4 Tips On Documentary Filmmaking
Our documentary, Reap What You Sew, is now complete and will be released this winter. I thought I would share with you a few things I learned as I directed my first documentary.
1. Have an Idea of the Story Ahead of Time
I assumed during pre-production that a documentary would tell its own story. “This’ll be an easy story to tell; it’ll write itself!” I foolishly thought. Hahaha! That did not happen. In some aspects, yes, a documentary will showcase and tell the story of its subject, but unless you know the angle, the structure, and the message that you are trying to present, you are going to struggle during post-production. Thankfully, I had written out and presented interview questions to Dr. Deb Waterbury, the producer of the film, before we set out to make the documentary. She liked the questions, and from that exchange, I had a rough idea of how the documentary would go. Instead of assuming a story will come during production, I should have treated it as a news story. A news story finds an angle in order to report on a story happening, allowing the viewer or reader to become emotionally invested. For example, a story about immigration could incorporate an interview with someone who struggled to migrate, allowing the viewer or reader to feel an attachment to them. I will say that even though I didn’t go into the project with this mentality, I did want there to be emotional weight to the story of the school. Dr. Deb and I decided to focus a part of the story on one of the Reap What You Sew school graduates, Elizabeth, since her story of going from impoverishment to successful business owner proved to be gripping. Thankfully, the documentary turned out better than I could have hoped, and the story flows from beginning to end, telling how the school got started and what the future holds for it. Lakisha, one of the women I traveled with, advises to write down your plan and what you want the end result to be for your projects. So during pre-production, write down what kind of story you want to tell, figure out the best angle that will resonate with the audience, and know what message you want to share. No one wants to watch something that is pointless.
2. Film Everything
While you film the story about an environment (like a school) or a person’s life, you want to capture as much as you can because you never know exactly what you will need for the story. Bring plenty of memory cards for your camera (I had six in total) and batteries for your cameras (I had two each for my main camera and my GoPro). You never know what could crop up during an interview that would need a visual aid. For instance, Dr. Deb talked about the lack of electricity in a village, and I just so happened to film a light bulb that was the only source of light in a building. I used that image to help provide a visual representation of what was being said. Also, don’t be scared to ask someone if you can film them. I asked a lot of people if they would allow me to film them, and they were kind enough to let me. In fact, a lot of the villagers we met didn’t mind being on camera at all. The kids even tried to get in front of it as much as they could. I learned that you shouldn’t be shy about asking someone to be on camera. The worst thing they’ll do is say no, and if they say that, go find someone else. You’re bound to find someone who won’t mind being on camera, especially when the film is used for a good cause.
3. Ask About Everything
I learned very quickly that sometimes the best moments are the ones you least expect when it comes to filming a documentary. There were some moments where Dr. Deb and her team were chatting casually, and the topic of the school or the students would pop up occasionally, providing more insight to the story. For example, Dr. Deb told about how Annie Chikhwaza inspired her to begin the school, and that moment was not planned at all. I quickly had to get the camera set to film her during her casual conversation. There were times like that that I had wished I grabbed my camera and asked Dr. Deb and her team for more information or insight. There were conversations that didn’t get recorded that I wished that had, and I should have interviewed Dr. Deb’s team to get their reactions of what they had seen and experienced. I should have asked Dr. Deb to provide more insight into each event we went to and experienced, but of course, I couldn’t ultimately use all of that extra footage. But it’s better to have more than you need than not enough. Thankfully, we had plenty of interviews and narration that telling the full story wasn’t too much of a problem.
4. Save Often and Have a Back-Up
In post-production, you will need a lot of hard drive space for your film. If you use editing software like Adobe Premiere Pro, you are going to be placing a lot of information into the software, especially when you’re rearranging video clips, mixing sounds, and placing effects into the videos. If you’re editing an hour long documentary or longer, then do yourself a favor and save every ten minutes in multiple locations such as a separate hard drive in addition to your PC or laptop. My software crashed a few times, and there were times I thought video files got deleted. So make sure you save your files and work progress often and in different places. It will certainly save you from hours of re-editing and a few heart attacks.
I hope these tips help you if you plan on making a documentary. Making Reap What You Sew was an unforgettable experience, and I am so grateful to God for allowing me to have such a wonderful opportunity. This film turned out better than I expected, and from the reactions of a few people who have previewed it, it invokes an emotional story of bringing hope to a nation in dire need of it. More importantly, I hope the film, like all good art, stirs its audience to do something to make the world a better place.
The Art Of Business
In the entertainment industry, it's very easy to find people who have an artistic drive. Artists, musicians, singers, writers, and filmmakers have a passion for what they do, and it is this passion that drives creativity and allows audiences to experience original content, offering new and exciting works of art. However, artistic expression can only get you so far in life. You're going to need to pay the bills at some point, and to do that, you're going to have to take your abilities and use them to find clients of whom you will need to please in order to receive a check with your name on it.
Part of my business is to help create book trailers for clients, bringing their ideas to life that helps advertise their written work. It's fun to exchange ideas and then figure out how to make the trailer, especially when I'm free to be as creative as possible. There was one trailer though that I thought I had made a very emotional and captivating trailer, but the client wanted it changed--not saying they were wrong in their decision. This was for the book Courage in the Face of Evil, which is a great read by the way, and I would like to show you the two versions of the trailer to showcase how creative differences affects the product.
This first one is the "director's cut," meaning it's what I envisioned the trailer to be, and I like how it turned out. I feel the voice actress did a wonderful job capturing the fear and stress of the character, and the music and sound effects add even more to the dramatic setting showcased in actual WWII pictures. WARNING: This version contains disturbing imagery of the Holocaust--viewer discretion is advised.
After presenting the client this trailer, they suggested making it shorter, resulting in the lines being meshed together to create a chaotic mish-mash of voices and the addition of text being shown with the voices, which honestly does help elaborate the stressful events the character endures, but ultimately, it took out the clarity of the what was being said in my opinion. Here is the official version:
As you can see, my version and my client's version have similarities and differences. I prefer what I did because I think it helps advertise the story better, though I will admit it is a bit long. Like I've said, there is no right or wrong in this situation. When it comes to art, you are both right and wrong at the same time. It's all about preference. But this is what happens all of the time in the film industry.
What's the point of telling you this? It's to tell you that, being in the entertainment industry, expect to be told what to do with your art. You may not like it all of the time, and you may even disagree with your boss/client. However, business is business. I chose to cooperate with my client and make them a version that they were happy with. Do I think my version is better? Yes, but does my client think their version is better? Also yes. And you know what? I'm OK with what we released. I still had a lot of what I made in there, and I was able to still express my art, just had to limit it. They were happy, and I was happy. There is nothing wrong about sacrificing artistic vision in order to please a client who has their own vision of what the product should be.
Which version do you like better? Are there parts of one better than the other and vice versa? Let me know in the comments section!
The Marvel Movie Method: How the Marvel Cinematic Universe succeeded where others have failed
With Marvel Studios releasing Ant-Man and the Wasp this Friday, marking their 20th film in the span of 10 years, I have been reflecting on the massive risk they undertook to create what is now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
No one could have imagined that a movie called Iron Man would be the foundation for a "bigger universe" nor be as influential as it is today. And that was quite a feat for a superhero film that came out the same year as The Dark Knight. The golden Avenger wasn't well known back then with moviegoers compared to the likes of Spider-Man, X-Men, or Fantastic Four, and the script for the movie wasn't even completed before production began. Iron Man didn't have the same name recognition as other Marvel properties, and the story was made as production moved along, which normally would spell disaster on a film. But the movie turned out better than anyone anticipated, and the character continues to be a central piece in the massive MCU.
Marvel continues to churn out movies that feature beloved characters, interesting stories, and amazing spectacles. So what has kept audiences coming back for more, despite the ridiculousness of some of their superheroes such as Norse gods, super soldiers from WWII, a talking raccoon, and of course, shrinking people that can talk to ants? These movies continue to be winners because of how much we can relate to the over-the-top superheroes and their personal journeys of transformation. Tony Stark goes from a selfish, weapons- dealing, playboy to a selfless person trying to help others with his wealth and techno-savvy. Thor begins as a prideful warmonger, but he learns what it means to serve others, rather than serving his own ego. T'Challa had been motivated by hatred and revenge after the murder of his father, but he becomes more merciful as time goes on, and understands the importance of waiting on justice, rather than taking matters into his own hands. It's when these characters are challenged to overcome tremendous personal obstacles that we become engrossed into these movies, and when an Avengers movie rolls around, we're excited to see just how these characters are going to come together to face a threat that they could not handle by themselves.
When there's success, imitators are sure to follow, and it seems that every major Hollywood studio wants to build their own cinematic universe these days. DC Comics tried, and somewhat succeeded with their superhero films, leading up to the less-than-stellar Justice League film. Universal has tried to bring together their famous movie monsters together in one universe...twice. Sony Pictures attempted to make their own Spider-Man series without Marvel, and now Spidey is in Marvel's hands, though Sony is going to try to make a world without Spider-Man with the upcoming Venom movie. Fox has been doing quite well with their X-Men series, including Deadpool and Logan. The Fast & The Furious and Transformers films are are also slated to develop their own cinematic universes. And of course, Disney has tried to replicate the Marvel magic with their Star Wars films.
Why have some of these cinematic universe attempts failed? Justice League should have been a big event like The Avengers since it brought together Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg together for the first time on the big screen. But because Man of Steel and Batman v Superman failed to connect audiences with these characters, no one really cared about them coming together. Audiences loved Wonder Woman, but that wasn't enough. Part of the problem was that Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg were being introduced for the very first time in Justice League. In The Avengers, audiences already knew Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, so there was already a connection established, making The Avengers a culmination, rather than an introduction of their characters. Sony's Spider-verse attempt failed partly due to rebooting the Spider-Man series fairly quickly after the initial trilogy of films, and audiences questioned what the point of the The Amazing Spider-Man films were other than to keep the film rights out of Marvel's hands. Ultimately, it led to Sony allowing Marvel take full creative control of the character, and we'll see if Sony can pull-off a Spider-Man-less...Spider-verse? Both Dracula Untold and The Mummy failed to kick-start a monster universe because, well, they weren't very good. Recently, Star Wars seems to be having trouble creating its own cinematic universe, apparently putting future "A Star Wars Story" movies on hold until further notice. You would think Star Wars could rival Marvel's success, but alas, due to angered fans over The Last Jedi, and the odd timing of Solo: A Star Wars Story failed to interest fans, resulting in millions of dollars lost, even though it was not a bad movie. It seems as though no one can figure out the Marvel Method in creating a successful universe.
Why has Marvel succeeded? It's because they focus on their characters first and foremost, crafting stories that make us care about the heroes. To be honest, I always hated Ant-Man. I thought he was just stupid, and when the movie was announced, I thought it would be a dud. But it surprised me with a story about a father trying and failing to be a good role model for his daughter. We could relate to Scott Lang. We are all aspiring to be better than we are, but just can't seem to get things right. It focused on telling a story that gave a character a personal struggle to overcome. It told a good story, and that is Marvel's secret to creating movies.
I showed my best friend Ant-Man for the first time, and about halfway though, he turned to me and said, "Ant-Man is my favorite Marvel hero now." I couldn't help but smile. Who knew Ant-Man would become a great hero and a fan-favorite character? Who knew Black Panther would do better at the box office than Batman? Who knew Iron Man would kickstart ten years worth of incredible, astonishing, amazing, and marvelous stories? I certainly never thought that I'd see the day when I'd be more excited to see a movie called Ant-Man and the Wasp over a Justice League movie.
Happy 10th anniversary, Marvel Studios! Here's to another 10 years of movie marvels. Excelsior!
Show Don't Tell
Ever since I was a kid, I have been enthralled by movies. I remember watching a father clown fish braving the entire ocean to find his son, a prince leading his slaves into an exodus, and a dead girl being brought back to life with a kiss. Though I did not fully understand the significance of these movies, I was nonetheless being taught the values of family, leadership, and the power of love. The movies did not have to say what they were teaching me; they were showing me through their characters, actions, and symbols - their visuals. While working on the documentary, Your Kingdom Come, I began to have a better appreciation of what we see on our screens and also a better understanding of my own story.
There’s a rule out there about storytelling that says, “show, don’t tell.” Of course, in videos, people typically talk, but for the most part, movies don’t have to explain things as the story progresses. As director Andrew Stanton stated during his 2012 Ted Talk, “The audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that.” He advises storytellers to give audiences two plus two but to not give them four. The audience will figure it out and will feel more satisfied while doing so. He should know because, as a director and producer at Pixar, he’s done this many times. In fact, he and the Pixar team do this sometimes without a single word of dialogue. Up has one of the most precious love stories never spoken, and people fell in love with the mainly mute Wall-E, despite his lack of a vocabulary. This isn’t a new way of storytelling. It’s been used for centuries.
In the early days of filmmaking, directors, producers, and writers had to think about how to tell stories without any spoken dialogue. After all, there was no sound in movies back then. D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation), Fritz Lang (Metropolis), Charlie Chaplin (The Gold Rush), and many others all had to show audiences captivating tales with no words spoken in them, though with the occasional use of text, yet their movies terrified audiences, made them laugh, and influenced conversations within the culture. Their stories were captivating, despite the lack of verbal communication. How could this be? It's the same way with paintings, sculptures, and other forms of art. Take Jean-Honore Fragonard's The Swing for example. Here is an image of a girl on a swing being playfully pushed by a man behind her, while another man hides in nearby bushes underneath the girl as her legs seductively spread apart for his view. In this one image, there is a conflict happening and characters with varying goals interacting with each other. This is a story. Additionally, ancient churches have paintings along their walls and ceilings of biblical stories, such as Michelangelo's artwork on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. These were used as both a tribute to the religion and a visual aid for the illiterate. For those that couldn't read the Bible, they had the paintings to help them better understand the stories and lessons from the sacred texts. This unique form of visual storytelling can even be traced back even further in time with cave paintings. Though barbaric and undefined, these images showcase triumphant hunts over animals and other brave acts of our distant ancestors. From the dawn of time to modern filmmaking, visuals have always been an important part of storytelling.
I always pictured the stories of Jesus taking place in colorless structures, sand-filled lands, and hot climates - but my interpretations were completely wrong. Israel is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, filled with gorgeous green scenery, painted lilies on the valleys, and landscapes straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien's imagination. Bethlehem wasn't some dusty old town. It was a mountain that was covered with abundant plant life with a fantastic view of the valley below. Mt. Tabor is a lovely sight to behold from both below and on top of the mountain. Seriously, I fell in love with the land, from the Sea of Galilee to the Jezreel Valley. And by going to these places, I can then picture the stories of Jesus. Sitting atop the flowing fields on the Mount of Beatitudes, getting crowded in the tight alleyways of Jerusalem, getting winded going up Mt. Tabor — I was walking where Jesus walked. Suddenly, the stories came alive in me. His words made more sense.
Through the documentary, I hope other people experience the same revelation. By seeing the scenery, the symbols, and the actual locations, people won’t just be told Jesus went to the Jordan River; they’ll see it. They won’t just hear about the shepherd’s meeting an angel in the field; they’ll see the field. They won’t just hear a story — they can see it in front of them, just like the cave painters of yore, and the painters, sculptors, and filmmakers after them. You see, by using these visuals to tell the stories found in the Gospels, the documentary is inviting people to journey with the filmmakers. Even though the viewers can’t necessarily physically go to Israel, the images on the screen, like any good motion picture, will capture the minds of those who watch it, and they will be transported into the tale being told.
Why are visuals in storytelling important? Because the pictures are the living, breathing part of the story. Everything else is context. Without images, we would just have words. How can we possibly fathom Jesus as a "shepherd" without seeing the care and attention a shepherd gives to each member of his flock? How can we imagine a city on a hill without seeing the complexity and majesty of one atop a mountain? How can we tell about the love of Christ without showing love to others? Let’s not just tell people about the story of God. Let’s show them.