One of the beautiful things about the current environment for filmmaking is that everyone has the ability to tell a story. The rise of the digital age and the democratization of technology has made the equipment, software and knowledge of cinema available to everyone. The ability to shoot, edit and distribute a documentary has been put quite literally in the palm of your hand.
Though it’s possible to shoot a documentary with your smart phone, there are also a wide range of high-resolution cameras available for consumer prices. The DSLR breed of cameras offers a trifecta of quality, price and adaptability that’s hard to beat. As a rule of thumb, the lower your resolution is, the more close-ups you should use. For the novice, most cameras have automatic settings that allow you to point and shoot. This works in best case scenarios but as you begin to delve into more complicated situations you’ll want to invest in some kind of lighting set up. Good lighting with all devices means the difference between average, below average or just plain awful picture quality and something that could be deemed stunning. If you have budget to burn, a light kit and soft box are indispensable, but in the absence of unlimited funding, high-wattage bulbs and aluminum clamps or Japanese lanterns can be used to similar effect. Investigate a three-point lighting set up and learn to see the difference between blowing out a subject and under-lighting one. Some of the lower-end DSLRs don’t perform well in low light situations and require additional lighting in order to avoid unwanted grain in the image. Subtlety is key. Experiment with shadows to add drama to the scene.
Movement is an entirely different beast. Shooting on a tripod vs. moving with a handheld camera can change the whole dynamic of the story you’re telling. Dollies, sliders and different rigs for stabilizing the camera including the Steadicam all produce specific types of movement that affect the viewer in specific ways. Too much shakiness might make the viewer feel nauseous while just the right amount will make an interview feel more like real life. Just like light, movement is a part of your palette.
New devices are springing up that allow you to attach camera lenses to your smartphone and wield iPhones like jibs but the most important thing you should be worried about on any documentary film is your sound. Sound will make or break you. A good story told on a crappy smartphone with clean audio is tolerable. Without decent audio, you’ll lose most of your potential audience. I’ve heard subjective estimates that audio accounts for about half of what makes a good film but I’d put it closer to two-thirds. Quality shotgun and lavalier mics are available for reasonably low prices and will make your narrator pop. If you’re shooting outdoors, a blimp and a dead cat or wind muff are essential. Wind is kryptonite to good audio but the combination of a blimp, a dead cat and a shock mount will eliminate it 100%. Since some of the DSLRs aren’t equipped with the full range of audio inputs you may need to record sound to a separate device like a Zoom Box and match it up in post-production with software such as PluralEyes.
Now that you have your camera, lighting and sound taken care of, you have to worry about coverage. No matter how well you’ve planned and how amazing your expert interview went, unless you’ve built redundancies into your redundancies, there are always going to be gaps in the footage when you return to the editing room. Getting enough interview footage is one thing but you also want to make sure you shoot enough b-roll. Staring at a talking head is fine for the first few minutes but eventually you’re going to want to cut to something said-talking-head is actually talking about. Getting enough coverage is important for assembling the jigsaw puzzle you’ve recorded in the editing room.
The non-scripted element of an interview means that you’ll have to sift through your footage for sound bites that tell a linear story with a beginning, middle and end. The real art of the edit is taking your voiceover, photographs, historical footage, animations, audio recordings, Foley, interviews and re-enactments and creating a compelling narrative that takes advantage of the documentary’s dynamic format to craft a film that challenges the boundaries of traditional storytelling.
Watch: The Five Obstructions
The ultimate experimental documentary. Half documentary, half art, all style and panache, The Five Obstructions revolves around a 1967 Danish film by director Jorgen Leth called The Perfect Human. Over the course of the film, Dogme 95 co-founder Lars von Trier challenges his mentor Leth to remake The Perfect Human five times with five different “obstructions” while the two yuck it up over vodka and caviar. Leth’s short films are all beautiful masterpieces and the behind-the-scenes of him grappling with the dilemmas which range from cutting every 12 frames to shooting in the worst place in the world but not showing it are poignant. Von Trier plays the giddy tormenter to the hilt, eventually paying tribute to Leth's work and grace under pressure.