As a documentary consultant I help documentary makers make the best film possible. I usually work with directors before they go out to film, however sometimes I’m brought in after they’ve shot their film. Obviously it’s much harder to turn a film around once it’s been shot. The following are insights about the big mistakes documentary filmmakers keep making. I’ve learned from my experience of both watching documentaries as a consultant and selecting them for film festivals:
1. Thinking that documentary-making is just filming an interview then shooting some random B-roll.
There is far more to filmmaking than shooting a long improvised interview then filming a load of B-roll footage which you will later try to use to illustrate what the interviewee is talking about. As a documentary consultant I see lots and lots of this type of film from filmmakers who are baffled as to why their film hasn’t been accepted into film festivals or sold. And I just think what a waste – it doesn’t have to be like this. At its essence great documentary filmmaking is about telling a great story in a truly inspired way – and that, from the moment that you start to develop your film, should be your overarching job as a director. I believe that great documentaries have more in common with poetry or drama than journalism.
2. Not evoking real emotion in the viewer.
What I notice that people love so much about their favorite documentaries is that they evoke a real emotion in them. This could mean that a film moves them for instance. Or entertains them. Or both. But the viewer is indisputably moved in some way. If your documentary isn’t evoking any emotion in the viewer I suspect that there’s something wrong and should be addressed – usually at the early stages of production rather than in the edit when it’s probably going to be too late. And yet filmmakers often don’t think about this – it’s as if they are just going out making a film because they find the subject interesting and assume that an audience will be equally captivated. It’s a real craft to translate that interest of yours in a subject or someone, into a living breathing film that will truly resonate with an audience.
3. Not offering the audience a story.
We as humans need stories. We are story lovers. We thrive on the dramatic arc of a story to draw us in. This is what gets us sitting on the edge of our seats and what gets us paying money to watch documentaries. Work needs to be done at the planning stage and during shooting to ensure that there is a dramatic arc to your film. Without doing that you’re very, very unlilkely to find it during the edit. To understand about story-telling the first thing I believe you need to have a real grasp of is the 3-act structure. And then you need to understand the rules of dramatic movie-making. Knowing these rules will help you craft your film into something that will hopefully pull viewers and broadcasters and festivals in.
4. Just playing it safe.
Too often what directors are doing is more akin to producing. They are just playing it safe directorially and not using the medium of the moving image and sound in an inspired way to take us on an emotional journey. Put another way – you can’t separate how a film is made from what the story and emotion is. Great documentary directors make bold, personal films with a unique vision. So one way to make a make a bold and distinctive film is to first understand why you’ve made the creative decisions that you have (See the next point 5).
5. Not knowing the rules.
Just as you’d not just go out and buy a violin then book a performance for yourself at the Royal Albert Hall, so a documentary filmmaker needs to learn real, tried and tested rules to help them both identify if they have a film idea that has the potential to be an emotionally engaging film, and then use those rules to help them understand how to make their film. As a teacher and consultant (and filmmaker) I use these rules constantly. They are my best friend and when I pass them on to documentary makers I see the real change that these rules have on not just their films but their confidence as filmmakers as well.