The Tao of film making, documentary and cinema journalism style with some help from AI
The shoot is on, a coastal town in peril of losing itself to the sea as inch by inch, year by year, it gobbles up land. What’s the story, and how do you tell it?
Elsewhere, a change in the music scene over the years with a move towards singing in one’s native language could signify something, but what? In Kenya authorities moved to ban Afro beat.
These are the types of films news and documentary makers undertake on a regular basis. Stories are a continuum of a state of affairs. Many a times we as storytellers find an event, believing we’ve stumbled upon manna. This is the unique story.
I nearly fell for this myself recently filming in Ghana. There’s a Prof who has built a Garden of Miracles with rare ancestral plants that cure or can address a range of ailments, including cancer. I thought this is it, but in speaking to my now “Uncle” /good friend, a video I’ve seen from many years back brings me with some humility back to where I should — use the workflow plan.
What is this approach?
Here it is in 10 points.
You have an idea for a doc. This is not a news piece, so the question whether it will make 15/ 25 /40 minutes depends on a) events, b) characters and c) filming of the story.
1, Mapping out the story is key. Documentary is a collaborative practice and if you plan on getting help, it’s useful to have a means to show a third party, in which they understand with minimal effort. Have your notes and mind map to hand.
2, What are you mind mapping? What’s the story, what does it entail? who’s in it? What are they like? What’s the drama? Is there any drama involved or is the film a series of non-drama directed scenes. How long will it take? ( see here for mind mapping) Documentary makers speak of log line.
That is what’s the story in 20 seconds or less, and then the treatment. That is how you intend to make it. The aforementioned don’t need to happen linearly, but keeping abreast of them as multiple streams is necessary. Let’s imagine minimal research speaking to someone affected by the story yields good news!
3, The oft repeated phrase is that stories are about people. They’re right but you could equally anthropomorphize an object, animal or event. Many years ago a doc maker I was looking after created an entertaining doc making the weather into a character.
Stories are about people. The more they give in the story often boils down to how much they trust the filmmaker, and how much they’ll allow you into what’s called privileged spaces or favourite personal spaces.
4, At the point that you’ve spoken enough to your potential interviewees, an idea of the film should be forming. Write a blog; it’s the equivalent of a breakdown of the story and will not only help you the doc maker in knowing your story, but also help third parties giving you a hand.
Trust me, it will reveal your understanding in what you’re planning for others to dip in. There’s no limit to the word count in the blog, because in practice it’ll also help you form the basis of your pre-shoot script.
5, After some feedback from the blog, some technical things will crop up. How many people are in the film? Who are the givers? Givers reveal a passion to getting to the truth of the story and sometimes will literally aid you in its making. And what does the film look like? You may not know the answers to these, but the more you strive towards knowing them the more you’re making your life easier down the line when it comes to the shoot.
I’m aware some doc making involves finding the story. This post here is more about scheduled docs with a time limit. So you find the framework for the story before you pick up the camera.
On the what does the film look like, develop a habit from watching other films how you want your scenes to come across. This doesn’t mean direct lifts, but allows a third party to see the sense of the cinematography.
6, By now, it’s not uncommon that most of the knowledge you’ve built up comes from phone calls. Nothing though beats the recce. That is being on the ground looking at locations and speaking to your potential interviewees. This is vital for the story making.
Couple of things to consider. As much as you can, with permission, take photos and be attentive to what people say. Your phone will do nicely for this.
Be careful not to make it a formal interview, otherwise one of the things you’ll notice is when it comes to the actual shoot, you’ll get comments like: “ As I told you last time you were here…” Which if that does happen you just say, assume you’re telling it to me for the first time.
Increasingly today I also use AI to generate photos for storyboarding ( the easiest is Bing Image creator) about what I might be looking for. Take this scene below. What does it signify, were I to use in a film.
7, Now you’re in the thistles of your film. You’re building a rapport. You want the interviewees relaxed around you. When you leave if you’ve created a firm impression, it’ll raise interest in looking you up and scoping your work. The group/ interviewee will do this before too.
So if you’re a young filmmaker do listen well. A simple one page will do the trick as a reference point. You could even do it on Medium. I’ve created a more elaborate one here about my work.
All you need is a photo a short bio, a clip of a film you’ve made and comments from those who know or are privy to your work. If you haven’t got those don’t panic, but start to build a library around your credibility and persona from social media.
8, You’re energised! Here’s something you’ll want to do asap. It’s a production diary shoot. There are a number of key things
a) Your idea of time keeping must be purposeful.
What do I mean? Time factoring differs across cultures. It pays for you to play to the low context end of languages and culture (read The Culture Map by Erin Meyer). It means you’re explicit and you keep those times. 12 O’clock really means be there 1t 11.50 latest. If you’re going to be late, or not show, let your interviewees know with ample time.
b) Another key thing is to work backwards from your intended delivery date, giving you a good amount of breathing room before submitting to a school, client, or whoever. Some things to build in. Critically the days you nail down your interviews.
Here’s a rule of thumb we employ. Imagine that every interviewee takes up 2 mins and do the maths for the number of people you should get. Better to have more choice in the edit than less. I’m aware too of the single dominant character in a film, or the lead who will take up more time. That discussion would have happened around point 2, and more so 5/6. Doc making can be highly fluid, so you need to be agile too. We’ll come to that.
In the diary work out ( at good intervals) for intervention with the producer/ editor etc in constructing your pre-shoot script. This is a frame work of the film based on interviews recce etc. which will undergo surgery talking to an expert. This is me speaking with one of my doc makers a decade ago. We’re doing script changes.
At the point where you’ve levelled improvements to your script with your shooting scheduled, you’re ready to go. Here’s a diary. Don’t take things literally on this. It’s just to show your planning.
There’s a well know phrase I borrow from the Matrix (1999) — “No One Ever Made the First Jump”. That’s not to belittle filmmakers, it’s a collaborative sport, so showing your film to people, testing your film as you develop it, having screen testings, is all part of the mix. Feedback will be invaluable.
It can take several recuts. I generally say 2/3 meaning you’ll have two editorial meetings ( could be more depending on the network) and then your third cut is ready to fly.
9, Now before you went out to shoot, have you got all your docs in order. That is ethics forms, risk assessments, location and interviewee release forms. Critical!
10, You’re shooting away. Your pre-shoot is helping you get through. Some things are changing. Happens. And in the worst case scenario an almighty hole has just developed because someone objects to your film, didn’t sign a release form, of later in the process for moral reasons is asking you to hold off developing the film. Happened to me filming a Syrian story near the border. What do you do? Well it’s worth having plan b) which could mean a rewrite of the story, or in very rare cases as what happened here, you ditch the film entirely.
Happy shooting. It’s worth reading this post of mine to bolster what I’ve said here.