For trivia buffs (and moving picture historians) the unofficial birthday of the motion picture is considered to be December 28, 1895. On that date, people paid to watch a movie for the first time. And what was the audience watching as they sat in the basement of a Paris café? They saw a series of images not much longer than a minute each that included a group of workers walking out of a factory, a train coming into a station, and a baby eating. They were watching documentaries.

Fast-forward 102 years and you’ll find audiences just as eager to watch real life on a screen. Some television documentaries have become major events–witness The Civil War on PBS–and their producers have become household names. Although you may not aspire to national fame, every time you turn your camcorder on to record real events you’re making a documentary. In this article, we’ll explain how anyone who captures real life on videotapes can benefit by following the fundamentals of documentary videomaking.


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Video Verite

Documentary videos come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes. On one end of the spectrum you’ll find the tightly scripted and controlled project in which practically every word of voice-over and every image is determined before shooting. We call this type of documentary Cinema Verite. In these cases, a producer has done extensive research and knows the material extremely well before shooting begins. The videographer can set out the various elements such as photographs and narration and get a strong sense of how the piece flows before he even turns the camera on. Ken Burns’ work on the history of baseball falls into this category.

At the other extreme, you’ll find projects where the videographer has taken a general concept or idea and then collected hours of footage which are whittled down to the final length in the editing process. This approach to documentaries is referred to as Direct Cinema.

One practitioner of this technique is Frederick Wiseman. He began his career in the ’60s by focusing his interest on institutions ranging from high schools to meat packing plants. He sometimes spent nine months shooting in a particular place, then editing the footage to capture the feel of real life. Wiseman never used narration or any sort of outside commentary. He let the images speak for themselves. His latest film, Public Housing, takes place in a public housing development in Chicago.

No matter what style of project you choose, making documentaries on a low or non-existent budget brings forth a unique set of challenges. It’s foolish to say money doesn’t matter but there is much a videographer can do to compensate for the lack of big bucks. You don’t need a large budget to develop a set of skills and tools involving pre-production planning, research and interviewing.

Know Your Subject

Anybody who’s ever taken a creative writing class can understand the importance of starting off with an idea that’s close to home. In other words, know your subject. It’s money in the bank to a documentary videographer. If you choose a subject you’re connected with, you’ll have a much better chance of finding those magic moments that someone else might pass over.

I earned a commission to direct a documentary celebrating the 100th anniversary of a synagogue in Seattle because I was familiar with the historic material and the photographic record of the period. Members of the synagogue wrote the first draft of the script. Although they did an excellent job–all the technical information was there in terms of dates and events–I felt the project was incomplete. I scheduled a series of interviews with long-time members of the congregation. As they talked about their childhood memories and their personal connection with the synagogue, the factual information no longer seemed so dry and the piece sprang to life. The stories they told gave the piece its own heart and personality. I knew where to find this integral component of the documentary because I was close to the subject matter.

Research, Research, Research

Knowledge of your subject pays huge dividends in other ways as well. Knowledge breeds creativity. Take the case of a documentary called Nightmail-a film made during the 1930s in Britain. The idea with this film was to explain how a train travelling between London and Scotland delivered the mail. On the surface, you couldn’t find a more ordinary or less inspiring subject. The creator’s knowledge of the subject, however, gave him the confidence to break away from the obvious means of presenting the information. He used strong and powerful visuals of the train, the railroad tracks, telephone lines and scenery whizzing by to build a lyrical statement. They created extraordinary visual rhythms that meshed with the factual content. By simply following an informational script, you run the risk of turning out a product that would deliver content but would lose the audience without strong visuals to back it up. Immerse yourself in a subject and you’ll usually find creative ways to present it to an audience.

The Art of Interviewing

Good research will also come in handy when it’s time to interview people who are experts in a particular field. They won’t expect you to know more than they do. After all, their knowledge on the particular subject is the reason you’re interviewing them in the first place. On the other hand, you don’t want to be unprepared because the people you interview will be both more responsive and more understanding if they feel you take them seriously. Be prepared so you can follow up on responses when you sense the opportunity. Like a defense lawyer during cross-examination, you need the ability to think quickly on your feet. Solid research under your belt gives you knowledge, and knowledge gives you confidence that translates directly into higher quality interviews.

Interviewing and research are strongly linked in other ways as well. I once worked on a project about women who were bronco riders in Montana back in the `30s and `40s. The director did her initial interviews with a tape recorder; no camera was present at all. She accomplished many things at once. First, by conducting these "pre-interviews" she was able to do research on her subject. Second, she was able to highlight the most interesting stories so that she could be more focused when she returned with the entire crew. Third, and perhaps most important, she was able to establish a relationship with the people she was talking to. When she filmed the final interviews, her rapport with the women radiated through the whole program.

Quick Starts and Fast Finishes

The goal of pre-production is to conserve resources by careful planning. You want to obtain the maximum results for a given investment of time. With most big-budget projects, practically every expense is pegged to the amount of time each task takes, from equipment rental to day-rates for crew. Even the weekend hobbyist who is shooting a project alone must keep close tabs on the amount of time taken to get the job done because time is an element that most of us have in limited supply. Setting up a realistic and effective shooting schedule could well be your most important accomplishment. Treat your shooting schedule as a large puzzle. You want the pieces to fit together in a way that gives you creative freedom and makes economic sense. For example, you wouldn’t want to schedule two interviews that might run long in the same day. On the other hand, it might be necessary to schedule a shorter workday to correspond with conflicting schedules within the project. Work these details out beforehand to relieve yourself of the burden during production.

Cutting Through

When you start editing, you have to deal with the mass of material you’ve collected. One way that documentary makers manage the task is to transcribe all their interviews. It’s often easier to deal with sheets of paper than to shuffle through all that videotape. The "paper" edit, often literally a cut and paste version of the transcripts, can provide a great rough draft and help you to piece your project together while working away from the actual footage.

Good organization is a basic skill that provides strong results through the entire production process. Skillful interviewing and extensive research are excellent tools for strengthening the quality of your project. As a documentary videographer, you might not have a dream budget but you can make your dreams come to life.

David Shulman has produced, directed and edited numerous PBS documentaries.

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