by C. Raboin
1. Entertain. The primary purpose of documentary filmmaking is to educate or inform. However, the first rule of documentary filmmaking is that you need to entertain or engage. As they say on Southwest Airlines, you have a lot of choices when you fly, so we appreciate it when you choose Southwest. Your potential viewers have lots of choices. No one is going to watch your film (no matter how informative) if it isn’t entertaining.
2. Your Film Is Too Long. While asserting this rule will certainly put me at risk of violating Dale Carnegie’s first principle on How to Win Friends and Influence People (don’t criticize, condemn, or complain), I need to tell you that your film is too long. I know I have not even seen your film, but trust me – it is too long, and the best way to be boring (that is, not entertaining) is to be too long.
3. Scientific Method. A scientist starts with a hypothesis and tests it with experimentation. A documentary filmmaker needs a similar flexibility. To some extent, making your film (which often involves conducting interviews and research) can lead you to conclude that your initial hypothesis is wrong. Don’t be afraid to adjust your message as you are educated by the process.
4. The War Plan. Documentary filmmaking is inherently rife with uncertainty. But this uncertainty isn’t justification for not being prepared. In fact, the volatility of the process demands that you prepare more. Think through the contingencies and be prepared for changes in direction.
5. Simplicity Itself. Print media is more efficient in communicating large amounts of information than is film. Most books can efficiently convey more information than documentary films. With film as your chosen media – you will always need to simplify your message.
6. Sound. Pay more attention to getting the best sound possible. The quality of your film will in significant part be determined by the quality of your sound. Focus on it. Test it. Get it right.
7. New and Improved. There is no one correct way to do this. The Fog of War makes extensive use of a narrator (R. McNamara), while the Seven Up series makes extensive use of interviews. The Civil War makes a war for which there is no archival footage come alive through creative filming of documents, maps, and still photographs. Supersize Me uses a narrator eating only at McDonald’s to structure a presentation on nutrition (widely available information that has been uninspiringly presented many times). Be creative and find the structure that works for your film.
8. Consistency. You will be compiling lots of footage from different sources, different interviews, and different places, but you want your film to have a consistent look. Think about how you can use composition and lighting to create a consistency of what might otherwise be inconsistent footage.
9. Sunrise. Some of the most striking photography is shot at sunrise or sunset. The sun, at a distance, is a single light source. Don’t be afraid to light your interviews with a single light. Complicated is not always better.
10. Poised and Elegant. Documentary filmmaking has a different dress code than dramatic filmmaking. But don’t accept a lower production quality, simply because it might be “acceptable” for a documentary film. Make your film look as poised and elegant as circumstances permit.