This final chapter is a response to many e-mails from
readers, which in one way or another have asked how to get started in
documentary and, by implication, how to do well in the field.
This is a great time to make documentaries.All of the barriers that kept people out of
the field have been removed, except for talent and hard work.
Talent: You have
to have an interesting idea for a documentary, and you have to execute it
Hard work: As I
wrote in chapter 1, it looks so easy, but it’s not.On the other hand, it can be a lot of
fun.Just don’t make the mistake of
thinking that because making documentaries has now become more accessible, it
has also suddenly become easy.
The Low-Budget Documentary
It used to cost a lot of money to make a
documentary.Today, technology has made
it possible to shoot and edit a low-budget documentary for little more than
pocket change.Certainly, if you want to
go big time and shoot on location in high-definition video, you still need
expensive equipment and a thoroughly professional crew.But if you are willing to start small, shoot
with a good but relatively inexpensive camera, and edit on your computer, you
can afford to make a first documentary.The technology is not terribly difficult to learn.The cost is manageable.
If you have a specialized knowledge about some topic or an
intense interest in exploring and documenting a subject, there is nothing
standing in your way other than your own willingness to start.And, I should add, your willingness to
continue after you have made a few mistakes.Be comforted by the fact that we have all gone through such a learning
process.Throughout this book I’ve
shared some of my learning experiences with you.
There is, of course, no guarantee that your documentary will
make any money for you, but there never is.So go.Do.Enjoy.
Work at What You Want to Do
Start with either the documentary process or the
documentary topic that you want to become good at, and then keep at it until
Start Where You Are, Do What You Can
If you want to make spontaneous cinema documentaries,
just start.Take an idea that you can do
close to home and document it.It’s a
lot easier to do a first documentary about your kid brother’s Pop Warner
football team, obsessive lawn care in your community, people at the pool, dogs
vs. cats, or the people who shop at 7-Eleven, than about brothels in Calcutta,
penguins in Antarctica, or life aboard a submarine at sea.The critical factor in almost all
documentaries is how the idea is presented on the screen – not the idea
itself.A well-executed, short film
about lawn wars might spark far more interest than a heavy-handed presentation
about some vital issue of our time.Show
that you know what to do with whatever you have to work with, and you’ll find
opportunities to move up in class.
Expect that it will take making a couple of documentaries to
get to the point where most of the time you will feel confident that you know
what you are doing.You have to work
past that process of trial and error.Just remember, for the learning process to work, you have to care about
those first documentaries and want them to be good.And they can be.The point to a learning process is that you
correct the mistakes you’ve made, and learn from them, so you’ll be less likely
to make them next time.
The finished production will stand as proof that you not
only know how to make this type of documentary, but have stuck it out and
completed it.That’s a big plus when
you’re trying to raise money for your next project or trying to get a job with
a producer who does the sorts of documentaries you’d like to make.
Get Close to Success
If you want to make documentaries for PBS, then get as
close to people making them as you can.There’s a lot more to getting a film on the air than just a neat idea
and good videography.The competition is
fierce, the process may often take a considerable amount of time, and there may
well be lots of wrong ways to present a project and few right ways.The people who work for people who make
documentaries for PBS learn these things.
The same is true for the History Channel, Discovery
Networks, National Geographic, or any of the other cable outlets.It is far, far easier to present a
documentary idea to someone at a network who already knows you than to get even
a look-in from someone who has never heard of you.
How do you find such employment?Hardly ever by offering to sweep the floors
or do any job at all, just so you can learn.People who run production companies, TV stations, and networks are often
selfishly fixated on the needs of their organizations.They want to hire people who will contribute
to the organization rather than people who want the organization to make a
charity contribution to their own career plans.
So you need to figure out what you have to offer.If you lack production skills, you might have
talents to offer on the business side, such as bookkeeping or selling, that
could get you in the door.Or you may
need to take some production courses or make a first documentary on your own
before you’ll be ready to look for a position close to power.
The same goes for theatrical documentaries.Try to find someone who is doing them and
serve an apprenticeship.If, however,
what you actually want to do is make feature films, why spend time doing documentaries?Take the low budget equipment, get a script,
find some actors, shoot a feature (or a short), and leave documentaries to
those who are obsessed with truth.
You’ll find a compilation of useful organizations and
associations in appendix 2 that may help you identify potential employers doing
the kind of work you are interested in.
What Should You Study?
What interests you?If you are headed to college, are in college now, or are thinking about
taking some college courses, you may be wondering where to go and what to
study.I regularly get e-mails from
readers asking me to recommend a school or a film course for them.All I can tell you is to look for courses
offering real, hands-on experience with up-to-date equipment.And talk with former students who have
completed the course and are working in the industry.Get their take on how well they feel the
course prepared them to (1) get a job; and (2) do the job.
The truth is, the technology of filmmaking at the
documentary level is not that difficult to learn, unless your goal is mastery
of the technology so you can work as a technical person.I strongly believe that the best preparation
for a would-be documentarian is to master one or more academic subjects —
history, economics, science — rather than to concentrate on mastering the tools
of the trade.In the world of today’s
documentaries, you constantly will be presented with various forms of evidence,
including statements from experts, supporting a specific position.How are you to know if the evidence is any
good if all of your training has been about camera angles and digital
Take a few courses to learn the production process from
concept to completion, but become an expert on something you want to make films
There are not nearly
enough filmmakers who actually understand a scientific discipline such
as physics, biology, or chemistry.We
live in a world of technology that depends on these sciences, and yet we lack
communicators who understand them sufficiently to explain to the general public
in plain language what current developments in these fields actually mean.Or even what the language of science is
actually about.The absolute master at
defogging science for a lay audience is Sharon Begley, who as I write this is
science editor for The Wall Street
Journal.Look up some of her articles
or her books to see what can be done just with words, remembering that, as a
documentarian, you will have visual evidence in addition to words.
Learn some statistics.
Most people have no idea how to read a
statistical report or what statistics — even those that seem very clear
— actually mean.If you make
documentaries, advocates for various positions are going to wave statistics at
you as proof of the validity of their point of view.But as Bjorn Lomborg points out inThe Skeptical
Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World,
advocates often use short-term results that tend to confirm their view of
things, rather than statistics covering a longer term that might tend to refute
The world has unquestionably grown warmer over the past
century than it was at the end of the 300-year-long “little ice age” in
1850.But is it significantly warmer
than it has been at various times in the past?Or are both “little ice ages” and periods of “global warming” part of
the natural order of things?Can you
tell from the data that are presented?Do you know how to test for statistical significance?Are you clear about the difference between
models and observations?
If I were entering college today — but with the
knowledge I’ve gained from a lifetime of reading, writing, and making films —
I’d seriously consider minoring in economics.We are way short of people who really understand economic
principles.And you’re kidding yourself
if you think you can do social documentaries in the twenty-first century
without correctly accounting for the underlying economic issues.
A good place to start is Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics.He actually explains how things work.For enjoyment, take a look at Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven
Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.It’s not
only an eye-opener, it offers a technique for finding the unexpected truth
underlying common phenomena.For a good
read that offers a glimpse of how economists sometimes tackle problems, read
Pietra Rivoli’s The Travels of a T-Shirt
in the Global Economy.
Most Americans know far less of their own history than
they think they do, and very little of the history of the rest of the
world.For at least the last two
decades, the United States has been doing more business with Asia than with
Europe, and yet few Americans have any idea of the complex and fascinating
history of the many nations that make up that vast continent.
Africa, the Middle East?The level of ignorance about them is even higher.
Even America’s European heritage remains unexplored
territory for many college students and college graduates.
There is a world of opportunity waiting for the filmmaker
with the knowledge to turn the truth about historical events into great
Anthropology and sociology have long been the source
of powerful documentary films.Study in these
areas provides an entry into the discipline and methodology that separate
serious documentary filmmaking from partisan fluff.
The arts are a fertile field for the documentarian who can
bring more understanding to painting, sculpture, music, or dance than just
lighting and focal lengths.If your
knowledge of any form of art goes beyond the surface presentation, so that you
can help an audience understand how a specific body of work came about, you can
make a serious contribution.
There are countless other areas in which gaining a certain
amount of expertise can help you to make a better documentary.Here are a few to stimulate your thinking:
architecture, and theology, are all fertile areas for a well-informed documentarian.
military.When I was in college,
every family had someone who had served or was serving in the armed forces and
who brought home stories about military life.Today, the military is an unknown world to most Americans.If all you know about the armed forces comes
from movies, even highly acclaimed movies such as Saving Private Ryan, you don’t know anything about the
and learning.More than sixty years
ago, writing about the state of education research, the Swiss psychologist and
learning theorist Jean Piaget said that we do not even know if the ability to
spell is genetic or the result of learning.And today, we still don’t know.
During a period in which we
have made astonishing advances in medicine and science; developed the personal
computer, the Internet, and the cell phone to change the way in which we think,
work, and communicate; and, oh yes, put some people on the moon; about the best
one can say about public education in America is that it has stood still.That’s as if U.S. airlines were still flying
the Douglas DC-7.Back in the ’50s it
was the best propeller-driven airliner ever built.But it carried just 110 passengers and had a
cruising speed of about 350 miles per hour.Pretty good back then.But today?
Government.Almost all reporting about government,
regardless of whether by journalists or documentarians, is about politics, not
governance.We hear how this bill or
that policy will affect the chance for reelection of some person or party, but
rarely do we get any cogent analysis of how it will affect the lives of
Aging.Americans as a people are growing older and
living longer.And there is very little
research to tell us what that actually means.This is a frontier area.
Follow Your Instincts
My point is not to tell you what to study, but to
suggest that a concentration on film technique is probably not the best career
preparation for a documentarian.
I suspect that most people don’t start out to be documentary
filmmakers.They start out wanting to
explore or expose or recount something they care passionately about.And they want to do it as a film.