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First Time Making a Documentary with a Professional Film Crew? This is What We Wish You Knew

Shadow and Act By Cybel Martin | Shadow and Act January 27, 2014 at 2:51PM

First Time Making a Documentary with a Professional Film Crew? This is What We Wish You Knew
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Doc Filmmaking
If you’ve landed on this post, it may be because you’ve encountered an incredible real life “stranger than fiction” scenario and KNOW it has to be committed to the screen. And that you can’t do it alone.

Making a documentary is usually the film “gateway drug” and for good reason. I’ve worked with many first time directors who used a documentary project to test the filmmaking waters from the comforts of their 9-5 jobs. There were fewer barriers to entry (compared to narrative films); no SAG agreements, smaller crew and equipment needs. The subject was usually either their personal story or related to the industry they currently worked in. Because of their personal and professional involvement, they often had unparallelled access to key people, events and information.

It looked easy.

This is the moment everyone, who has worked on a documentary, breaks into hysterical laughing. We are laughing at you but eventually you will be laughing with us.

I love shooting documentaries and want to provide a few guidelines to first time director/producers on how to get the most out of us. What does “getting the most out of us” mean? Start by reading this post from uber talented Tom Hurwitz, DP for “Queen of Versaille”.  Implicit in hiring a professional film crew is lightning speed troubleshooting, equipment suggestions that cost less yet offer higher end production value, access to additional crew and support with film festivals and potential distribution channels. Most importantly, we give you a beautiful film created under challenging and unpredictable situations, that far exceeds the aesthetic of a news program or homemade movie.

I will try my best to chose my words carefully. I never want to accidentally persuade someone from making a documentary. I believe documentaries change minds and make this a better world. It is (the majority of) film crews’ nature to give you 110%. However, it is unfortunate to see a film crew retaliate if certain expectations are not met. You might perceive a decline in enthusiasm or executing the bare minimum of our duties. The worse case scenario is just plain awful.

The “problem” is really a very simple one. Since you are new to the film industry you have no idea what our basic expectations are in film production. And often, we don’t want to tell you for fear of offending and losing our job.

I will speak from my experiences and use the term DP, but you could easily substitute sound mixer, gaffer, driver etc. I will not address the needs of a professional editor as I am clueless, but their contribution is HUGE. Make sure your editor is happy.
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The first meeting or phone conversation is key. Show us you’re serious. If you are producing the project yourself or working with a first time doc producer, here are some actions you can take to demonstrate your intentions and your commitment to the project. You might be thinking “I’m the one hiring. Why should I show my commitment to MY project?”. It’s only because we know from experience how challenging making a documentary is and how frequently people give up in the struggle, especially when they have a “real job” to attend to. Your commitment gets ours.

Website - If you want to be inspired by some sexy documentary websites, look at HBO or Brick City for Sundance Channel. Flashy graphics aren’t necessary. You should have bios of key people, a film synopsis, photos and contact info. In the future, you can add video clips, screening dates and press.

Social Media Component - Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter etc. The ways social media has impacted documentary filmmaking are numerous. Make sure to create new accounts specifically for your film persona.

Film crews love to keep friends, family and potential clients informed of what we are working on.
We will drive people to your social media sites and continue to promote your project even in a “downtime”. You can show us appreciation in simple yet effective ways. Recently, I worked with awesome director, Lucy Walker, on her newest documentary. She thanked us on set and again with this tweet: “@Shaun_White @cybelDP thanks so much for a great shoot :-))”
A simple gesture that made this DP smile.

Please tell us upfront if there is anything confidential about your documentary idea. Otherwise, with the best of intentions, we might mention it online.

Video footage - The second you have a documentary idea, you should start shooting. Get your feet wet. That footage is an easy way for you to explain to us what you hope to achieve. If it looks great, we’ll be thrilled to build on that aesthetic. If it looks awful, we’ll be thrilled to take over and show off. One of the most engaging documentaries I’ve ever seen looked terrible. I can tell different camera operators were brought in later. My relief that those moments were captured and this story told far outweighed my desire for pristine footage.

Shooting Schedule - When are we shooting? How many hours per day? How many interviews, important events, potential travel dates etc. Do you need a crew who can shoot with less than 24 hours notice? Does your project require living in Bali for the month? (if so, call me). Discussing the schedule during that first meeting will support you in finding the best crew.

If at all possible, I recommend keeping the same crew for the duration of a documentary (assuming you’re proud of the results). A number of years ago, I was the sole DP on “Live from the Hook”, a film about the Charlottesville music scene. My producer, Andy Herz, told me in advance all the times I would need to fly to Virginia to shoot important concerts, parties and interviews. I was able to juggle jobs and travel commitments to be there. One month, I returned from teaching film in Nigeria and flew to Virginia two days later. (Crazy but I loved it). The more time I spent there, the easier it was for me to maintain a consistent look, gain knowledge of the music scene and trust with key people.

Don’t worry if, because of timing and budgeting constraints, you have to hire different DPs. Just follow the basics in this post and you’ll do great.

Budget to Pay Crew - If your desire is to work with a professional crew, then you must pay them. Many first time director/producers make their livelihood in a different industry and see this foray into filmmaking as fun. A “labor of love”. It is fun for us as well, but it is also our job. You must remember this is our means to paying mortgages and health insurance, what allows us to attend seminars to brush up our skills.  

You will need to create a budget for your film and know what you can pay per day. You can offer to increase that amount when more funding becomes available. We know documentaries work on tight budgets and will be flexible. I’ve made concessions for when the project involved costly international travel or the director was also a filmmaker/artist. You can hire a student (there are many talented ones) or shoot the footage yourself until you are financially able to hire a professional crew. The money you save can be used to pay a competitive rate for a DP to film pivotal scenes. For Nyasha Laing’s doc “Punta Soul”, she flew me down to Belize for a week to shoot the memorial service for Andy Palacio, a very important figure in the Belizean music scene. I also captured some key interviews, performances and b-roll. The remainder of the film was shot by herself or local camera people.

During filming, the top priority is to get the footage you need and maintain a positive relationship with your subjects. A good doc crew will know this and be low maintenance in their needs. Here are our basic expectations that will insure we give our best. Don’t laugh if you find this advice rudimentary. I have experienced several shoots that ignored the following:

Feed Us - When I paint, I can get so wrapped up in a brushstroke, that I forget to eat. Directors are the same way. Your crew is not. Having to remind you to feed us takes us mentally away from our work and being vigilant for those once in a lifetime moments needed for the film.

Breaking for a meal every six hours is standard. You might have your hands full engaging with different people: the interviewee, their parents, their security guards etc. Have a friend/relative handle the “food wrangling.” Many locations have no food options or none during the hours we will be there. You’ll need to purchase food in advance and be aware of your crew’s dietary and food allergy restrictions. We want to spend our time filming, not hunting down a cheese sandwich. Have a breakfast option. When I’ve shot big budget documentaries for tv shows, I came “having had”, as in already having had breakfast. In those instances, I was paid my full rate. If your crew is working at a reduced rate, that cup of coffee and egg on a roll will do wonders. If travel is involved, you are responsible for all three meals plus a per diem. Remember that hotels frequently offer a free breakfast.

Time Management - Not only do directors forget to eat, they also forget to take a break. When creating your shooting schedule, our days should be 12 hours or less. We should have a minimum of a 10 hour turnaround, meaning 10 hours between when I say “goodnight” and “how’s it going?” the next day. When traveling for a shoot, resist your urge to shoot every second we are there. 6 day weeks, 12 hours days, 10 hour turnaround still apply. Your crew deserves a day off each week to handle personal errands, sleep in late and enjoy the locale.

In 2008, I was one of three camera operators on the documentary  “11 Days” about a US soccer team traveling to England to compete. Our cameras were rolling from the moment we left LAX, for the 11 days we were in London, until our final flight left Heathrow. Each day, each camera operator had a different assignment. Often we had to cover the same event (mainly the games and practices). On other days, only two cameras were needed for interviews and b-roll. The third operator was given a day off. Although I was working hard for those 11 days, I was able to fit in a trip to visit friends in Oxford and another day to enjoy the Tate. Pretty amazing job.

Why should you care if we enjoy our time on a shoot? Documentary shoots typically involve a small crew. You’ll be stuck with us and it’s best that we get along. Also, that downtime can be seen as a form of currency. If our bellies are full and we get to see a sight or two, we’ll do a 16 hour day, shooting in cow manure. I know I have.

Make Equipment Arrangements - Assuming you haven’t already been swayed by and bought the shiniest camera at Best Buy, take advantage of our knowledge. The subject and your opinion of it gives me a lot of information on how you’d like it to look. Typically, once I know your budget, location needs and ideal distribution, I can narrow my equipment suggestions to two cameras.

Many doc DPs have their own equipment. If you trust them, respect their work and they say they can accomplish the look you want with their gear? Jump on it! Make sure they have equipment insurance and if not, offer to provide it for the duration of production.

If they don’t have equipment, you can either rent, buy or borrow. I usually recommend renting a camera and accessories if the shooting schedule is intermittent or the budget isn’t there yet. When the money comes in and the shooting dates increase, you can purchase gear that is equivalent or better. I recommend CNET for reviews and B & H for the best prices.

For Stacey Holman’s documentary “Dressed Like Kings”, we rented our camera from the wonderful Kerwin DeVonish in NYC and got our lights and other camera accessories in JoBurg, South Africa. This is actually a good example about the truth of documentary films. Even if you have a producer attached, the director can end up taking a lot of those responsibilities. When Stacey hired me to work with her, I did not own a camera. As we say in my family, she “handled it” : found a camera to rent, for an amount she could afford to cover the duration of production.

Travel and Accommodations - This might sound obvious, but I will say it anyway: if your shoot involves traveling, you pay for the flight/train/car, accommodations, visas, traveling permits. Crew should never lose money on a job. If you do ask them to split costs, give them a producer credit. You can not dictate how they spend their per diem.

Keep Us Informed - I like to know what is happening in the lives of our subject and the progress of the documentary. Update us if any story dynamics have changed. The more I know, the more I can support you visually. I enjoy seeing a rough edit. If the project continues for years and other DPs are hired in my absence, show me their footage. You can share what you liked, what worked and what didn’t. If you plan on having multiple uses for the footage, tell us that too. For example, you plan on a theatrical release and pitching the footage as a tv series. That information gives us ideas on additional b-roll you might need and technical specs to adhere to.

One word about Post Production for the uninitiated: Your film will need to go through a “color correction”. Many first timers focus on the word “correction” as if the DP did something wrong. That’s not the case. The process smooths out the look and enhances our visuals. Most small HD cameras have limitations that can be addressed in a color correct session.

A must read book: “The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide” by Anthony Artis
Excellent list of Documentary Filmmaker Resources from BritDoc

Photo above from "Dressed Like Kings". Courtesy of Andreas Vlachakis.

Chat with me on Twitter: @CybelDP
Check out my reel. : MagicEyeFilm.com


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