Advice needed: Starting out in Documentaries

Discussion in 'Digital Video' started by Danksi, Mar 18, 2006.

  1. Danksi macrumors 68000


    Oct 3, 2005
    Nelson, BC. Canada
    I recently tried my hand at a mini-Documentary style movie for the Avid 60-second competition. It was my first go at this style of movie-making and although my effort wasn't as good as I wanted it to be, I enjoyed making it and I learned some lessons along the way.

    For a while now I've been figuring out what types of movie projects I'd like to do and since I enjoy watching documentaries and short-films more than blockbusters these days, I'm considering documentary style projects. They'd most likely be locally based to start with, perhaps selling on footage to news casters if I can't make anything of the event myself.

    Does this sound like a good approach? :confused:

    Onto the more techy stuff:- I've worn out a couple of the control button's on my JVC DVP7 mini-DV camera, I'm on the look out for a new video camera. I liked the portability of the DVP7, but will I need to consider a larger camera, like the Canon GL or XL series? I'd want something with an analogue input for a lipstick cam.

    I've been using FCP5 for a while and Final Cut Studio is on my wish-list.

    Although I'd like to get my hands on a PowerMac, I think I'll have to stick with my iMac for now, putting my money into a new camera. There's no point having a flashy editing machine, if I've nothing to edit, right?

    Any advice gratefully received; approaches, training, readings, hardware, legal, funding?
  2. njmac macrumors 68000


    Jan 6, 2004
    Not technical advice but remember that for your documentary you are not trying give a balanced view. Pick something that is very important to you and find a story in it. Being truthful will give you much credibility but don't think you have show all the sides of a story. Show your side and your passion will come through.

    EDIT: also check out the COW forums for doc making. There is mucho info on the boards about cameras and other tech stuff. creative cow
  3. Danksi thread starter macrumors 68000


    Oct 3, 2005
    Nelson, BC. Canada
    Thanks for the advice. I'd try to be balanced, but I know this can't always be done.

    I've a couple of projects in mind, where I don't think this will be a problem. :)
  4. LethalWolfe macrumors G3


    Jan 11, 2002
    Los Angeles
    If possible I would start on smaller projects first and not try and tackle a 60 or 90 minute doc right off the bat. See if there is a locally oriented show (cable access maybe?) that you go to and talk to the people about helping out. For example, when I lived in Indiana on of the local news stations had a weekly, half hour Sunday(?) morning show called "Across Indiana" that profiled various people, places, and events in Indiana (shows like this are sometimes called "magazine shows").

    While in college I did a number of stories for a news/magazine show broadcast locally on the area's PBS affiliate station. Basically I tried to find interesting people in the area and do a 2:30-4 minute story about them for the show. Some of the stories were more fun (like profiling the universities mascot) and others were more heavy (like a county sheriff convicted of manslaughter). The key to remember is "it's who they are not what they do." So, for example, if you do a story about a racecar driver the fact that he/she drives a racecar is not interesting. Why the person races professionally and what makes the person put their life on the line is what's interesting to the viewer. It's all about telling a good story and connecting emotionally w/your audience.

    Speaking of connecting w/your audience I think it's paramount that documentarians are truthful w/their audience and truthful w/their subjects. Good storytelling is, at its base, good manipulation. If you want the audience to feel happy you do things that make them feel happy. If you want the audience to feel sad you say things that make them feel sad. There is a lot of potential for abuse because in editing you can completely manufacture a story from the interview and b-roll you've shot. I could make Mother Teresa look worse than Charles Manson, but that would be dishonest to my audience and to my subjects. It's very easy to splice together bits and pieces of an interview into a completely fabricated statement. Or into a concise statement that you just couldn't get the interviewee to say (many people ramble). During the process of editing you should always be asking yourself, "Am I being truthful to my audience and to my subjects?" It wasn't until I really got into shooting and editing that I realized the amount of power one has in shaping the audience's perception of reality. I'm not meaning to ramble on about this, but it's a very important ethical issue, IMO.

    If you're thinking of trying to sell the footage you've shot you'll need a good prosumer camera (something like an XL-1 or DVX100) and it probably wouldn't hurt to have a way to do a quality xfer of the footage to a more pro format like BetaSP or DigiBeta. Saying, "Hey, I've got some footage of event X for sale on BetaSP" sounds a lot better than saying, "Hey, I've got some footage of event X for sale on MiniDV." And the footage has got to look pro, not amateur (this has more to do w/the operator than the camera).

    You'll also need to invest in good mics (I'd suggest a good shotgun mic for general purpose use and good lav mic for interviews) and lighting equipment. Lighting makes a huge (h-u-g-e) difference in the production quality of your piece.

    Also, check out the forums at especially the "Taking Care of Business" forum (towards the bottom) that deals w/business/legal issues.

  5. Danksi thread starter macrumors 68000


    Oct 3, 2005
    Nelson, BC. Canada
    Thanks Lethal, great advice, as I've seen from you in previous posts.

    I'm definitely all for starting with shorter, 'easier' to handle projects, working my way up from there.

    I've been scouring the local events calendars for the next few weeks and I'm planning some ad-hoc filming, for practise more than anything. I'll have to get out there and speak to the local news/cable shows as well, to see if they'd be interested in my covering these events, perhaps offering free assistance if they have them covered. I'm sure they must get a lot of interest from the local media school students based here in town.

    I know my aging JVC DVP7 miniDV is not going to cut it with 'selling footage', unless it's a REAL newsbreaker or something similar (even cell phone movies can be used in that situation).

    I was considering the DVX100; luckily a local film group rents them out by the day, so assuming I can get a rental consistently this spring/summer, that could be a good way of getting decent footage and again, practise.

    I was also interested in the new 'HD' camera's coming out, particularly the new Panasonic AG-HVX200. This may well be complete overkill for my needs just yet. At the other end of the scale, there's the Sony HDR-HC1 - any thoughts? :)
  6. octoberdeath macrumors regular


    Feb 22, 2005
    i have also looked at the Panasonic AG-HVX200. it looks like such a sweet camera. the only thing though is from what i can tell you can only use the DV tape for recording DV footage, everything else: DVCPRO HD, DVCPRO 50, DVCPRO/DV has to be recorded on the P2 cards. and the last time i checked those things will run you $760.00 for the 4GB card & $1,640.00 for the 8GB card. of course over time those prices will decrease and i have heard that they will be releasing 16GB cards sometime in the near future. i would love to lay down enough coin for two of these and 6 8GB P2 cards but that would roughly cost me $21,900 (something like that).
  7. aloofman macrumors 68020


    Dec 17, 2002
    I don't have a specific camera recommendation, but some general tips:

    - Make sure it's a camera with as many manual controls as possible. Even though you won't always use them, you have to know how to adjust everything yourself for given conditions.

    - Invest in a good tripod, one with a fluid head if possible. A good tripod is often the difference between unuseable footage and broadcast-worthy material.

    - Even if you buy a camcorder online, test it out somewhere in person first. It's really important that you try the features yourself and see if the controls are comfortable and easy to use. Lie to the salesguy and leave him hanging at the last minute if you have to.

    - Many miniDV cameras don't have analog input because the OEMs don't want you to use it as an analog-to-digital converter. They want to sell you that separately.

    - There's quite a learning curve here to shoot and edit footage into something compelling and watchable. Remember that even seasoned pros will easily shoot 10X more footage than they end up using. Shoot the same footage from multiple angles, framings, styles, even if you're not sure if you'll use it. You never know what you'll end up wanting or needing. And have a good plan about what your final product will be. Since you'll be editing it too, shoot with your editing options in mind.

    - And maybe most of all, this is a really competitive business, especially now that decent cameras and editing software is so cheap. Don't be surprised if you find that a dozen other people in your area are trying the exact same thing as you. If you really enjoy doing it and care about doing it well, you'll stand out among the others. It will take some time.

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