How do I start? You start by being interested in something. Anything. And then you set out to make the mundane extraordinary. I believe you should be making the films that only you can make. They should reflect your passions. Mirror your perspective. Of course this starts with you knowing yourself and what you are into. Find a subculture you are into, or simply make a film on an interesting ordinary person in your life. Just start making things, and sort out the how later. The who and why is most important. Through throwing yourself at a subject you are passionate about, you will learn the craft and your approach in relation to it.
The first short doc I ever did was on my friends skateboard company in 2010. He made awesome one of a kind skate decks. He hand laid and glued the ply and cut super funky shapes.
We were friends, and more importantly I had a deep interest in what he was doing. His Decks were really well built, and I had a curiosity to find out how they were built. I believe that curiosity is important when exploring a subject. It translates in a genuine way on screen because you are learning with the audience. Also background is important. I used to skate. I loved skateboards and grew up with them. It was my prerogative as a storyteller to find out how they are built, and what made my friend different. Sometimes the subject picks you.
Now this comes with one big caveat in the beginning. You likely don't know how to craft something yet. You have not found your methodology. Take this scary challenge as an opportunity to explore your voice. After watching this piece, you can see some themes and through lines in my current work that are already present here in this piece. All I did over the years was refine those themes into a voice by getting rid of what I didn't like, and keeping what I did through what I learned on set and in the editing room.
As you learn about yourself through the craft, you can spot good subjects that fit your style easily. When I made Forced Perspective, it was a no brainier for me. Derek was an inspiration for me growing up. I suffer from bipolar and I am also a fine artist, so the subject was a perfect fit for me. I found an old Headbangers Ball CD he did the art for in my childhood bedroom. I sent a cold e mail through his website with some of my work while I was in town visiting family. We met up and talked about old comics, metal and 70's playboys and he agreed to do the story. That short film evolved into a feature.
Ethics - Respecting Your Subject: Whether it's a commission piece for a commercial client or a feature film on a tortured artist, you need to respect and honor your subject. We do this in more than one way:
We do it by understanding who we are making a film about. Learn everything you can about the subject, company or person. Research. Get your facts straight to help you set the stage and context for what you are making. This will allow you to narrow what you want to reveal or omit based on what you connect to with in the subject matter. In the case of Derek Hess, I decided to focus less on his technical creation of art or his accolades and more on how his struggle with bipolar and alcohol shaped the dark art. That is what I personally connected to after learning about his life and work.
We do it by understanding our subject is human. There are times to push and there are times to let it be. Especially when dealing with a biographic story. You need to honor the persons life. With actors, they pretend to be someone for a long period of time, and they eventually kill the character off in their mind and can carry on with life. In documentary, you are dealing with real people, with real experiences. Often times you are making them relive those experiences, and those feelings are very real. They will carry the feelings of reliving that experience long after the film releases. Plus, they have to watch themselves on film, and know that the film will be out there forever. Know when to let them rest on set. Know when to cut a scene in the edit to respect that persons life. Don't censor yourself, but honor the persons life as you create their story.
We do it by presenting the information in a flattering way. This aesthetic and tone should embrace the qualities of your subject and the setting in which they inhabit. It's the mood of your film which is a personification of the subject itself. For the piece on Gotta Groove Records, they make really well crafted quality focused records. Our film's aesthetic reflects that. Crisp camera movements, beautiful use of color and frame. Well crafted cinematography, editing and sound to reflect the well crafted records.
Execution: Every project is different. The subject is different, the location is different, the budget is different, and the audience is different. You should approach each project differently to help meet the needs of the particular story. In doc, it's really about embracing the unknown and positioning yourself to create the best possible product with whatever limitations are in your way, or advantages and tools are at your disposal.
Can't get a 4K camera or can't draw attention to a crew because you are in a foreign country? Shoot with a DSLR. No budget for a large crew? Shoot it yourself. Can't get to location ahead of time to add lights? Learn to shoot with found light. Sometimes these limitations create the piece for you. That being said, follow the fundementals. Make a plan, and use it as a mission statement, but don't be afraid to deviate from the path.
I recently went to Brazil with my friend Jade Catta Preta. She approached me 2 weeks before she was heading to Brazil to perform comedy for the first time in Portuguese and said, hey let's go and film it.
Sh*t. Huge logistical challenge right? What's the story? What direction do I take? What gear do I bring? Will I get mugged?
Well when we went it ended up being me with a DSLR, and a 24-70 f4 lens with a boom mic. What this limitation did is create intimacy. I was able to catch Jade in her most vulnerable moments. We were able to film in situations that having a giant shoulder camera, we flat out would not of even been let into the space.
Long story short, don't let these limitations cripple your project. Let them define it. Embrace those challenges and make the best of them. Resourcefulness and problem solving is the mother of creativity. These details along with your perspective will create true originality born out of circumstance.
Substance - Using Direction as Self Expression: OK so you've made a few projects. You can now build something with technical proficiency. But you are bored. Why is that? Likely it's one of two things or both. Either you are not challenging yourself, or you have not discovered a voice. Finding a voice is ultimately the key to happiness as a creative person. Knowing yourself and what you are good at will take your work to newer more intimate levels. It's at this point that you start competing with yourself instead of other people. It's where you become an artist, and you can begin to use the craft to express yourself.
The most important part of being able to do this is knowing yourself. Know your strengths and weakness. Know your influences. Know your heroes and the impact they had on your work.
The second part of this is ability. You need to understand the craft and stand on the shoulders of giants to be able to find your way, and methodology. Picasso learned to paint people in an anatomically correct way long before he created any abstraction. Know the rules and master them, and break them with intent. Once you do that, your work will skyrocket to another level of originality. You will also know what work to go after with complete clarity, and if a client is a good fit, or someone you should runaway from at 100 miles an hour.
Aesthetic Quality: Documentary is often looked at like the ugly redheaded stepchild of the filmmaking family, and there is a reason. Most filmmakers in this world simply don't have the technical skills or resources to make something visually striking. This is not a personal attack on anyone and I mean this to be taken as constructive criticism of our industry as a whole. It's simply a historical fact that I've noticed over time, most documentary films are sloppily put together from a technical stand point. Part of this is the barrier to entry to become a doc filmmaker is much lower than narrative. There is a bigger forgiveness on the quality of film in the category, because of the reality of the content. It's however getting much much better as technology and access to information increases, and audience expectation is higher.
In the past this technical faux pas was made up for by tremendous heart or storytelling. But as audiences attention spans get shorter, technology gets better and the standard for industry excellence gets higher; we have a responsibility to make films with lots of heart, that are also beautiful and visually/editorially engaging.
High art in my opinion is a combination of highly technical ability and self expression married in the form of a physical medium. The only way to move documentary forward is to create technically astute and proficient films. They should rival narrative films in quality. Why don't they? Below are some things I've noticed that can be changed in our field by simply paying attention and creating better habits.
- Don't round corners: I'll fix it in post!! Don't ever say that. Measure twice cut once. Make a plan for your project, structure interview questions and a story arch, make a shot list. Write a screenplay as if this were narrative and reverse engineer it. Set yourself up for success with a plan of attack.
- Partner with people better than you: Find cinematographers who can shoot footage that is better than yours. Find editors who add a huge storytelling value. Find a composer who is right for the project. Work with pros, and let them make you stronger. You will learn from them and integrate it into your process.
- Meet all technical standards: Does your film sound like crap? Find an audio mixer. Shots don't match? Pay a colorist. You need to invest in your own future, even it it costs you fiscally, it will make your work stronger in the long run.
Editing is Writing: In documentary, editing is writing. The reason being is that as much as we plan our day, and write out a shot list, just like the nature of life, on set.... Sh*t happens. Sometimes the location isn't available, sometimes the light isn't right, sometimes it's too noisy for sound. When all of the footage from the project gets put in the timeline it becomes a puzzle to solve. It's my favorite part of the magic trick and it's something I'm naturally good at.
Editors are problem solvers. They are also creative writers. The context of the imagery shown on screen juxtaposed to audio information can create profound realizations and visual contrast. We can personify objects. We can anthropomorphize animals. We can give the most monotonous scene life. Never under-estimate the power a good editor has over the final product, they add huge value and deserve as much credit as directors in shaping the story.
What sound should we use here? Where should the music start? How do I hide this cut? Can I make this flow faster? All of these details create emotion on screen and are multiplying factors to the effectiveness of your story on an audience. If the magic trick is done correctly, the slight of hand is never noticed.
Three Piece Suit: The classics are still relevant for a reason. There are many stories told over the past 100 years, but damn few very good ones. Ones that stand the test of time. Why do some hold up and other not so much?
I'd argue it's not the devil in the details as much as it's the skeleton that we wrap the meat around. Would you believe Goodfellas is the story of Icarus? Or that The Sopranos is the story of Oedipus? Well they are. The windows may have different trim, but the scaffolding of the building remains the same.
It's important as a storyteller to study the timeless myths in the Iliad and the Odyssey. They can provide you with profound insight into making a modern story timeless. In order to move forward to the future, it's important to understand the past.
There is no such thing as different and equal. Sorry social justice warriors, but unfortunately this is a fact of life. Some people are born rich, some people are born tall and athletic, some people are musical prodigies out of the box. In our incredibly polarized society with tons of keyboard warriors shaping your perception of yourself or the world (if you allow them to) it's an important statement to make. Love who you are and where you came from and translate it to the work.
I am from Cleveland. I am blue collar at heart. I was also a deeply troubled kid with serious mental issues. Bipolar disorder pretty much tainted my childhood and adolescence as I was in and out of mental hospitals and behavioral schools from 10-16 years old. I was angry, and withdrawn and hated society. It would be easy for me to marginalize myself and say woe is me. It would be easy to make excuses and to rationalize giving up. I didn't give up and as I've grown as a person I've learned to embrace these parts of my life and put them into my work. It's made me a better storyteller. It's made me a better person.
The good news is that who you are matters. What has happened to you matters. Your life experience will shape your work as they are inextricably connected and they both will grow over time. Your interests will change as you grow with the craft, and believe me doing something as difficult as pursuing filmmaking will force you to grow as a person.
It's important not to compare yourself to others. That rich kid who has dads bankroll to make films all day long without working doesn't necessarily have an advantage. The advantage might be in the struggle. You will learn faster and adapt because you have to.
If you give yourself to the craft and fall in love with the process, it truly makes you a better person over time. The key here is continuous and brutal introspection and critique. The nature of getting better at anything difficult in life is to be objective about your shortcomings and advantages. Be honest with yourself about your work. What qualities do you like? What mistakes did you make? How can you improve next time? Regroup, replan, reshoot, re-edit. Work hard, get better and stay humble.