There weren’t relatively nearly as many documentaries before 1980, but over the last 4 decades the “genre” has rapidly risen to become one of the most popular forms of filmmaking. The criteria for a good documentary film is subject, just as it is for any other art form, however that doesn’t mean you should just charge head-first into it, following these key documentary filmmaking techniques will greatly benefit your film and yourself – regardless of your unique vision for the film.
6 universal tips for great documentary filmmaking:
- Choose an interesting subject:
This should be the first and most important thing you do, as you don’t want a 2 month filming process to conclude with the realisation that the finished documentary will be boring (even to you!). This is difficult; as of course everyone will find different things interesting. So the best way of approaching will be to strip all façade from the subject matter and consider whether there is a genuine and compelling human story to be told. If so then regardless of the eventual subject matter your documentary will most crucially tell a compelling story.
- Get the right crew:
Documentary filming schedules can be unstructured, so get a crew that is flexible, open to work in a moments notice, and passionate – you don’t want someone complaining and asking when lunch will be.
- Go to documentary film festivals!
This can be before filming, during, or in post-production. You can meet some of the best, most well respected documentary filmmakers currently working. In doing so, you can learn about their filmmaking process and get first-hand tips from them. Admission is normally fairly affordable (students can usually get discounts), and it is certainly worthwhile to be inspired if you’re interested in documentary filmmaking.
- Get the right support around you and have patience:
Documentary is a long-form process; meaning you will end up reels and reels (or hard drives and hard drives) of footage, which you will need to whittle down in the editing stage. This can be very hard at points, ending a day and realising none of the footage from that day is useful – you need perseverance and the right support around you to keep filming usually on a hectic, ever-changing schedule.
- Consider your equipment:
Not everyone will have access to huge, professional cameras that probably cost more than most people’s car, but that doesn’t matter, if your subject matter requires a fast moving crew and lots of travel, you don’t want to be carrying round heavy equipment with you, in fact that’ll make your footage worse as you can’t capture quick authentic moments. You can even shoot on a smart-phone now, most have a great camera set up and with the right app you tailor it to you (companies like Olloclip and iOgrapher even produce equipment just for this). If something between the two extremes sounds better, then a quality DSLR, a few lenses, a tripod and an audio set up will also need to be very adaptable to the variety of footage you’ll end up shooting.
- Watch the right kinds of documentaries:
Depending on the style of documentary you want to emulate, you will want to educate and inspire yourself with those films; whether that be crime re-enactment documentaries like The Thin Blue Line, long-form character pieces like Hoop Dreams, or more grounded investigative pieces like many of Louis Theroux’s documentaries. Watch the best films there are to watch, get ideas from them, and hope some of the greatness rubs off on you!
Documentary filmmaking is a tough passion to pursue; however it is also very rewarding. We hope these tips for documentary filmmaking help minimise the toughness and maximise the rewards – now get out there and shoot!
Technology is ever changing, at what feels like an accelerating rate. Film-making has always been closely tied to this, you only need to look at history: the invention of film at the close of the 19th century, the transition from silent films to “talkies” in the 1920s, CGI becoming more prominent in the 80s and 90s, and most recently digital colour grading and 3D technology.
With improving technology, new styles and emerging trends arise; here is a list of 5 new cinematic techniques defining this decade of filmmaking, along with some filmmaking tips to get the best results from them:
- Impossible camera angles:
A seemingly crazy camera pan or track is a fantastic way a director can show off visual flair – if done correctly. We can all remember sweeping through Hogwarts, in through a tiny window and into the Great Hall; of course this wasn’t actually filmed, but was made possible through greater computational power allowing film-makers to more seamlessly merge real footage with CGI.
A particular favourite of mine is from Contact, a 1997 Robert Zemeckis film, and pioneer of the subtle merging of CGI and real life, as exemplified by the clip below. We see young Eleanor Arroway rushing upstairs, along the corridor, and then open the mirrored bathroom cabinet, where the perspective flips and it is revealed that all before was through the mirror, as if in the mirror world – which of course would be impossible.
2. ‘Diegetic’ Footage
This is simply a shot from within the film, from a camera in the film world – from CCTV, security footage, webcams, and handheld, and often includes the recording info around. This likely became more prominent simply as cameras became more common in our lives, with the advent of digital and smart phones.
As a helpful filmmaking tip and technique, ‘diegetic’ footage is useful for creating immersion and a sense of the characters place within their world. However, if over-used or used incorrectly then it can make your work seem amateurish.
3. (Very) Long Takes
Extended takes have always existed, from the birth of cinema, and have always been a way for a director to show off visual finesse – if done correctly. For example, it can be used to create tension, as in the 1958 Orson Welles film Touch of Evil, which starts with a winding 3-minute long take, ending in a bomb detonating.
However now with better technology, filmmakers are able to film incredibly long takes. For example Birdman, which looks like one continuous take when it is actually many digitally merged together. Or Irreversible, which is 13 long takes, in backwards chronological order.
What is even more impressive is a real-time long take; at is, a long take done with no digital special effects or digital trickery. 2 films exist as such; Russian Ark, a singular 99 minute long take; and Victoria, an uninterrupted 138 minute take.
4. Camera Interaction
This is when the camera may get rain, or dirty or blood even on the lens – it is interacting with the scene. This is distinct from ‘diegetic’ footage in that the camera is not part of the film, Steven Spielberg doesn’t want the audience to think the camera is real in Saving Private Ryan just because it gets blood splatter on it. Instead it is a way of breaking the 4th wall, and either creating or breaking immersion, which is something filmmakers are increasingly wanting to do. Camera interaction is a very modern filmmaking technique, you wouldn’t have really seen it before the 1980s.
A common, often unnoticed, camera interaction is when the camera itself shakes during an intense scene. This happens all the time, particularly in action films, for example in most Paul Greengrass films, from Captain Phillips to the Bourne Trilogy.
5. Text On Screen
Words on screen are nothing new, silent films had interstitials. But with the invention of mobile and smartphones, and with how prevelant they’ve become in modern life, filmmakers must face the challenge of presenting them on screen. Would you rather show the phone, close-up, to show the text, or just put the text on screen? Directors are increasingly choosing the latter, as there is no need to disrupt the shot by cutting to a close-up, and you can capture the actor’s reaction as in real time.
This technique is also being increasingly used in television, for example in House of Cards and Sherlock.
All 5 of these cinematic techniques are not new to our era, however they will be what defines this decade of filmmaking, what cinephiles will look back on and call “Modern Filmmaking Techniques of the 20-teens”.
The film industry is the fastest growing in the UK, now worth £4.3bn to the economy and employing 66k people – approximately the population of Boston (Lincolnshire). This suggests a bright British film industry future, surely? Yet the industry is now uniting to ensure a future for the sector, by using £20m of BFI lottery funding to train a new generation of creative talent, and a new future of UK filmmaking.
This comes after a recent report claimed that 10,000 new workers are needed over the next 5 years. According to Future Film Skills, there are key skill gaps in the sector – such as art and production departments, camera, costume, hair and make-up, post-production, VFX, and even construction and electrical – all require funding for training to ensure a British film industry future.
This is why a new 10-point plan has been devised to tackle these gaps, which will be addressed over the next 5 years, supported by £20m BFI lottery funding.
This industry-led initiative is chaired by famous producer of the Bond films, Barbara Broccoli OBE, who had this to say: “We live in a diverse society and it is vital both culturally and commercially that our industry reflects this in front of and behind the camera. With industry, education and government uniting behind this new Film Skills Strategy and 10 Point Action Plan we know we will be able to increase the number of people working in film and ensure we have a representative workforce.”
Broccoli mentions representation as a key aim due to the new report also showing that the film workforce is comprised of only 12% from poorer backgrounds; 5% with a disability; and black, Asian and minority ethnic groups representing just 3% of the workforce. Whilst women, who make up 40%, earn on average £3,000 less than male counterparts – how can we have a bright future of filmmaking (lest a bright British film industry future) with these statistics?
The 10 Point Action Plan
- A trusted and reliable careers information service
A single, trusted online destination for anybody seeking information to start or progress a career in the industry. Offering links, networks and information for training and jobs in film throughout the UK, building on and linking to sites such as Into Film, HIIVE and BAFTA Guru.
- An accreditation system to guarantee employer confidence
Developed by the industry for the industry, in partnership with higher education, to win the confidence of parents, learners and employers, this will build on the achievements of existing work and will involve industry and employers in setting up the scheme.
- A suite of new Apprenticeship Standards
Complete and deliver a new Apprenticeship Standard, which will be applied to courses for a range of job roles throughout the industry including production, distribution and exhibition.
- A Skills Forecasting Service
A responsive skills forecasting and planning service to respond to industry needs, and ensuring the regular supply of data across the sector on future skills opportunities.
- Embed the BFI Film Academy into the skills pipeline
Develop the BFI Film Academy to work closely with industry, placing set-ready alumni as trainees on film productions across the UK.
- A mentoring service to break down barriers for new entrants and returnees
A new personal mentoring programme that offers bespoke support for individuals wanting to enter or progress in the film industry, and those returning after a career break. Including mentoring, pastoral care, coaching and opportunities to network, and awareness of specific job opportunities.
- World-class Centres of Excellence for screen-related craft and technical skills
Working with higher education and the new Institute of Technology to create a small number of world class Centres of Excellence for screen-related craft and technical skills.
- A new bursary programme to ensure wide participation
A new bursary programme designed to support individuals taking their first steps, and removing some of the practical obstacles to those currently under-represented in the industry.
- Professional development courses to maintain world-class skills
A new range of professional development courses, aligned with the latest technology and business skills will ensure our workforce maintains world-class skills.
- Mobilise the industry
Encourage the industry to support the future workforce through a number of schemes and campaigns including creating a database to match individuals with local needs, and which recognises enlightened employers who encourage skills transfer.
Zero-Budget Filmmaking is just as the name suggests; making a film, all pre-production, filming, and post-production, using just what you already have – on almost no budget. It is a brave thing to do, especially now, in an industry of larger and larger blockbusters, but it will also make you stand out against all the superheroes, giant robots, aliens, and all other manner of world-ending threats.
Most of the biggest names in Hollywood (and many more of the biggest names of world cinema) started out by making a film with what they had. Using what they had and saying “Why not? What is stopping me?”
This may also be the most logical way of starting and getting noticed. The film industry has followed the same general trend as corporate economics have; where corporations have become ‘too large to fail’, so too have the films. Now fewer big films are made but they are huge (nearly guaranteed to gross over $1billion) as opposed to making more small budgeted films. Getting enough money to start a project has always been a struggle for filmmakers, along with not making a loss on it. So now, in this ever-divided film-industry, perhaps the best way of minimising your loss, especially with your first production, is to have nothing to lose.
With the new emerging technology of the 21st century, this is now truly possible too. With smart-phones and a lot of cheap or free software, you can make a film on almost zero budget. There are always actors, DPs and sound technicians looking for promising work who may be willing to work on a voluntary basis (with the promise of pay should the film be a success).
Yet this just shifts the struggle further down the production line, to distribution: getting your film in festivals, in cinemas, or even on streaming services like Netflix or Amazon. However, just like with filming, new technology can greatly help with finding distribution opportunities, and in promoting your film.
A key part of promotion will be optimising on the ‘otherness’ of your work, separating it from bigger budget films, in finding and pin-pointing your niche before targeting your marketing. That implies that you’ll need to angle your film towards a niche from its inception. Take the recent Oscar Best Picture ‘Moonlight’ as an example of this, it is about the intersectionality between black, poor and gay people, in doing so it was able to pinpoint its audience, however also appealed to a wider audience by bringing to light a completely unrepresented demographic. This does not mean you should just find a minority to use and exploit, but instead in finding the niche group of people who most NEED to know that your film exists, and perhaps tweaking the finer details of your script with this in mind.
Once that is done, you’ve got a film, and hopefully a success (even if only a mild one). Zero budget filmmaking isn’t easy, but no amount of money will make a film good. The question is not whether you can do you (you can!). It will take smarts and gusto, but now is a better time than any to go for it.
In film, we completely understand how tough it is to get your feet on the first rungs of the ladder. It’s a choice between using all your filmmaking tips and tricks in a masterfully done, well written and well produced short film- which everyone believes they can do, but fewer truly can- or finding a low paid or unpaid position right at the bottom of the food chain, where you’ll spend more time running coffee than using all the filmmaking tips you’ve learned for years. It’s demoralising to say the least.
But what if we told you that there’s a third way? That you could find a decently paid job where your skills are useful and- gasp!- maybe even appreciated? We think that teaching may be that that direction to consider. Here is a brief rundown of why we think that independent filmmakers make excellent teachers.
You can still develop your skills while you teach
First and foremost, this doesn’t just have to be about your students. At the end of the day you want to work in a position where you can improve yourself, improve your skills, and maybe one day move upwards. Believe it or not, teaching gives you that opportunity to work on yourself and keep learning filmmaking tips, while you get paid for doing it.
As you work on putting together lesson plans, it can feel like studying- because it is. You constantly have to learn all sorts of new things about the technicalities of shooting film, and get real world practice shooting film with your students. And as you pass on all of your filmmaking tips and tricks to your class, you learn how to talk film: how to put into words exactly what you want out of a particular shot, for instance. This is a vital skill in your own filmmaking career.
Your talent and enthusiasm are infectious
People who genuinely care about what they do make the best teachers, and you wouldn’t have become a filmmaker if you weren’t passionate about it! If you cast your mind back and think of your favourite teacher, it wouldn’t be unusual if they were somebody intelligent, quick witted and who had a real passion for whatever it was they taught you. Somebody who thought that what they did was the best job on Earth!
You could be that person: the one teacher who lights a spark in somebody’s heart and gives them a lifelong interest or passion. It’s not just about filmmaking tips, it’s about passing on your love for what you do, and students crave teachers who show them why something is worth learning. Not only that, but having actually been there and got the T-shirt, your experience and filmmaking tips are sought after. If you are a genuinely talented filmmaker- and if you’re reading this newsletter, we believe you must be- then it won’t be hard for you to find a school that will take you on. It might be a horrible old saying, but ‘those that can’t do, teach’ can many cases prove to be depressingly true. The talent you personally bring to the table could make all the difference in a student’s life.
This might sound backwards, even nonsensical or illogical. But being overly passionate about your project can make you feel like every decision you make is the right one when, to be realistic, you can’t always get everything right. It’s simply a fact of filmmaking- and if anything it’s a fact of life.
This can be a matter of technicalities, like colour, light and sound; it can also be a matter of bad choices, like filming a project at the wrong time in your career. Perhaps the script you’ve put together isn’t as good as you think it is, and could do with a few more drafts. Or, you could have picked the wrong people to play your characters. It can be surprisingly difficult to work with friends, especially when it comes to dividing any hard earned income.
Passion breeds over-ambition
If you’re overly passionate about your project, you might be biting off more than you can chew. This is because it can be surprisingly difficult to get your vision off the ground, not just because of time and effort, but because of cost. Visions can be uncompromising, especially if you’re as convinced of your own project as the person above.
But visions can also cost a lot of money. If a particular shot requires a particular lens, you might justify buying it because of your certainty that your film will be a success. Ditto a lighting setup, a bigger and more established name for your lead role, a filming location hundreds of miles away… Pretty soon, though, those costs start to add up and make it exceptionally difficult for you to make anything back from your project. There’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple, and maybe once you’ve established your career in film making, you can revisit your project with Tom Cruise and eye-popping CGI.
Passion isn’t a rare commodity that will set you apart
Believe it or not, almost everyone trying to carve out a career in filmmaking has passion. And that’s almost unique: if you work as an HR manager and you’re genuinely passionate about what you do, then you better believe that it sets you apart. But what students searching for film studies jobs often don’t realise is that putting ‘filmmaker with passion’ on your CV is akin to putting ‘filmmaker who breathes air’ or ‘filmmaker that requires food’.
If you’re in too deep, you’ve probably just told yourself ‘That may be true, but I’m especially passionate about what I do.’ And this isn’t intended as an insult, but you’re not. We all love what we do, and would like to do it as a career. Many people before you have been there and bought the T-shirt. A good proportion of them found that after all was said and done, a career in film making wasn’t ideal or wasn’t possible for them.
In summary, no great film or career in film will run on passion alone. Passion is merely one of the essential ingredients, but there are many more on the list to succeed as a filmmaker.
Pre-production, also known as the planning stage is the point at which you think of the story you would like to tell, and how you imagine you can tell that story through the medium of film. Now, you’re welcome to your own opinion, but we think that this is by far the most important part of the process: quite simply, everything hinges on the quality of your idea and its presentation. When you conceive your idea, try to keep it simple: can you pitch it in one sentence? If not, it’s too complicated.
Once you have your idea, break it down and flesh it out with a script and storyboards. It can be surprisingly difficult to stay ‘on message’- in other words, to stay true to your original idea- but this is no bad thing, because all stories evolve. It’s also at this point that you start to think about where you might want to shoot, and who you might want to play each character (although this choice isn’t so hard if you’re at the beginning of your career- you can only really ‘hire’ your friends).
Once you know what you’re going to shoot, you have to shoot it. This is production. As part of what could be called post-pre-production, you have to make sure that your equipment is up to scratch for what you’d like to do: is each shot feasible? Do you need stands, tripods, different kinds of lenses? Consider this before getting started.
Once you’re shooting, remember that it’s better to shoot a little too much rather than a little too little. A good rule of thumb might be that when shooting a small budget film, for every one minute that makes it into your film, three minutes will be left on the cutting room floor. But for now, focus on the following key things: framing, light, focus and sound. If you get these parts right, you can’t go far wrong.
Editing your film is just as important as filming it. This is when you polish what you’ve created, so that it’s coherent in message and tone; this process is what changes a good idea, and perhaps good execution during filming, into a good film. There are different ways to approach editing, but if you’re a beginner, do try to keep it simple.
The first thing to keep in mind is continuity and pacing between shots. This means two things: first that the story is told beat by beat throughout the film, both coherently and consistently, and second that basic details like whether the main character is wearing a hat or holding it in his hands do not change between successive shots. It’s also possible to an extent to edit colour, lighting and sound in post-production, although no amount of editing can fix bad filming. That being said, follow the basic filmmaking process step by step and your film will become something that’ll tell an audience your story.!
It’s the oldest cliché in the book that a media or filmmaking degree is the epitome of a navel gazing, time wasting university education. But to take a step back and genuinely think about the importance of an education in filmmaking, it really isn’t so bad. In fact, we think that a film degree actually gives you a ticket into a growing industry, or alternatively gives you the skills to go and ply your trade elsewhere. Read on and find out some of the wider benefits of learning about understanding and creating film.
A filmmaking degree doesn’t just teach filmmaking
It’s not just learning how to shoot a film that gives a filmmaking degree importance. While we do believe there are more jobs than ever before in media and film, a filmmaking degree can help you into other careers because of the skills that it develops in you, above and beyond simply ‘creativity’.
First things first, studying the creative process gives you an eye for detail that not many other pursuits do. Shooting films requires a level of skill and attention to detail in a thousand different ways: selecting shots, backgrounds, costume, lighting and so on means making a thousand decisions and choices in every second of film.
There are also the points of persistence, because shooting films takes a whole lot of time and effort, and the fact that telling a story or sending a message to your audience can improve your wider skills of persuasion and communication. These skills are useful not just in the film industry, but in jobs from sales and advertising to working in public services. A film degree gives you these skills.
Media is becoming easier to make and easier to access
Back in the 1920’s, commercial radio broadcasting wasn’t available all day. You could only tune in at certain times of the day, and when you did, you might be treated to a light opera like the HMS Pinafore. Fast forward a few decades to the advent of television and ‘pop music’: you might only be able to hear it on pirate radio, but the three minute catchy song had arrived, as well as the all day, every day TV broadcast.
Today, media surrounds us. Music, movies and the written word envelop us, and not just on their terms but on our own. We can pick and choose what to listen to and what to watch at any hour of the day or night. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on how much of a cynic you are! What we can all agree on, however is that entertainment is more widespread and more popular than ever.
And because of the entertainment explosion we’re living through, a film degree gives you value and a chance at a career in media. We won’t lie and tell you that jobs in the industry grow on trees, but bear in mind that there only used to be two, then three, then four TV channels; at some point in the past, there was no such thing as YouTube. Opportunities are more abundant today than ever before.
Smartphones make snapping quick pictures and shooting quick films easy. But what about shooting good films? How is it possible to get the very best out of the relatively limited software on offer by Apple and Android phones? We’ve put together this brief overview of some smartphone filmmaking tips to help you shoot the best films you possibly can.
Specialist apps can give you far more control over your pictures and videos
The camera on an iPhone isn’t half bad considering the phone’s small size. But the app that comes included with iPhones that determine the control you have over your shot isn’t so great. You can’t manually adjust focus or contrast, for a start. This really puts a damper on your efforts if you want to make beautiful films with just an iPhone.
But with a whole host of professional grade apps, you can completely transform your film to the point where people might not even realise it was filmed on a smartphone. Cinescope, for instance, can be used to shoot in any aspect ratio you like. Adobe Premiere Clip gives you the ability to edit films on your phone. And Filmic Pro can adjust lighting, contrast, and colour. With apps like these, smartphone filmmaking is easier than ever.
Tripods and mounts can help you get a steady shot
Hardware is just as important as software, and not much more expensive either. With a cheap, basic tripod or handheld mount you can turn your smartphone films into steady shots. It’s almost a tradition now that anything filmed on a smartphone is 1) in portrait, and 2) filmed so shakily that it’s reminiscent of Blair Witch Project-style found footage. Even if you do your best to keep your camera still, you can always tell it was filmed by hand.
Some full height tripods are designed to fit both cameras and smartphones, and the very basic entries can be found on eBay or Amazon for two or three pounds- so you won’t be breaking into the piggy bank. But for such a small investment, they can help your filmmaking come on leaps and bounds.
All the rules of composition still apply
Just because you’re filming on a smartphone, that doesn’t change what makes a good shot good, and a bad shot bad. Even when using the smartphone filmmaking tips above, bear in mind that fancy equipment and some cheap apps can’t replace the basic skills and knowledge of filmmaking.
The rule of thirds, for instance still applies whether you’re filmmaking on a £10,000 camcorder or a smartphone. The 180 degree rule still applies, and lighting and angle are still just as important as they always have been. It’s these skills in combination with the equipment above that can help you make standout films on just an iPhone or Android.
No, brand isn’t a dirty word in many authentic artists minds, and to create branded content isn’t selling out. Well, maybe strictly speaking it can be, but it doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice your dearly-held creativity on an altar of cold hard cash. If you have some skills and you know how to make short films, it’s perfectly possible to create branded content that genuinely reaches out and connects with your audience, and provides much-needed funds throughout your career.
Filming branded content with genuine creativity is possible
First things first, just because you’re filming branded content, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be creatively honest and even deserve artistic merit. Take Prada’s Castello Cavalcanti for example. This particular short film was written by none other than Wes Anderson and produced by Roman Coppola. It’s eight minutes long, but doesn’t contain a single reference to Prada, apart from the jacket worn by the main character. Other than that, the film is a typical Wes Anderson story about an Italian racing driver who crashes by coincidence in the hometown of his ancestors. It’s a story, not an advert.
And believe it or not, but 2017 marked the second year of the Brand Film Festival, which was held in New York on May the 4th. Its purpose is to showcase the very best of the year’s branded content films. They even hold open discussion groups on topics like: ‘Ways to Deliver Compelling Content within Your Branded Film’, and ‘Providing the Perfect Pitch for Your Branded Film’. These questions are at the heart of real concerns for professional and amateur filmmakers, so the Brand Film Festival isn’t a cynical marketing gimmick.
So, take it from us, you aren’t the only one out there wondering if branded content can be anything more than subtle advertising. But if you’re to believe the Brand Film Festival, it certainly can.
Using branded content eases money worries
Filmmaking is a difficult industry to break into. Not only is there not a clear career path to the ‘top’- whatever the ‘top’ of filmmaking is anyway- but amateur and student filmmakers are ten a penny. In such a crowded competitive atmosphere, there’s not much room to turn down a paid opportunity to further your creative career, and earn money doing it.
Making branded content, however, can be a great exercise in how to make short films on a low budget. It gives you the opportunity to do what you love. And if you approach it with an open mind, it’s even possible to put your heart and soul into it just like you would with your own content. But best of all, it beats working as a cameraman by far, and can be a fantastic addition to your CV. What’s not to love about that?