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.