Recently, Videomaker was invited to a special reception honoring this year's documentarians nominated for Academy Awards. For this week's "Tips & Tricks" segment, Jennifer has some words from the pros on the trials and tribulations of documentary making.
Hi, I’m Jennifer O’Rourke here in Sunny, Southern California. And this is a very exciting week here in LA; this is Oscar week. Tonight is a special night: documentaries! And we’re going to be there in Beverly Hills.
“And the Oscar goes to An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim”
Director Davis Guggenheim shared the Oscar stage with his star, Al Gore, at this year’s Academy Awards. His movie, An Inconvenient Truth, was a documentary anomaly grossing 45 million dollars at the box office; third only to Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins. The mostly slideshow movie had star recognition, a bigger than average budget and a fair amount of production gear to pull the story off.
But, at the International Documentary Awards reception, we talked to many other documentary nominees who used consumer gear, one-man band operations and minimal budgets to tell their story.
I’m James Longley. I directed the film Iraq in Fragments and also did the cinematography and the music and co-edited the film.
In tight situations, you were mostly shooting alone?
I was shooting by myself, working with an Iraqi translator. So, it was just me and one other person; that was the biggest crew that I ever had. I was in Iraq for two years. We shot 300 hours of material using the Panasonic DVX100 and 100A cameras; filming in progressive scan, 24 frames per second, advance pull-down mode, which means that when you bring it into the computer you’re editing in true 24 frame per second. And, we shot letterbox; so, the aspect ratio of the image is basically 16:9. And then when the film was finished, in the editing phase, we exported the tip sequence of all the frames in the movie, about 134000 frames; and then those were imported into a Da Vinci 2k system at Modern Digital in Seatle and uprised using their proprietary codec to high-definition size.
Can you tell me a little about the gear that you used?
Yea, I used the Panasonic DVX100A, which I think is the same camera that James used, and blew it up to 35. I’m just very happy with that. And I had three wireless…I mean this is for what magazine is this?
So you’re happy; ok, you want details! Ok, I had three lectrosonic 100 series wireless microphones that I could sort of configure in different ways; sometimes as levs or as table mics, you know, wireless table mics and sort of PTM. So I could get that and mix it all down to one channel and then I always had a sennheiser boom as the devoted channel.
What kind of lights did you use?
No lights. No lights, no tripod. I carried a tripod to Iraq. I even took it out once. You can’t, yeah. I had to be so that I could move at any moment and there was no way I could do that with a tripod.
This film was shot with a VariCam, Panasonic VariCam, which I love, but, you know, honestly next time I want the 1080i. But I love the colors in the VariCam very much and I also love its ability to do the slow motion photography, which we wanted to do for this film, for Two Hands, because it’s about a man’s hands on the piano keys. And I knew I was going to show them in extreme close-up and I wanted to be able to really see them moving over the keys like a spider.
Several of the documentarians that we spoke with talked about the importance of the smaller gear being less intrusive than in years past.
I think it was really important for us to be able to unobtrusive and also have the small cameras. People aren’t noticing it; and you know when you’re doing social documentaries like that, it’s really important.
The way that equipment is accessible to people and the art form really exploding, I really see so many more filmmakers having wonderful ideas because they have the tools in their hands to use them now. So I’m really excited about the future for documentaries.
So thrilled by that you know, that management cliché about the long tale, but it’s really, really true. That you can find in Netflix, you can find on the web, you can find weird things, you know, six/seven months before our film is ready to market, we’re already getting tons of emails asking us when they can get the DVD. It’s really amazing; the internet has changed the rules. Changed the rules!
And a few of the producers we interviewed offered these words of encouragement and advice to future up and coming documentarians.
For someone who is just first starting out, what kind of tips would you give someone who wants to make a documentary, they had a passion for a story?
Know what it is you want to say and know what you want to put in your film. I mean, think about where you’re heading at the start and the end will be a lot easier.
Ultimately, research your story. Research your subject. And then go in there and get the proper, you know, equipment and the funds necessary to do it right because post production is the hardest and most expensive process. If you’re not, even though anybody can go out and shoot something, but until you’re ready and prepared for the post production and the length of time it’s going to take to edit and the unknowns, then, you know, you need to be prepared.
When you get footage back, it kind of tells you, if you listen to it carefully, it tells you what it wants to be. And, you have to listen to it and put it together. So, that’s my other advice, is (1) find a fantastic subject, person, not political issue, person to follow; and (2) let the footage lead you to find a story. Don’t impose your will on it too much.
What kind of advice would you give people who want to start out making their own documentary like this, something either on this caliber or just starting out?
Well, I mean, there’s so many things you can do as a young filmmaker to kind of prepare yourself to start to your own project. I mean, in the first place, watch a lot of films; you know, documentary films, there’s so many great documentary films out there.
The best picture, the best director and best actor nominees always get the press attention. So this little private reception honoring the document makers is a way of putting them through the spotlight through the International Documentary Association, the IDA, which sponsored the event.
The IDA is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to keep the public informed about the importance of documentaries. And this year, they will be addressing a very important issue on fair use and we will have more on that in an upcoming Videomaker magazine. Videomaker was also at the event as a one-man band, or in my case, as a one-woman band using this equipment, Sony’s Tony HVR-A1U HDV camcorder, tripped out with a small focusable light from VariZoom and a wireless mic from Samson and this Manfrotto 560b monopod.
For Videomaker Presents, I’m Jennifer O’Rourke.