Making a Documentary: Notecarding03.17.11
I was at a dinner last night and the subject of my documentary came up. People were curious where it's at and I mentioned that we recently begun editing and that the other week, my editor showed me his first cut of the story with notecards.
Someone asked me, "Do you lay out the story first and then shoot or shoot and then figure out the story?"
Broadly I think this happens both ways (with a broad middle ground). I suspect a film like "Inside Job" was laid out ahead of time. The filmmakers knew what they wanted to say (or had a really good idea about what they wanted to say) -- and went about figuring out who to interview and how to fill in the parts. Of course, as they film, all sorts of surprises crop up and they modify as they go along. Alternatively (and I wouldn't be surprised if this is the more dominant way documentaries are made) -- filmmakers find an interesting subject / topic and simply follow it -- and then they return at a later stage, give all the footage to an editor, and basically say, "What do you think?" This obviously makes the role of the editor particularly crucial with a documentary. I suspect this is how a film like "Restrepo" was made -- Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington were embedded with a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley and shot for a year. They then returned, edited -- and figured out what additionally they needed (like retrospective interviews, etc.)
So someone then asked me, "Did you guys lay out your story ahead of time?"
I wish I was that smart.
I made a choice when I first started working on this documentary. A little background. In December of '09, I shot my web series, "The Consultants". [link] It was pretty rough sledding (which I'll cover in another post) but obviously I learned a ton about pulling together a production. Over the past several months before that, I started spending much more time at the Magic Castle (and recently just passed my audition) so I started to get to know lots of professional magicians. One thing in particular struck me. I would talk with magicians and they would relay a particular story to me. When they would tell someone that they were a magician, the response would be, "Oh, that's fantastic! [pause] So what is it you actually do?" I thought this was a really interesting question to explore -- the business side of being a magician.
I have never been to film school and I would rate my experience with film broadly as relatively low. I knew this going in but I still decided to do this doc. The reason is because I figured I could do one of two things:
a) try and get educated fast (books, classes, hiring mentors, etc.)
b) start shooting now, make lots of mistakes, and correct them
I chose (b). And I made plenty of mistakes.
So getting back to the notecards. The notecards are really critical because it basically lays out a potential story spine of the film. It's not locked in stone -- the notecards we've used, for example, will change significantly as we edit the film and see what works and what doesn't. However, it gives us a sense of what we're trying to do and accomplish. It's basically a map. It also says, "Go film this." New information about the characters get slotted in relationship to old information. If access to [insert magician, venue, etc.] becomes available -- I then know if that might be something I'll use in them film (or, if I'm not sure, I can always wait too)
Starting out, we sort've of filmed everything. I asked magicians we knew if they'd help and so many of them were incredibly gracious -- sit down interviews, following people around, etc. When I said there's a broad middle ground, that's where we really were. Fortunately, I had some really good people advising me. Early on, I spoke with a writer friend of mine, Ellen Shanman, and as I was telling her about one of the (many) magicians we had talked to -- she told me, "That guy sounds really interesting. I think you should follow him." So we did. And when I wasn't sure if I should film something or not -- she explained to me some very basic story / documentary things -- things like filming a graduation. That's good. Audiences want to see that. I know this sounds dead obvious now -- but when you have no context (and no experience), you just don't know; I certainly didn't. At a later stage, a very experienced documentary editor, Penny Falk (who won the editing prize at Sundance 2010 for the Joan Rivers doc) saw some of the footage and gave me incredible feedback about what was missing and what else she recommended getting. So we did that too.
In my case, it wasn't film, film, film -- and then drop off a lot of footage to an editor. It was more like, film, check with someone, film more, check with someone, film more. It wasn't quite that elegant or planned. It was probably more like, film, [worry a lot about your documentary thinking that you have no idea what you're doing -- which is true], film some more, [worry a lot more], film some more, serendipitously talk to someone who knows what they're doing and get a great piece of feedback, course correct, film some more, repeat.
If I did a second documentary, I obviously would have a much clearer idea of exactly what process I would go through. I would start with a premise, research it, lay out a potential story spine, start filming, adjust based on new information, etc. Sounds kind of basic -- but definitely not obvious on the first go around.
However, I broadly wouldn't have changed what I did with this documentary. I still would've chosen (b) because I don't think we get to where we're at now without that. It was really painful, but much much faster. The big thing I would change, though, is I would build a much larger team around me, much earlier, of people who could help / I could call on for advice.