Making my first documentary movie....

I’ve got a budget of under $2000, with which I expect to buy a digital camera and some editing equipment, and this film is to run about half-hour, and be shown at a conference (in Europe) in June of 2004.

Basically, I’m going to film the real-life locations of a novel that took place in my part of the world, and show these locations (about five or six, I think) to scholars who’ve taught the novel many times but have never seen the actual settings.

I’ve never made a film before, and would appreciate any input from Dopers who’ve got more experience (like, any) than me.

I plan to shoot the footage this coming June, and edit it in the summer and fall. I’d like to be finished way before June of 2004.

Right now, I’m lining up permission to film certain private homes, and am scouting exterior locations.

Any technical advice, logistical advice, articstic advice, etc. would be wldly appreciated.

I’ve made two short films, only as a first year at Uni, so I ain’t Spielberg or anything, but I’ll try to help.

Best advice I can give, even though it is ridiculously obvious: plan everything. Make sure everything you need is ready and organised. Storyboard, make all relevant notes, and have an exact picture in your mind of how it’s all going to turn out. You can ignore this when you come to shoot, of course, but just having the ideas fully formed makes everything a lot easier, and allows more time for creativity. Pre and post production will be the biggest parts of the film.

How much do you know about actual filming, technique and all? I don’t want to give advice that you’re rolling your eyes at and saying ‘duh’ to. :slight_smile:

How big is your crew? Do you intend on using any actors?

Um… since you’re using location shots, remember to factor in environmental factors to your timescale. It sucks having to stop your shoot for traffic to go past, planes to fly overhead or workers to finish their roadwork, but sometimes it happens - this goes with the planning, I guess. Plan for any unexpected things that can go wrong.

More advice as I think of it and get feedback from you - hope I’m helpful. :slight_smile: Have fun - it should be great.

Keep it very, very simple. Unless your equipment is amazingly professional (which on your budget it probably won’t be) or you are a semi-professional camera-wise, keep the shooting very, very simple. Don’t aim for lots of pans and zooms -nothing looks worse than a jerky or irregular shot. Lots of still/fixed shots can look just as good.

This is the main advice given to videojournalists, and believe me (as one myself currently) it works. Don’t “hose” (like a fireman ie) - keep the camera steady. Use a tripod whenever you can.

Also depending on the quality of the camera - and do some test filming first - try to shoot in really good, preferably strong light. I have found that today’s small digital cameras are great, but their focus (even on manual) looks much “sharper” with strong light. Unlike an older style larger Betacam (or digibeta) with a professional quality of lens - most probably bought separately and worth as much as the rest of the camera again - the lenses on today’s home and semi-pro videocameras aren’t as good, understandably. You really do get what you pay for.

Make sure you edit with natural sound/wildtrack. You can easily fake this and there’s no problem with doing that. If there is a horrible noisy road behind a lovely house you are filming, go and film another, quieter location later, and post-dub the sound.

If you do pan - think about how slow/fast your pans/tilts are. I have had editors tearing their hair out in frustration at VJs who came back with 20 second pans, 30 second zooms. Admittedly this was for news, but even with slower, doco-style stuff, a shot that long is a real nightmare to edit with. Actually count the number of seconds in your head while you pan.

Eg for news stories, if I am panning (which is rare now we webcast as moving shots don’t compress so well) I will fix the camera at the start of the pan, count 5-10 seconds - move it, counting to no more than 5 seconds, then hold it steady for 5-10 seconds at the other end. This gives me three useable shots.

Gex gex and Istara–You’re both being very helpful. Thanks.

I’m much more a literary guy than a film guy, so there’s almost no technical advice I could get that would be too simple. In fact, if you (or anyone) knows of a good book on film technique, I’ll want to read it. And if you want to pass on more of your own technical advice that would be great.

This has helped me materially already, because in making up my budget I didn’t request a tripod, which of course I’ll need (and will addend to the not-yet-handed-in budget request.) One of the problems with the filming is that some of it will have to be shot from a moving car (a huge scene described in the book is Manhattan as seen driving into it from the 59th Street Bridge, where you can’t just stop your car in mid-span and set up a tripod. I’ll cheat somewhat by setting up on Roosevelt Island, underneath the bridge, but if I can get a good shot ON the bridge, it’ll be worth trying.) I’m working with a bare bones volunteer crew–some undergraduates, my 16-year-old daughter, my girlfriend, maybe a colleague or two-- (one of whom will be driving me across the bridge, I hope), and I’ll use them (or myself) as actors only to show the scale of various things I’ll be filming. I’ll be doing the voiceover narration.

I’m also going to try to incorporate various stills (from the time of the novel) into the film, maps of the area, maybe even a clip or two (if I can get permision) of the locales in the two major Hollywood feature films that were made of the novel.

(I know I’m being coy about which novel it is, but only in the hope that people will easily guess it from my description. You all probably read it in high school, if not in college.)

Any other ideas, suggestions, etc., please keep 'em coming, and thanks again.

If you are using digital Video over shoot everything. There is nothing worse than trying to edit and find you need more footage or that a shot is too short.

Plan ahead, an ahead, plan ahead plan ahead!

If you are location shooting, you don’t want to waste light trying to figure out your next shot. You also want to make sure you have enough tapes, batteries, whether you can use lights if they can be pluged in, in the locations you have to know the expectations of the people who own the place. If you are just going with one camera and yourself that is ok, if you need others and more equipment and they only expected you and a camera that is completely different. Also they may have time constraints.

Research and plan.

Lastly If you have very limited experience in camera use (If you don’t ignore this last bit of advise) you may wish to look up books on shot composition and technique to give it that little bit of a proffesional edge. You don’t want to go through the trouble and find you have a product that looks more like a home movie (Too many pans and zooms).

Good luck and enjoy the experience.

For the car shots, the best way I’ve found (and it’s not a very good way) is to be prepared to sit very uncomfortably in the seat, get the driver to drive very slowly, take along a lot of pillows and blankets for padding and try to keep your hand as steady as possible. I’m sure there’s a better way, but I don’t know it.

For shot composition, try as hard as you can to see the shot when your composing it - think about what you’re looking at, and how it will look on camera. I find that when I’m scouting shot locations, I can get an idea of how I want to shoot things by making a frame with my hands and looking at the world like that (I bet I look really weird doing it, though). And when all else fails, the 2/3 rule is usually safe.

And a bit of a cheat trick that I’ve found - often b+w can hide cheap equipment/harsh lighting. Then again, it may not fit in at all with what you see for your project.

Good luck!


I got my funding ($1500 + change) approved yesterday, so I’m starting to work in earnest on this project.

I’ve been doing some practicing with a borrowed camcorder the last few weeks, some scriptwriting, and some exploration of various digital-editing software programs. It’s the last I have some severe problems with. To wit:

I think I’ll need some help with editing particularly. The footage I shoot will be passable, if only because I’ll have time to shoot and re-shoot as often as I need to, and most of the shots I’ll want are relatively easy (no actors, no special weather required other than normal summer weather, etc.), and the script-well, I’m a professional writer, so I’m not too worried there.

But I can sense that the editing is going to be a bitch, and is the one area I utterly lack knowledge and talent in, both in the artistic concepts and in figuring out computer stuff.

On my puny budget, it’s all I’m going to be able to do to buy a camera and film, and some editing software, so I can’t afford to pay a professional editor to do work for me. But the simplicitiy of the editing job, both in terms of what I’m seeking to have done and in terms of the film’s length (probably under a half hour, most of which is going to feature archival still photos) suggests to me that maybe a film student, or even an out of work editor, might be interested in doing a few days on this project for the experience or the credit (I’ll glad to bill him as anything he likes, even putting his name above the title), as this project is definitely going to be made and shown at an academic conference. Is this enough of an incentive to attract anyone who might do a decent job? Or am I dreaming?

If I’m not dreaming, how to find someone? My university is in Manhattan, a mile from NYU Film school and no doubt other less-well-known film schools, and that’s one possible resource for finding film students who might want some editing credentials under their belts. But

a) is this the likeliest route to find what I seek?


b) how should I go about soliciting? Look up a film editing course at NYU and contact the prof, asking if he could recommend some students? Go to the film school and post flyers? If I contact the editing professor, any suggestions for phrasing? Do they get so many of these requests for free interns (I’m thinking of Kramer in SEINFELD here) that these requests are nuisances to them or am I offering an opportunity that they’re eager to have?

One thing for sure: I’m definitely including in the credits a special thank you to the SDMB, and any of you (by username or real name) who want a personal acknowledgement.