Special to The Documentary Life by #doclifer, Doug Fraser, the founder of (and one-man band for) What We Do, a short documentary series that peers into the passions, hobbies, and jobs of people around the world.
Looking to be a one-man (or woman) band for your documentary series? Congratulations! Welcome to the wild and wonderful world of uncertainty. Fret not, here are five ways to turn your one-man band into a well-oiled doc filmmaking machine.
Do Your Homework
A cornerstone of the fun of documentary filmmaking is the unknown. Don’t worry, doing your homework won’t change that. In fact, preparation allows you to have even more fun with the unknown because you’ll have a better understanding of what you’re wanting to come back with.
Do background research. Make a discovery call with your subject to better understand the story you want to tell. Write out a list of interview questions. Visit the filming location before you shoot. Plan out your shots. Put in the pre-work so the work itself can be more enjoyable. But overall, be adaptable.
Because when things go wrong (and they will) having done your homework will help you find better, faster solutions.
Shoot for the Edit
Ron Howard once said, “Editing is when you come to the terms with the possibility of your story. Everything else is just a hope or belief.”
As both the camera person and the editor, you know what shots you’ll likely need to tell your story (if not, see #1). As you adjust your plans to your situation, think in sequences. If your subject is walking down a hallway, is this an opportunity for a shot/reverse shot? Do you need to record the sound of his footsteps or capture a shot of the leaky faucet in the background to help paint the picture of things falling apart? Even if you don’t know how you’re going to use it, get it anyway.
In other words: coverage, coverage, coverage. The establishing shot of the house may never see the light of day, but you better have it just in case. There’s nothing worse than being in the editing room and looking for a shot only to find it’s not there.
Does your subject have an interesting tattoo? Is there a mannerism that surfaces when they reminisce about a dark part of their past? Get a close up. And then get an extreme close up. And if you have time, try a different angle.
This is your time to be an obsessive collector. Gather every moment. Because when you get back and it’s just you and an edit to be done, every detail matters. You’re the master storyteller, or as famed documentarian Ken Burns puts it, “An emotional architect.” That role is a privilege. Be sure to honor it as best you can.
What’s in Your Pocket?
Shooting by yourself is stressful; it can be hard to remember what shots you planned to get. One trick that’s helped me is to carry around a pocket-size notebook (these ones from Moleskine have worked wonders). In there I keep a list of shot ideas I want, shots I’d like, and shots that are just for fun if time allows. I also keep a page dedicated to the story’s theme(s) in case I get too lost in the woods and need to remember where I came in (keep a pen handy because as you interview, you’ll definitely add to this list).
Don’t work in a bubble
Not only is working in bubble a detriment to your work, it’s also a loss to others who are looking for the same thing: an honest, objective eye and a source for exchanging ideas.
Tap into your network through social media to find the right people to show your work. Who are these “right” people? They’re the honest and insightful ones, the folks who’ll tell you your video sucks and (and this is important) why.
Don’t ask friends you know will say they like it. That’s of no use to you. Give it to the people who are going to make keen observations—those unfazed by poking holes in it to see if it sinks.
To grow we have to learn to dance with discomfort. It may hurt now, but future you will thank you.
Failing is a great way to learn how not to do things. But what if you didn’t have to fail to learn from failure?
One thought experiment does just that. Ask yourself: If you released your documentary tomorrow and it’s a total flop, why did it fail? This type of thinking allows you to distance yourself from your project and see it closer to retrospect. It gives you permission to admit to failure, which allows you to move past it and problem solve for issues before it’s too late.
Plenty of filmmakers share their tales of failure and how they overcame even some of the most basic issues you’re sure to face as a one-man band filmmaker (including many of you #doclifers!).
Okay. Now it’s time to put your new tricks to use. Take a deep breath. Grab your gear. And forge ahead.
Because this is your chance to make something great.
Check out the most recent episode of What We Do here: