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Making a 2nd Documentary
07.08.13

I'm not actually going to make a 2nd documentary (despite the title of this post) -- but I thought about it lately. But oddly, strictly in the context of, "Gosh, if I made another documentary, how much better would it be because of all these things I learned from making my first documentary?" I went to this Q&A with the filmmaker Danny Boyle and he said something that I found really interesting. The question was around if he would do anything different to any of the previous films he directed if he directed them now. His response was something along the lines that every film he made was perfect for when he made it. That he wouldn't change a thing -- because it was a reflection of his skills at the time. I personally found that response both poignant and surprising. The thing I loved about the quote is that when I watch my film, I sometimes watch it purely through the lens of remembering my own process -- what I was thinking planning that shoot, how it went, what I would've done differently, etc. It's a totally different, yet oddly enjoyable way to view a piece of work. 

I wanted to write a little about all the (big) things that I would've done differently if I made another doc.

Planning
I did something very smart and very dumb when I made The Magic Life. I knew I would be overwhelmed by everything I didn't know about documentaries if I really planned it (so much so that I might not even make it) -- so I just started filming and answered questions as I went along. I think it was very smart because (despite a lot of pain) -- I ended up with a film. It's not the best way to go though. Planning is dull, but it's such an excellent way to go. People often marvel at how strong the stories are in animation. My suspicion for this reason is because animation is really expensive. Actually -- it's not just expensive, it's psychologically expensive. When you see how much work is involved to make hair rustle or a tea cup to move or a toy to flex its muscles, you (meaning the entire film team) start thinking, "Do I really need this? How important is this?" That's not to say the same thinking doesn't occur with a regular film, but the bar is so much less exacting. And forget about docs. When you're talking hundreds of hours of footage, you go into "we'll just shoot it and decide in post" mode. Not good. Now, I'm sure you're thinking, "But wait. Isn't docs like 'documenting' -- just going along and following?" Not really. Or at least not always. That certainly sometimes happens and planning doesn't preclude any of that. But what it does do is make sure that you're super efficient with your limited resources. It also makes you consider all the things that maybe you should get that you haven't even considered. So yeah, with a new doc, I'd do that. I'd try and map out as much of the story as I could -- fully knowing that it could completely change, that it'll evolve, and who knows how I would feel once I started shooting and be eminently flexible in terms of revamping it. 

Budget
I learned something interesting about budgets. If you basically "pay as you go" it's really easy to shortchange yourself on key areas. Here's an example -- the physical cost of producing docs is relatively low. The camera gear, sound equipment, etc. -- it's not that expensive. Even paying for crew isn't that bad. Editing is expensive. Post (festivals, PR, marketing, etc.) can be expensive. In fact, areas like that can easily dwarf your physical cost of production. But that doesn't make that much sense, right? Your actual product is what people see and hear on screen. So to constantly try and tamp down those costs will easily cost you later. (and it's also not an efficient way of tamping down costs) Here's an example. We managed to get (for free -- amazing) a one-day rental of an amazing light. It looks almost like natural light, it's very strong, and incredibly portable -- about the size of a briefcase and light. It's like the perfect documentary light. It's $5,000. $5,000! But if I did another doc, I would 100% buy that light (the rental fee on a light like that is maybe $300/day). I could use it on nearly every shoot. But when you "pay as you go" -- you can't bring yourself to pay $5,000 for a light. But let's say you do the full budget for your doc and you're at $150K -- $5K is ~3% of your budget. It's non-trivial, but if your physical costs of production is only 20% of your budget, it's a cost totally worth bearing.

Not Being There
I had a conversation with a very well established producer and he was telling me how on many of the films he worked on, the director wasn't actually on most of the shoots. WHAT?! How could the director not actually be on the shoot? Interestingly, I've even had questions from audience members asking me if I was on certain shoots, etc. On my doc, I was probably on 80%+ of the shoots. Not all of them, but the vast majority. Here's what I found fascinating. I generally didn't need to be there. In fact, the percentage of footage used for the shoots where I *wasn't* there was way higher than the ones where I was. Why? If I was sending out a film crew, paying them, organizing it, etc. but wasn't going to go myself -- well, I sure needed that footage. 100%. However, if it was just me, or me + a small crew, odds were pretty decent that I was just mucking around and seeing what might happen. Not to say there's not value in that -- but these shoots can be hard. They're often really boring. 3 hours of filming might boil down to a minute of footage. Maybe less. This goes back to planning -- figuring out what you actually want / need. To be frank, going to so many of these shoots also sapped a lot of my energy. 

I've been watching "Breaking Bad" lately and listening to a lot of their post-show podcasts on iTunes (which are incredible by the way.) I was fascinated to hear that Vince Gilligan (creator + showrunner) often isn't actually on the shoot. They'll mention it off the cuff -- Vince will be in Burbank running the writers' room and they'll be filming in Albequerque -- so he won't be there. I thought about this a bunch and the reality is -- he doesn't need to be there! He has probably some of the very best cast + crew in the industry -- they know what to do. And they're in touch if they need help, guidance, his thoughts, etc. 

I think re-formulating my thought around this is important. It would force me to plan much more, make myself much more flexible in terms of getting footage, etc. because I wouldn't always be there, and free up a lot of my own time to do higher level planning. 

 

There's a lot of other stuff that I would consider doing differently -- but I think I'm going to leave this post at this. The reason being is I think all of this are really things that would go to the heart of making a documentary -- improving the actual process. Making higher quality material and ending up with a higher quality product. Because it would free me to focus my energy less on the nuts and bolts (which are important -- don't get me wrong) and isntead to focus on the higher level stuff. Do I have the right people? What's the conceit? What's the story? Is this compelling? What else could I be doing to make this more interesting? 

I think as filmmakers, we often get lots and lots of "quick-fix" advice. Get stars! Get famous people! Add locations! Improve production value! All those are things to consider -- but I think they need to considered within the larger context -- which boils down to quality. Building a process where you're constantly focused on quality.

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