ToolsDo You Have to Be Good at Everything?  Not Necessarily

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Jack of All Trades, Master of None”–describing someone who has a lot of general skills, but who doesn’t excel in any particular one.  In a way, that’s what I feel like as a documentary filmmaker.  I’m not specifically a videographer, lighting expert, sound tech, editor or scriptwriter. Some of you out there can wear multiple hats, and I do a bit of that, taking on the role of director, producer, and even videographer and/or editor from time to time. But as you know, if you have read my article about the perils of working alone (see “A One-Man Band Approach to Documentary Filmmaking”), I like working collaboratively.  To work with others I’ve had to become that “Jack of All Trades.”

I first got into documentary filmmaking as a scriptwriter. I was working for a small video production company at the time, and I didn’t know an XLR cable from a lavalier mic. The most elaborate video camera I had ever used was a Sony prosumer SD camcorder. One day, I was thrust into the role of field producer when the assigned producer didn’t show and everyone else was sick. I can still hear my boss saying forlornly, “Look, I’m desperate and you are all I’ve got.” (Note: Over the years I’ve noticed that the writer is often viewed as the lowest-man-on-the-totem-pole in the world of video.)

Thus began my life as a producer.  Somehow, maybe because I had raised two children and knew how to juggle impossible schedules and dole out allowances to screaming kids, I turned out to be good at it.  Another thing in my favor was having been raised in a dysfunctional home. If you’ve ever worked at a video production company, you’ll understand. Another plus was that I had been an actor at one point in my life.  That first year as a producer I think I perfected the fine art of bluffing, never letting the crews I worked with know how much I didn’t know.  Occasionally, a crew member would see through my facade and would become my ally, teaching me what I needed to know without pointing it out to anyone. I  stumbled through many a video mishap and near disaster, learning anything and everything I could from my successes and failures. It really was a sort of trial by fire, and I seemed to be blessed with buckets of dumb luck.

So, where am I going with all of this?  In my humble opinion, if you can, go to film school.  I know I wish I had. It gives you the chance to learn all aspects of production from the ground up. In school, you get behind the camera, you learn how to mix sound, how to light, how to edit, how to write a treatment/script and how to plan a shoot.  You learn about money and budgets and the importance of time.  And you get a chance to make your mistakes early on, in a supportive environment.

Do you need to go to film school to be a good filmmaker?  Not necessarily. If you have the will and the discipline to learn about the various aspects of filmmaking on your own, you can do it. Yeah, talent helps, but you can have all the talent in the world and not have the technical knowledge or savvy to make something happen. Part of that knowledge is knowing who to surround yourself with, and how to work effectively with them. Still, you need to know the right language to use when talking to different members of your team.

You also need to know about the tools you are using. I feel strongly that anyone who is directing and/or producing a documentary should at the very least learn the workings of the camera that is being used on the production.  You should learn about basic lighting, sound, and editing. You need to know these things not just from an aesthetic perspective, but also from a technical and financial one, i.e., how much does it cost to rent equipment, what is a “C.I.”, what is the going day-rate for a good videographer, what kinds of audio choices do you need to make regarding interviews?…and on and on.

As a documentary filmmaker you need to understand the different aspects of your craft, and, perhaps be good at some things more than others.  Being a master of “none,” does you no good.  You definitely need to master an overall understanding of how to put a production together, both creatively and technically.  And remember, you also have to know how to get a team to work with you, so interpersonal skills are essential.

When I stop and think about it, being a Jack of all Trades is hard work. But if you love documentary filmmaking, and are willing to do that hard work, you’ll be amazed at how much you will be able to master!

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