The reel thing

Documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor shares her guerrilla tips for capturing the real world on reel

January 30, 2008
6 min read

One of my favourite things about documentary filmmaking is that it’s a field dominated by autodidacts. Sure, you can enrol in expensive university courses or take technical seminars on the subject, but most documentarians I know mastered their craft the best way – by doing.

That said, a little good advice can go a long way. Here are a few things I had to learn, sometimes the hard way.

Know thyself

There are lots of reasons to make a documentary: to raise awareness, to stop injustice, to celebrate someone or something you love, to spread good ideas in the world. Seeing a project from start to finish – even a short film – is a lot of work, and it’s helpful to have a clear sense of purpose to keep you going through the inevitable tough times. Of course, once you’ve put a lot of time, energy, and probably money into a project, the ‘sunk costs’ may be enough to keep you motivated.

The more the merrier

Filmmaking is an inherently collaborative medium, which is another thing to love about it. A strong vision and sense of purpose will not only keep you focused, it will help you communicate your project to others and get them on board. At some point you’ll need to convince a friend of a friend in a strange city to spend their Sunday afternoon scouting locations for you, or you’ll want a professional animator’s assistance to make your opening credits look presentable. If these folks aren’t doing it for the money, they’re probably there because your passion for the project is contagious.

You’ll also need a hand if, like me, you’re not a natural gearhead. Thankfully, you don’t have to be; there are lots of people who can help you understand the basics of audio and visual technology. Ask someone to take 20 minutes to show you how to attach a wireless microphone to your subject properly, plug it into the camera, and monitor the sound levels. Find a photography buff to teach you the basics of cinematography, such as white balance and lighting. None of this is rocket science – all it takes is a little patience and some practice.

If you’re making a documentary it is possible to be your own star, but more than likely you’ll want to turn the camera on to someone else. Building trust with your subjects is key (don’t shove a camera in someone’s face the first time you meet them – that’s just basic manners). Documentary filmmaking requires an interesting mix of empathy and tenacity. People are often reluctant to be documented for good reason, but sometimes they can be convinced. Don’t hector but do articulate your intentions: the message you aim to send, your artistic aspirations, and the audience you’re trying to reach. If they do acquiesce, don’t forget to get them to sign a release (or at least grant permission on camera). Otherwise you may not be able to use your footage at all. For a general release form go to: www.channel4.com/fourdocs/media/p/release_form.pdf

A bigger picture

In addition to empathetic tenacity, doc directing also demands a Zen-like ability to be in the moment while keeping your larger goal in focus. In these days of cheap videotape one common strategy is to just keep the camera on at all times, but having hundreds of hours of footage makes your life that much more difficult when the time comes to edit.

Truly stellar filmmakers like James Longley, who directed Iraq In Fragments (www.iraqinfragments.com), are able to shoot while editing the footage in their minds, moving gracefully from one angle to another, making it look like they had multiple cameras when they only had one. That sort of skill may take a long time to cultivate, but there’s no reason to limit yourself to endless hours of shaky handheld video even if you have no budget.

Be creative. Love tracking shots? Use a wheelchair if your location is paved. Or look online for instructions on how to make track out of PVC pipes and a cheap dolly using plywood and skateboard wheels. For an example see: www.jorenclark.com/whitepapers/dolly.html

Sharing the love

It’s hard to believe, but the real work starts once you’ve made your movie. How will you get it to that audience you envisioned at the get-go? Of course there’s YouTube and the film festival circuit but what if you’re not satisfied by simply uploading your video or blindly submitting it to the usual suspects? Do-it-yourself distribution is time consuming but ultimately rewarding.

Does your film have an academic bent? If so consider working with New Day films (www.newday.com), a distribution cooperative for social-issue media that caters to the educational market, allowing filmmakers to share expenses and resources while retaining a higher percentage of the profits than they would with a corporate counterpart.

You can also try organising a university tour by contacting appropriate scholars (reach out to women’s studies professors if your film has a feminist theme, environmental studies departments if there’s an ecological focus, and so on) or student groups on campus. Many schools may pay a speaker’s fee to have you come give a Q and A about your work – that’s more than a movie theatre will do.

If your project has a more cultural, or subcultural bent consider following the model of Evil Twin Booking (http://www.eviltwinbooking.org), based in Philadelphia, who eschew conventional multiplexes for ‘info shops, community centres, squats, micro cinemas, dance clubs, caves’ and other alternative venues. Chances are, you know your audience; take your movie to them and don’t be too proud to pass the hat after it’s played so you can get to the next screening.

Astra Taylor directed the 2005 documentary Zizek! and produces short-form videos for The Nation magazine. She is currently editing her next feature, Examined Life. www.hiddendriver.com

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