Video Journalism . Documentary Filmmaking: Stories from inside the heart of India

In 2009 Canon quite literally changed the game in filmmaking. With the introduction of the Canon 5D MkII photographers had the tool to make small videos. Or so they thought. Little did they know how the MkII would be lapped up by videographers and even filmmakers. Fast forward to 2019, Canon has been dethroned in the large sensor video camera field with the likes for Fujifilm, Sony, Panasonic, BlackMagic, Nikon (somewhat) and the Red. Today filmmakers have the capability of 4K recording, super-slowmotion, XLR audio inputs and more. Technical budgets of the past are now a fraction of that. What this effectively means is even first-time filmmakers with a story to tell can now go right ahead and tell it.

But while the technical tools of filmmaking are now so much more accessible, the rules of telling good stories remain the same. Understanding these and keeping them in mind at all stages of production is key to success.

The principles of cinematography and storytelling still apply. Over the years I’ve shot and edited my own films and I’ve worked with other filmmakers as editor on those projects.

I’ve learnt things along the way and here are some points in no particular order – I think all are equally important:

1. Shoot a lot but shoot wisely

As a first-time filmmaker the tendency is to shoot a lot. After all, better be safe than sorry. But balance that with wise shooting. There’s no point shooting 5 shots of the same scene. Keep in mind the shooting ratio – the number of hours of footage vs the final film’s length. A 60 minute documentary that has 60 hours of footage has a 60:1 ratio. To keep the ratio down (and your stress levels in post) think of your sequences before you shoot. If you plan ahead and know where you are heading you can have a decent shooting ratio. This also affects the time you will spend in post, as opposed to moving to your next film.

2. Hold a shot

Always hold a shot for at least 15-20 seconds, even if nothing is “happening” and resist the urge to shoot something else “more interesting” leaving your current shot halfway. Shooting at least 15-20 seconds gives yourself or your editor options to cut in post. Moreover, the sound byte you capture can be used to smooth cuts in post production – invaluable in documentary filmmaking.

3. Use a support

Given the size and weight of today’s cameras, a monopod works best if you need to move around a lot; a tripod is a great option for filming that’s more controlled. The important thing is to use a support. Do not go hand-held unless you want that kind of extreme gritty look for your film – think Blair Witch Project or Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy landing scene here. For all else, no! I know, Premiere Pro’s Warp Stabiliser is great but you cannot fix the shake (beyond a point) in post!

4. Audio is 50% of your film

Capture good audio on location either in-camera or with a dual system. If possible, have a sound guy on your production team. If budgets do not allow for this, there’s still hope if you work smart. Capturing ambience sounds for a general bed for your scene, using appropriate mics to capture voice – like using lapel mics on the key subjects, will go a long way in ensuring success. Whatever you do, do not rely solely on your camera mic or even an on-camera external mic.

5. Vary your Shots

The worst feeling in post production is to see loads of clips that look virtually the same. There’s no way to cut between shots. To give yourself options in post, try to capture as many angles and focal lengths as possible. From each shooting location take a wide, medium and close-up (15 to 20 seconds each) only then move to the next position. Resist the urge to keep changing the camera position/angle.

For each shot you take, change:

  • Your camera angle – move around the subject shooting the subject as well as the point of view of the subject ie: what the subject sees.
  • Your focal length
  • The height of the camera

6. Character is key in storytelling

You can never make a film on a topic. It must be driven by a story that will shed light on the topic. For instance, you can’t make a film on racism. You can make a film on a immigrant from India who faces abuse in Australia. In telling his story, your audience becomes aware of racism.

Early on in your production / pre-production, identify the characters who will be telling your story. Figure out how they will tell the story. It could be through sit-down interviews or informal interviews where they speak while engaged in some activity. Again, remember audio is key and figure out your plan to capture the audio.

7. B-roll can break your film

Besides the interviews, think about the b-roll – the visuals that you or your editor will use to paint pictures over the audio. This is key to a successful film. All too often an editor has just the interviews as talking heads and nothing to go over it. That can be a very boring film indeed!

8. Organise the Dailies

Organise each day’s shooting into a folder structure for your project and stick to it. If time permits, tag your footage and make notes of the day’s shoot. This is invaluable to your editor in post and saves time (and hair). Adobe Prelude handles tagging well and can be imported directly into Premiere by your editor.

Back up footage on at least two separate drives, not in the same computer. Sometimes you may be tempted to postpone this, perhaps after a particularly tiring shoot. Resist this urge. You will thank yourself later.

Its a good idea to review the footage you’ve shot and listen to all interviews. Think of the b-roll you’ve got and what may still be needed to tell the story visually.

9. What’s the Question?

Good stories always have a question. It may or may not be answered by the end of the film. But its what keeps audiences engaged with the film. Having this at the back of your mind at all stages in making your film is very important. Consider how you will build tension in the process of answering that question in your story.

For instance, if the film is about a community of back-packing artists, tension could perhaps be built in discussing how society or a section of it, may regard their lifestyle with suspicion. These sections will help your editor build variations in the tone and pace of your film.

10. Invest in Film editing

If you choose to edit your own film, invest time in honing your skills in documentary film editing. Film editing is an art, just like cinematography, writing and directing. If you’d rather spend your time plotting your next project with the shoot in the bag, get yourself an editor.

Having a film editor has its advantages. As the director, you may be too close to your story to see the plot holes. Having a set of fresh eyes, not associated with the process of shooting on location can be the difference between a finely crafted film and a meandering storyline that’s trying to include too much in too short a time. And an experienced film editor can also help you figure out additional coverage / story angles you may need to make an even more compelling story.

These are the best times to be a filmmaker. But remember, while the tools may have changed, the rules have not. If you have a story to tell, tell it now.