Welcome to The Mechanics of Documentary Filmmaking. This four part series will cover the basics of bringing your non-fiction tale to the screen including File Management, Trouble Shooting, Audio/Visual Technique and the Interview Process. As a medium for storytelling, the documentary provides a unique format for meshing the art of cinema with real life in a way that bends the rules of non-fiction to make room for aesthetics and poetic license. The first part in the series examines the essentials of file management and the role it plays in streamlining the production process.
One of the most important yet overlooked facets of film production is file management. There’s only one side of the fine line between leisurely stroll and frustrating disaster that you want to end up on. Good file management will put you there. File management on documentary films begins before any actual filming takes place. Having your personal, location and any other release forms signed and dated prior to call time will save you a lot of stress the night before and the morning of the shoot.
After any filming, or more specifically, after filling up your card, tape or whatever media you’re recording on, if it’s possible, lock it and mark it. This will save you endless hassle when you’re in the middle of dealing with the actual production and your card or tape is full. It’ll also prevent you from recording over that beautiful once-in-a-lifetime interview you just filmed. Then the fun begins.
Depending on the equipment you’re using, chances are you’ll have to upload the footage and convert it into a useable file format. To date, the best advice I’ve heard about file formats for editing in Final Cut comes from EightClipAnonymous (“I make ProRes 4-2-2”).
Regardless of the final format, a lot of cameras produce incomprehensible file names like 978_061 that have no bearing on the reality of the footage. As tedious as it may be, it’s highly recommended that you go in and name those files according to scene, take, topic, type of footage (interview, b-roll, etc.), camera (A, B, C, etc.) or whatever description you can think of that will assist in sifting through the mess of numbers. These descriptions will also help you to segment your footage in bins and file folders.
On your drive, try to categorize your files by Audio, Video, Images and by particular programs (Motion, Live Type, Final Cut Pro, etc.). Back up your files, label your drives and try not to bang them into anything or drop them.
The gaping chasm between budding beginner and seasoned expert isn’t a space that’s crossed quickly in terms of aesthetics but good file management is the first step toward bridging the gap. One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard came from a very talented and accomplished filmmaker who explained that talent never got him anywhere. It’s all about perseverance. Remember that the next time you’re swimming in thousands of unnamed files with a nasty deadline breathing down your neck.
Tarnation is the ultimate nightmare documentary edit. Made up of over 20 years-worth of Super 8 and VHS footage, photos and answering machine messages, filmmaker Jonathan Caouette cut a feature-length documentary on iMovie about his relationship to his mentally ill mother. Assisted by a killer soundtrack, bricolage editing and friends like Gus Van Sant, Tarnation went on to win Best Documentary honors from the National Society of Film Critics and the L.A. and London International Film Festivals .