Producer Patty Mooney and her husband/partner DP Mark Schulze interview Dave “The Waterman” Ross for their multi-award-winning documentary, “The Invisible Ones: Homeless Combat Veterans” (2008). A homeless man helps out by holding up a makeshift reflector. - Photo by Craig Gottshalk

Let’s take a look at some popular documentaries. “Food Inc.” explores the way we eat. “Why Beauty Matters” focuses on the importance of beauty in the arts and in our lives. “The Golden Gate Bridge Suicides” is filmmaker Eric Steel’s treatise on how the iconic bridge has become a major suicide magnet. “Born into Brothels” trains a light on Calcutta’s Red Light Kids — children born to prostitutes.

These documentaries bring the public’s awareness to issues and stories that are significant in some way. Some social docs actually move viewers to take action on issues. Look at how “Blackfish” has left SeaWorld floundering for its very life.

If you want to produce a popular documentary, here are some questions to answer:

1) What is your documentary about? If it is about you, then why? What can you share with the world that has not been seen? Why would the world care about you? What is in it for the world?

2) Why do you want to make this documentary? To bring awareness to an issue? To solve a problem? Or for the accolades? Any full-length documentary worth its salt will take not minutes, hours, or days to make, but weeks, months or years. Are you willing to spend that kind of time on the topic you have chosen? Do you think you will make a lot of money with your documentary? If that is the reason, it’s probably best to stow the video production equipment away for now because it’s extremely difficult to turn a profit on videos. If you’re in it for the money, think again.

Any full-length documentary worth its salt will take not minutes, hours, or days to make, but weeks, months or years. Are you willing to spend that kind of time on the topic you have chosen?

3) Is this your first foray into documentary-making? If so, why not focus on a short video that will test your talents? Choose a topic about which you feel passionate. It’s this passion that will fire you up and sustain your excitement. You will need it as you sit alone in the editing bay, playing the timeline over and over and over again until you feel it is perfect.

If, after answering these questions honestly, you still wish to proceed with an autobiographical documentary, realize that it is most gracefully done with the involvement of others. Refer to Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” Martin Scorsese’s “Italianamericans” and Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me.” It’s all about fulfilling a contract with your viewer. If you can intrigue them into watching your show to the very end, consider that a measure of success.
These days, you run into so much competition for eyeballs that launching into a documentary of any sort requires faith, hope and belief. Yes, I suppose you could say that documentary-making is a sort of religion. If you have a good eye for framing, lighting, timing, sound and color, exercise your talents and enjoy the journey.

You will find that focusing on other people, places and things is really focusing on yourself after all. You cannot help but imbue your documentary with you. In that sense, every doc made is autobiographical.

Patty Mooney is VP, Video Producer, Sound Technician, Teleprompter Operator, Script Writer and Video Editor at award-winning San Diego video production company, Crystal Pyramid Productions.

Patty Mooney
I have been involved in video production since 1982 and wear many hats: Producer, Editor, Teleprompter Operator, Sound Mixer, Boom Pole Operator, Voice Over and Camera Operator. And in my "spare time," I enjoy Mountain Biking, Hiking, World Travel, Beer and Wine Tasting, and Philanthropy.

8 COMMENTS

  1. What a needlessly provocative, click-bait-y title that vastly over-generalizes the genre.

    Time is much better spent distinguishing between solid, award-winning, critically acclaimed autobiographical (actually, “personal”) genre documentaries, and those that fall prey to amateur flaws which are really hobbyist traits more than anything widely seen in distribution.

    • FYI, the title was the actual assignment, and I wonder if you read the last two lines of the piece: “You cannot help but imbue your documentary with you. In that sense, every doc made is autobiographical.”

  2. “What can you share with the world that has not been seen?” This question shows you to have overlooked something. An autobiographical documentary film about oneself is something that no one else has seen.

    • Yes, but will the world want to see it? That’s why for instance the structure of Wikipedia is built on articles that are written about others. The ones people write about themselves are thrown out because: self-aggrandizing, self-promoting, maybe even narcissistic, and potentially not accurate. IMHO, the same goes for documentaries. As the writer of the above article, I have laid out my own humble opinions based on having produced, shot and edited corporate, broadcast and documentary videos since 1982. If I’ve overlooked anything important, I’d love to hear it but in a kind and not deprecating way.

  3. I made a documentary about my interest in film and how it started. LIFE AT 16 F.P.S. was never intended for commercial release but as away of expressing to my children how their dad got started making movies in 8mm and gradually learned some of the needed skills to actually use a camera to capture and express feelings. My doing so I was able incorporate pieces of many films that my brother and I did ranging from THE ADVENTURES OF TRIXIE (1949) when I was 11 to the work I now do programing and introducing silent classics screened with live Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ accompaniment. It was a way of excerpting a lot of films that mostly would have little interest in and of themselves but do mean something when excerpted and the story behind them shared. I was quite a project but mostly I was pleased with what I was able to do by myself. Even when I went to locations to talk about life experiences I was able to set up a camera and film with the aid of remote controls. It was a one person effort that hopefully will let my children know how and why my love for film came about and was expressed through the years. That said, I agree with what you brought out in your fine article.

    • That sounds very interesting indeed. Maybe the title should have been “Please Don’t Make an Autobiographical Documentary for Commercial Release” (but then the title would have been way too long.) I think of personal family docs as “Legacy Videos” and what an important piece in a family’s history they are. Thanks for your comment!

  4. So parents or grandparents are not supposed to do an autobiography about their lives for their descendants? Surely you don’t mean that. The article needed to better clarify and make distinctions on what might be narcissistic and what is for the benefit of others.

    • The videos that are produced for descendants are known as “Legacy Videos” and are every bit as important, or even moreso, than traditional documentaries (at least to you and your family), but are not necessarily made for profit.

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