istock_000002902055xsmallYou’ve got a great idea for a documentary. You’ve watched tons of them and figure, it can’t be that difficult to do. Get a camera, set up some interviews, throw in a few photographs, some extra footage, get a simple editing program and string it all together. After all, it’s a documentary, right? It doesn’t have to be shot THAT well! Not like a “real” film, or anything like that.

I’m sorry. I may have to burst your bubble here. In my opinion, a documentary is an art form. It needs to be treated as such. You might have a great idea, maybe an advocacy piece or an in-depth look into the life of a fascinating character. Great! But before you don that director’s beanie, invest thousands of dollars on equipment and get yourself in a hole, I strongly urge you to get some education about how a film is made, and that includes technical, artistic and financial knowledge.

I’d like to cite a few great books you might want to read as you prepare to make your documentary. My first suggestion is what I call my “Documentary Bible”–”Directing the Documentary,” by Michael Rabiger. I never go anywhere without it. It is an in-depth look at documentary, from its history down to the nitty-gritty details of how to set up a shot. The style is user-friendly, and Rabiger never talks down to the reader. This book has traveled the world with me and is filled with lots of underlining and copious notes. Read it from cover-to-cover, PLEASE, before you try to make a documentary.

Another favorite is “The Five C’s of Cinematography: Motion Picture Filming Techniques,” by Joseph V. Mascelli. It was the favorite tome of my late friend and exceptional DP, Sean Newman. I remember when Sean suggested it to me several years ago. “But this looks like old stuff,” I complained. Sean just looked at me and said, “Read it.” Written in 1965,”The Five C’s” still gives the best description of camera angles I’ve ever read. Mascelli’s Five C’s are: Camera Angles, Continuity, Cutting, Close-Ups, and Composition. Get it, read it, refer to it often.

Sheila Curran Bernard’s book “Documentary Storytelling for Video and Filmmakers” offers a great discussion on structure, and gives you excellent tips on how to pitch your work once it is completed. At the end, the book includes a great section of discussions with other filmmakers such as Ric Burns, Susan Froemke, and Sam Pollard, to name a few.

I’m just getting into “Practical DV Filmmaking,” by Russell Evans, and I love the way he has arranged his book like a film course. It is not specifically for documentary filmmaking, but covers all you need to know about filmmaking in general. The first chapter, entitled “Overview,” starts with a call-to-action to “Think Big.” He provides a great section on storyboarding and visual tools, too.

These are just a few suggestions to get you started. Take what you need from each, and maybe create your own approaches. Who knows? By the time you’re done, you may have the knowledge to write a book of your own.

In the meantime, happy filmmaking!


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