SIX STEPS TO CREATE YOUR WONDERFUL DOCUMENTARY
By Tony Estrada, Producer/Director, Wild Horse Films
the difference between a large pizza and a documentary filmmaker?
— A large pizza can feed a family of four.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist the latest joke about documentary filmmakers. But as each of you produces more engaging stories – individually striving for quality in your own work – you collectively change the movie theater-going public’s attitude toward documentaries. And as the public clamors for more original work, distributors are now seeing that docs can be hot, and can pack a movie house as easily as a studio film.
The reality is: if you’re like the other hundreds of documentary makers worldwide producing a documentary, you will primarily rely
on the strength of your story, the approach to your subject matter, the form and structure, even the style in which it is shot, to get your message out to your audience. So my suggestions for your six steps to create your wonderful documentary are as follows:
I. START WITH A GREAT IDEA
Before you start, ask yourself, “Why do I really want to make this film?” What is your concept?
Since you’re the creative force driving this project, you’ll need to decide how to best present your story, and research your topic well, to tell that story.
The documentary has developed several styles over the years. Choose the one that is right for your story. All of these styles are
in use today and in countless variations.
Peter Thompson, instructor for the course on “Editing the Documentary” at the Film/Video Department, at Columbia College in Chicago, identifies these distinct documentary styles: the Direct Address Documentary Voice; the Direct Address to Viewer Documentary Voice; the Cinema Verité Documentary Voice; and the Self-Reflexive Documentary Voice/Cinematic Essay.
The Expository Style (Direct Address Documentary Voice): The expository (or Griersonian) style addresses the audience directly, usually through a narrator. The narrator is separated from the subject of the documentary and is making verbal commentary on it. This style tends to rely on the narration to tell the story rather than continuous visual images. Expository films usually seek to inform or instruct, are very pointed and leave little room for interpretation. Interviews, voice-over, and archival images are often combined as in Ken Burns’ popular Civil War (1990).
The Observational Direct Style (Direct Address to Viewer Documentary Voice): This tyle tries to mirror the world, rather than create a specific argument. Often this style of film is a series of vignettes. The direct observational style is noninterventionist and focuses on the immediate time.
The Observational Verité Style (Cinema Verité Documentary Voice): Observational Verité recognizes it’s very difficult to achieve the goal of nonintervention in the direct observational style, because once the subject is aware of the camera, the subject
will modify his or her behavior. Thus verité uses the camera to invoke an interaction or response with the subject.
The Reflexive Style (Self-Reflexive Documentary Voice/Cinematic Essay): The reflexive style also recognized the difficulties of the observational direct style, and overcomes this by involving the filmmakers in the film itself. For example, a film that shows the documentarians filming the film utilizes a reflexive style.
The Impressionistic Style: A fifth style, the impressionistic style is more artistic than real. It seeks to
create the art and impression to convey a story, rather than using a hard-hitting, objective lens. A film made in this style may take on the production qualities of a fictional film (reenactments) utilizing actors, stages, and art direction.
After you’ve decided on your documentary concept [what your documentary is about] and the documentary style(s) [how you’re going
to tell your story], you’re ready to write your treatment.
II. WRITE A TERRIFIC TREATMENT AND PROPOSAL
or outline is a thematic description of your film. Once you’ve completed your research phase – generally convey on paper, what you’re going to show and how you’re going to show it. It helps you visualize each segment and ultimately each shot in the film. By forcing you to conceive each stage of filming, you’ll have a clearer idea of what you need and how you can accomplish your vision.
Once you start shooting, reality will force itself into your vision. Subjects will be different than you expected and say things you
didn’t expect. Events will take their own course forcing you to improvise and adapt. The treatment can help maintain the continuity of the film through these adaptations. After each shoot it is advisable to revise the treatment to fit the realties of the shoot. This way you will be able to progress in a planned and controlled manner.
expanded from your treatment, is also a valuable communication tool. It includes your treatment (what your story is about); describes your audience (who your story
is for); outlines your budget (how much your story will cost); and a filmmaker’s statement and bio (why you’re doing this story). Funding sources want to know about
your project and be able to evaluate it against competing applications. The proposal will help them understand your vision, and give them confidence that you know how
and what you want to show. Eva Hornbaker’s article in this book on writing a proposal offers superb guidelines for documentary filmmakers.
III. DEVELOP A PRODUCTION BUDGET
details the cost of the documentary and is usually developed along with the treatment. Sometimes the budget will have a strong influence on the treatment, for instance where there is a specific amount of money available to produce the documentary. Then, unfortunately, you have to tailor the treatment to the budget. A question arises at this point, whether you budget according to script, or do you script according to budget? There is no absolute right answer, as the conditions under which you make each film are different. What is vitally important is your budget must be as complete and accurate as possible. Because if you make a mistake in budgeting, committing yourself to making a documentary, for
what turns out to be an unrealistic sum, you’re likely to finish up bankrupt. (If you‘re unfamiliar with all the line item costs of your production, this is when
it’s useful to bring onboard a Line Producer.)
For example, there is no truth to the notion that a film or video should cost so many dollars per minute. The cost of a documentary
depends entirely on what’s to be shot, how many days to shoot it, how large a crew is required, the equipment that will be used and all the other things that may go
into a production, such as the cost of actors, props, makeup, special effects, and special items such as original music. Only the cost of film printing is related
to the running length of the finished print.
A carefully thought out budget is a necessary tool to help you keep on financial track and finish your film. Here is a general
overview of some of the line items to be included in your documentary budget.
Production personnel includes salaries for filmmakers, researchers, consultants, and assistants.
Rights and Permissions
Any distributed films must obtain rights and permissions for all copyrighted material that appears in the film. Copyrighted material includes music, footage, photographs, news clippings, etc. Include not only the fees for permission, but also search and reproduction fees. Additionally, many cities and foreign countries require you to get municipal permits to shoot, and some private establishments charge location fees.
This is the cost of narrators and actors, if you are doing reenactments.
· Travel, Lodging &
Include the cost of air fares, local transportation including trains, cars, taxis,
lodging and expenses. Food can include an estimated three meals a day for each crew
member plus snacks, or a per diem amount.
· Equipment: Include the cost of
owned, purchased, or rented equipment. If you are using your own film, write in
a typical rental fee so that you are compensated for the depreciation of your equipment.
Check out long term rental discount fees. Most rental houses will require that you
insure the equipment and/or leave a large security deposit.
· Crew: Include the cost of
production personnel: camera operators, sound recorders, lighting, grip, construction
people, and assistants. If you are working with a union, you will have to negotiate
the fee; otherwise, most workers will charge a daily rate. Be sure to enter into
a written employment contract that spells out the terms of employment (have your
legal resource draft an appropriate document). If you are using independent contractors,
make sure they have their own insurance.
· Stock and Ratio: Film stock is usually
counted in the ration of hours of stock footage vs. final cut. The most common meter
is a 10:1 ratio, but it depends on you shooting style. Carefully scripted films
may only require 5:1, and looser concept films may require 50:1. Plan accordingly.
Also, manufacturers may have discounts on dated film – film that is close to its
recommended expiration date. Shoot samples and test film quality before you start
· Editing Process: Determine the most cost effective method of
editing for your film. Include both the rough cut (off-line) editing and the final
cut (on-line) editing.
· Editor: Include the cost of the editor.
· Formats: Include any fees associated with transferring
formats, say from film to video, or from PAL to NTSC.
· Translations: If your
film has foreign languages, you may need to translate the film for dub-over or subtitles.
· Production and Post Production Administration: List here administrative
and office expenses, and miscellaneous expenses.
If you have a distributor, then costs here may
be minimal. If however you are self-distributing, there is a long list of costs.
These should include any fees associated with film festivals, advertisements, travel,
copying, warehousing, delivery, etc.
· Equipment: This is insurance
that covers any equipment damage, loss or theft. Make sure the policy includes replacement
cost, not just the depreciated value. Beware, also, that policies often will not
cover damage, loss or theft occurring in the event of war, civil unrest, or government
· General Liability: The insurance covers
any claims for bodily injury or property damage cause by your production. Both private
and public property owners may require proof of insurance before they will allow
you to shoot their property.
· Third-Party Property
Damage: This insurance covers damage to property in your care, control or custody,
for example, furniture at a shooting location.
· Faulty Camera, Stock,
Processing: This insurance will cover the reimbursement cost of re-shooting due to
loss or damage to film or tape that you’ve already shot.
· Worker’s Compensation: This insurance covers
medical cost and disability payments for uninsured employees injured while working
· Errors and Omissions
(E&O): This type of insurance indemnifies broadcasters and distributors from lawsuits
over a film’s content. Many distributors and broadcasters will require you to have
this insurance before they will broadcast.
· Extra Expense Coverage: This insurance will
cover any expenses you incur from delays in shooting caused by damage or destruction
· Weather: This is insurance
to cover the cost of delays in shooting caused by weather.
Lawyers are necessary to help you draft contracts,
release forms, location permits, material permissions, copyrights, etc. Look for
a lawyer with entertainment law experience. Some organizations will provide free
Once you have an accurate detailed budget of how
much your production is going to cost, you’re ready to submit your proposal to funding
organizations, and if you have followed this template, funding organizations will
know you understand the filmmaking process. Now you’re ready to submit your
proposal to funding organizations, to receive that all-important grant
IV. GET THE FINANCING (OBTAIN A CONTRACT)
The other chapters in this book deal expertly
with funding your documentary film. Read them again to familiarize yourself
with its principles.
The keys to fundraising are persistence and
creativity. It can take a long time to find the right funding opportunity, so
don’t get discouraged. Fundraising can also be as creative as you make it.
People and organizations can donate time and supplies as well as money. Don’t
limit yourself to only pursuing money grants. Funding can be available from
many sources, including governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs),
corporations and other businesses, foundations, private donors, television
stations, distributors, and self-funding.
The production contract is the agreement
between you and those who are giving you the money to make your documentary,
and formalizes the terms under which the film is to be made.
V. FOLLOW THROUGH
AND FINISH YOUR DOCUMENTARY
During this phase – with the help of your Line
Producer, if you choose to bring one onboard your project – you will be preparing
for your documentary by:
· Reviewing people and
· Selecting the rest of
· Selecting equipment
· Drawing up the shooting
· Obtaining permissions
· If shooting abroad,
dealing with problems of foreign locations
I highly recommend that if you cannot devise a
plan which guarantees completion of at least some reasonable version of the film,
then don’t start production.
B.1. Production: Dealing with Creative & Aesthetics
Visualizing your film will not only help you save
time and money, it will also help you maintain continuity in your film’s structure.
Whether your film is a loosely structured observational film or a tightly scripted
reenactment, visualizing each shot, or as many shots as you can, will help you identify
what equipment you need, how you want the shot framed, and how the shots will run
together and tell the story. If you have a more observational film, then visualize
as many themes as you can based on your research. In the case of carefully scripted
documentaries, especially those requiring actors and art direction, visualization
is almost a necessity.
Shot Lists and Storyboards: Some directors prefer
to make shot lists with the details of the shot. Others like to storyboard a film:
make a drawing of each shot. Storyboarding can be difficult for observational styles
unless you know the subjects very well. The shot list or storyboard will be a significant
aid in your ability to communicate to others your vision of the film or shot, and
will help your crew better prepare for the shoot. Also, as reality intervenes into
your vision, as it always does in unexpected ways, you can continually review your
shot list or storyboard to make appropriate changes without loosing the continuity
of your film.
Undirected Subjects: In an observational
style film, you may not want to direct your subjects, preferring instead to capture
what really happens. You must accept the fact that your very presence is going to
affect the behavior of your subjects. You may tell your subjects to act naturally;
however, nothing is more difficult. Acting naturally is what scores of professional
actors work their entire life to perfect. It will usually only make your subject
even more self conscious of his or her behavior than before. It is best to just
get to it. The closer the subject is to the topic you are discussing or filming,
the quicker they will forget the camera. Also, a subject will feel less pressure
and act less contrived if they do not know how important his/her shot is to the
film. Some directors will introduce the camera to subjects for some time, without
actually shooting, until they are comfortable with it.
Directed Subjects: If a film is a docudrama,
staging is necessary. However, even in observational films, there may be times when
you need a shot of the subject doing something they have already done, or that you
can’t capture naturally. In such cases, you may need to ask the subject to reenact
the behavior. This can be difficult since the subject is not a professional actor.
Try to set up a situation as close to the real situation as you can. Be willing
to accept that the shot may come out contrived and unusable.
Situational Awareness: The most frustrating situation is to watch an amazing event and not have
the camera ready to capture it. When shooting it is important to have a situational
awareness, try to be sensitive to the environment you are shooting in so that you
can get a sense of developing situations and be ready to capture it.
Comprehensive Coverage: The placement of the
camera and the microphone are probably the most important and continuous decisions.
How do you shoot in such a way that you give the viewer a broader contextual understanding
of a situation without losing the detail of expression and interest?
Long wide shots may convey the broader picture,
but they also often lose the view because there is too much distraction.
Concentrating on close-ups allow you capture the
communicative detail that will engage your viewers humanity. At the same time, find
a way to convey the larger picture. Allow your subjects to show the broader field.
As a rule, keep zooming to a minimum. Zooming
can be distracting. We don’t see that way. When a person focuses on something far
then close, it is perceived as a jump of vision. It is usually better to go straight
to close or far and cut the scene in the editing. Also, zooming with a handheld
camera will more likely make the camera shake.
Cinematic Convention: It is a good idea
to shoot long. This will give you greater flexibility in the editing room. As you
· What shots might work
· Are your camera movements
motivated by the content of the images?
· Can a still shot show
this better than a moving shot?
Utilize some degree of establishment shots, shots
that help the view establish the environment. Also employ master shots (a more focused
establishment shot) combined with close-ups reactions and cut-away shots. Establishment
shots and cut-away shots can often be shot after the action has taken place.
Interviews are an important component in documentary
films. They allow the film to communicate ideas. However, you must be careful not
to create a film of talking heads and cutaways. The documentary film is foremost
a visual medium and actions speak louder than words.
Setting up the Interview
A. Pre-Interviewing: Pre-interviews have
several advantages and disadvantages. In situations were there is a large number
of subjects to select for a few interviews, pre-interviewing will allow you to select
those with the most interesting stories and the greatest presence on-camera. A pre-interview
may also help you establish a rapport with a subject and help them get comfortable
behind the camera. There are also disadvantages to pre-interviews. They may also
make the subject feel jaded or sound over rehearsed. Nothing is worse than having
a subject start a sentence with “As I told you before…” Also, if the
topic of discussion is a very emotional issue for the subject, a pre-interview may
squelch the impact of the story. The subject may be wary of revealing emotions that
were stirred in the pre-interview, or those emotions may not be as powerful by the
time the interview is conducted. In most cases pre-interviews are best limited to
determining if a subject is appropriate for an interview.
B. Location Choice: Studio interviews
can be dry, it might be more interesting to film someone on location, but consider
if you can sufficiently control the surroundings. Also, if you are interviewing
outside, be aware the lighting angles and illumination will change quickly in the
early morning and late evening, making visual controls difficult (you may end up
with jumping shadows when you edit the interview).
Conducting the Interview
A. Preparing for the interview: Do your homework. Find out what you don’t know – that is the basis for the
interview. You won’t ask dumb questions if you know why you are there. Ask the right
questions. Be specific enough to point a direction to the speaker and be vague enough
that he or she has to fill in the details. Try to stay away from leading questions
that the interviewee can answer “yes” or “no” to. Instead ask
· “Tell me what happened.”
· “How would you
explain this situation to people?”
· “What would you
like people to know about this?”
· “What do you see
in the future?”
· “How did this come
Don’t show off your knowledge of the topic. Don’t
be afraid to say “I don’t understand.” You will only draw out even more
information. Sometime you have to play devil’s advocate or oppose the speaker in
order to get a good explanation. Sometime you miss vital points and the speaker
knows it. Give them a chance to speak openly. You may open a flood gate of information.
At the end of the interview always ask these two questions:
· “Is there anything
I should have asked you that I just didn’t know enough to ask?”
· “Is there anything
that you’d like to say that you haven’t had a chance to?”
B. Interview to Edit: Be complete. Ask as many questions as you think are relevant. It’s difficult
to come back the next day with follow-up questions and still maintain visual and
audio continuity. If possible, instruct the subject to avoid wearing plaid or loud
colors and patterns. They will be visually distracting to the viewer.
C. Listen, Listen, Listen: Don’t rush the speaker.
Be patient. Allowing long pauses will often draw the speaker out. Silence can be
a powerful question. Interrupting a subject can have a squelching effect.
D. Setup Time: Give yourself ample
time to set up before you require the subject’s presence. This will prevent your
subject from getting bored or frustrated while you work out technical problems.
Shooting the Interview
A. Eye Line: The eye line of the camera can suggest social
or class status. If the camera is looking down on the subject, the view may feel
superior to the subject, and vise versa. If the camera is level to the eye line
of the subject, the viewer will feel equal to the subject. Most interviews are shot
at film level in an attempt to be neutral.
Having the subject look directly into the camera
can be intimidating for the viewer, and also may make the subject come across as
a news caster. Most interviewers have the subject talking to them at an off angle.
If you have multiple subjects in the interview, you may want to film them at opposing
off angles, to give the view visual cues as to who is talking to whom.
B. Framing and Focal Length: Subjects are usually
positioned to one side or the other of center (using the aesthetic 1/3 rule: dividing
the screen into one thirds for visual balance). If the subject is on the left side
of the screen, then he should be facing the right. This front or nose space gives
the viewer a feeling that there is someone in front of the subject receiving the
information. The head should be framed near the top of the image. The head should
not look like it is pushing out of the top of the frame, or sinking into the bottom
of the frame.
Also, be careful about zooming and framing. As
you zoom in, the camera will have to be tilted to keep the same framing. Your interview
will be more visually stimulating if you shoot “in-depth” with a fore-,
middle-, and background with perspective angles (showing the table from the corner
so as to be able to see all three of its dimensions).
Avoid changing focal length while the subject
is talking. If you must zoom or cut, do so while the question is being asked. Be
aware, though that the slow zoom in on the subject is almost a visual cliché now.
Interview Sound: In most situations,
you will want to reduce ambient noise as much as possible – it can be very distracting
for the viewer and also make the subject impossible to hear. If there is a significant
background sound, record a complete cycle of it. You can introduce the sound somewhere
else in the video to help the viewer get used to it during the interview. Also,
keep mike distance and sound levels consistent throughout an interview.
When conducting indoor interviews, turn off all
distracting appliances including phones, computers, refrigerators, air conditioners,
clocks, etc. Cover metallic and hard surfaces to avoid reflective sound.
Dealing with Technical & Logistics Aspects
Here are some tips to remember during
production of your documentary.
Production Notebook: Keep a production notebook! It’s a one source location for all of your
essential information. It should include the Treatment, Contacts, Subjects,
Locations, Emergency contacts, Equipment replacement sources, Release forms,
Budget, Shot list, Interview questions, tape logs, an equipment check list, and
permits & permissions.
Keep an equipment check list. Go over the checklist before leaving to a shoot,
then go over it again before leaving the shoot.
Bring Extras: Bring
extras to a shoot, including batteries, tape, film, light meter, ASC manual,
snack food, etc.
Location Scouting: Scout
your location before you shoot. Make sure the following issues are acceptable.
· Access: Can you
legally enter and shoot there? Are there any hazards, including unexpected
people? Will there be enough room for crew and equipment? What about parking?
· Aesthetics: How are
you going frame the shot?
· Lighting: How will
you control the lighting? How will the sun affect the shot? What equipment will
you need for the lighting?
· Power: Will you
need power, how much and how will you get it?
· Sound: Where is the
ambient sound coming from? Is it manageable?
· Other Logistics:
Transportation, food, toilets, telephones, safety hazards?
Equipment and Stock: Variations in relative humidity and temperature can
have an adverse effect on film. Some filmmakers keep stock film in hermetically
sealed boxes. At the least, keep film dry and dust free. Unexposed film stock
is best stored between 50°F and 65°F. Video tape should be kept away from
magnets, sun and smoke, and maintained at a temperature and humidity in which
you feel comfortable.
Have everything in the system before you begin
editing. Before the editor(s) begin, it is critical to have enough footage in-house
and digitized to finish the film, if necessary without pickups. This allows the
editor and director to approach the structure with a full deck, to “throw and
axe at it” on the first cut in full knowledge of what would be available in
a worst-case scenario. Naturally, we set aside a small portion of the production
budget for pickups, but do not let the structure depend on pickups.
· Time can be saved by
screening all the rushes and digitizing at the same time, in the same pass.
· A single, dedicated
assistant editor, thoroughly conversant with the editing system, is indispensable.
· If you anticipate using
home movies, graphics, stills, headlines, or audio recordings, have them all in-house
and digitized before editing begins. Delaying their arrival costs money in re-dos
and false starts.
· Before starting, have
an “editorial standards” meeting with everyone who will lay a hand on
the material – standardize video and audio digitizing, track assignment, and track
management. The hidden costs of later re digitizing video or audio or shuffling
audio from one track to another can be enormous.
· Transcripts are indispensable
if the film includes interviews. Make simultaneous audiocassette recordings on location.
Use a highly experienced transcription service, and if necessary be selective in
what gets transcribed.
Many PC and Mac desktop and laptop systems are
now available, and they all appear to work well. As with field audio recording,
do all the standard due diligence common to documentary editorial practice, but
you can also keep costs down in other ways.
· “Slinky” editing.
Non linear editing has now become so fast that writers, associate producers, and
directors often find themselves unable to keep up with the editor. We usually find
no time to ruminate, to digest ideas, screen cuts, write, or brainstorm, because
the big editorial taxi meter is humming. Slinky editing may be the single best way
to save money on any given project. For example, budget for 30 days of editing,
appropriate for the story, which has been pre-organized to within an inch of its
life. But rather than set an editor for work full time for 30 days over 6 weeks,
bring the editor(s) on 2 or 3 days a week over 11 weeks. Obviously, this works only
with editors splitting time between two jobs. The great efficiency comes from each
week allowing the producer/director and assistant editor to consolidate ideas and
material, to catch up and get ahead of the editor.
· Agree on an organizational
principle after screening the rushes. Unfortunately, this works against projects
in which you must find the story while editing is underway. If you are serious about
making an inexpensive film, do not go down the rabbit hole of “finding the
film” late in the editorial process.
· Maintain orderly forward
motion at all costs. Orderly scheduled progress toward lock picture is essential.
Fine tune the filtering of everyone’s ideas to make them flow to director, and then
to editor in an orderly way. Clearly, this can stifle the exchange of ideas, but
it is expensive for the editor to receive conflicting suggestions and instructions
from more than one voice.
· Hire an assistant editor
with solid experience on the system you are using. Ideally, this should be a dedicated
assistant, not burdened by other jobs.
· Never change software
versions during editing. Don’t even think about it.
· Do not conform mixed
formats on FCP. Do not attempt to render a long 16 X 9 film on Final Cut Pro, since
the chances of freezing or crashing are high. Do it in a high-end suite when you
do your final color correction; there it is trivial.
· Get a color-coded keyboard.
· Screenings will uncover
surprises and add clarity. But do not talk the film to death when you should be
making the film; get feedback and input and move forward.
· Two or three well-placed
screenings are invaluable for maintaining forward motion. Schedule one rough cut
and one fine cut screening with a small group of outsiders. Use questionnaires,
discuss the show, and move on. You can schedule more frequent editor/director screenings.
· Always watch the whole
Archive material can be a window to the past.
It could be surviving photographs of the Civil War, as were used in Ken Burns’ Civil War (1990), or stock footage of US
pilots captured in Vietnam as in Return with
Honor (1999). There are some issues. The viewer needs understand when you are
cutting to stock footage. Often the film quality itself is enough of an indicator.
Also, one must be careful about visual quotations – for example, one should not
use 1930s footage to depict the 1920s.
There appear few ways to inexpensively produce
documentaries which rely on archive material other than home movies, photos and
audio recordings which the producer owns. The obvious first problem is the obscene
license fees charged by commercial archive houses, particularly music archives.
But just as important may be the astonishing hidden administrative costs of research,
provenance search, dubbing, releases, and the added headaches when it comes time
to purchase E & O insurance. Use of any archive material is, at best, more cumbersome
than using origination footage. Rights-free footage can, of course, be had from
the National Archives and other government sources.
A. Sources: There are numerous sources
for archive material: museums, public libraries, television networks and stations,
movie studios, newspapers and magazines, personal photo albums, private collections,
published books, and records. Film, video, and audio libraries can be found in the
large cities throughout the US. The National Archives are a great place to start.
B. Copyright: All original work is
subject to copyright restrictions. In the United States, copyrights last fifty years.
You are obligated to get permission to use copyrighted martial. In the US you can
use the Library of Congress Copyright Office as a starting point for your research.
Also, it is important to get permission and release from anyone that appears in
your film. Have an attorney draft a standard form for you.
Low cost production weighs heavily against commissioning
a composer, but there may be cases in which the score is inseparably bound to the
film’s concept. If you must score, back into it just as you back into the film as
a whole. If music is critical, decide first, before production begins, what you
can afford, then work with a composer to sort out what can be done. Like archive
music, original music comes with hidden administrative costs. Does you composer
have pre-existing work that can be acquired or adapted? Consider non-exclusive use
of an original score, since neither you nor the composer has much to gain by taking
the music completely out of circulation. If you do hire a composer, be sure to contract
a package deal, under which the composer hires and pays the players and studio.
On-line & video finishing
Maximizing forward motion for a very limited time
at an expensive commercial post house may be more cost-effective than doing longer
sessions at an inexpensive house. Facilities geared toward television commercials
have very fast and efficient hardware/software, are accustomed to working intensely
against the clock, and are often very eager to apply their expertise to social documentaries
for a good price.
· Set up protocols with
finishing facilities before beginning production.
· Do your own on-line
assembly edit (but not your color correction, sizing, or aspect ratio correction)
in-house. On Final Cut Pro, this is a non-issue, since the system easily stores
and outputs DVCam video at full resolution. In practical terms, you skip traditional
on-line, and your locked picture is you on-line.
· Do your titles, text
and credits in-house. FCP, coming from design-savvy Apple, has a good array of fonts.
PhotoShop and After Affects help.
· Do color correction
at a high-end facility, making very clear before starting that you have an absolutely
fixed amount of suite time, and that you are willing – eager – to triage the show
in order to get the maximum value added in the minimum time. Arrive with a triage
list of problem scenes. At a good facility, you should be able in a few hours to
do 80% of what you can do in a full day, since the curve of value added drops off
fairly quickly. Set the interviews first, if there are any, then work through the
· Expect trouble in file
transfer. No long form documentary has successfully moved all its video and audio
files to an outside system on the first try. OMS file transfer, file compatibility,
software compatibility, and version differences are the bane of getting stuff out
of FCP into Avid or Pro Tools, or even from Avid into Pro Tools. Some of this may
have been solved by the incorporation of Pro Tools into FCP 2.0.
· Resize and correct aspect
ratio at the post house where they have fast, efficient engines for this, not on
the FCP, where it is cumbersome, unpredictable and extremely slow on a long documentary.
Also, in the high-end suite you can customize the exact aspect ratio. Note also
in a good on-line suite, you can quickly generate mattes to clean up headlines,
stills, and other flat art.
It all begins with very consistent sound standards
and protocols in the field and in editing, as noted above. Make it a game to imagine
not having a mix. Some of it is simple stuff like using exactly the same microphone
& location for audio pick-ups as you used for first origination. Some of it,
like controlling background noise, is not so simple.
· Meet with your outside
audio facility early, at the start of editing, to sort out what they can/should
do, and to establish clear track assignment and separation standards from the start.
Re-sorting tracks to suit the mix facility at the lock picture stage costs money.
· Do a pre-mix in FCP
(after locking picture – before that, much of it will be time wasted.)
· During editing, the
editor should listen carefully and decide which track to use for a given shot if
there are two choices (boom & lav, for instance). Do not defer this decision
· Use a high-end audio
· Expect and plan a defense
against file transfer problems.
YOUR DOCUMENTARY SEEN & PICKED UP FOR DISTRIBUTION
Again I refer you to the other chapters in this
book. The appendix is also very useful. Carole Dean has compiled an excellent resource
list. Many documentary makers have grown up thinking of PBS as the first, if not
the only serious television venue. This comes partly from years of expensive production
which was made possible only with seed and lead money from CPB, or from foundations
and endowments which contractually required offering the finished show to public
television. As soon as a non-profit funder gets its paws on a documentary, even
for a few thousand dollars, the producer is almost always locked into a track toward
PBS. Forget that; assume that the entire spectrum is fair game – HBO, Cinemax, MTV,
Bravo, A&E, History, Tech TV, PBS, LifeTime. All of these work with independents,
as do myriad foreign broadcasters and even some venues, such as Nightline within
the major commercial networks.
Finally, I offer you these last thoughts
as a documentary filmmaker. French filmmaker Jean Luc Godard had said, “Film is
not the representation of reality, it is the reality of the representation.”
It is our ethical obligation as documentarians
to communicate to our audience honestly,
and not manipulatively, both in the visual content and the message of our documentary.
Because, that – in essence – is what makes us documentary filmmakers.
Special Thanks and Acknowledgement for info used in this article
Making Documentary Films and
Reality Videos, by Barry Hampe. Henry Holt and Company. 1997.
The Documentary Cookbook,
Draft 02/20/02. The Center for New Documentary. Graduate School of Journalism.
Univerisity of California, Berkely.
H. Brent Williams, Moderator, http://groups.msn.com/DocumentaryFilmMaking
Writing, Directing, and
Producing Documentary Films and Videos, by Alan Rosenthal. Southern
Illinois University Press. 1996.
Tony Estrada of Wild Horse Films,
is a Navajo Director, Producer, and Line Producer for Independent Films and
Documentaries. He’s worked on Native projects with notable celebrities like
Dennis Banks, Wes Studi, Gil Birmingham, Gary Farmer, and Chris Eyre. He can
also be reached to work on your project through his cell, 469-471-4241, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BASIC SCHEDULING & BUDGETING FOR INDIE FILMS
By Tony Estrada, Producer/Director,
Wild Horse Films
The other chapters in this book address the steps to raising money for your
film and this chapter focuses on how to stretch your production dollar during the
production of your film.
Before we even begin looking at ways where you can save money during principal
photography – whether you’re producing/directing your own documentary or Indie feature
– you have to remember this mantra: Time is Money. When you’re with your interview
subject, and you aren’t prepared with your documentary questions: Time is Money.
Or when you’re on location for your Indie feature and the cast and crew stand around
on set waiting for you to still figure out your angles and camera
set-ups: Time is Money.
Admittedly, there are variances in the scope of the production when one is
shooting a documentary versus a low-budget Indie feature, but the principles of
Production Management remain the same. Organization is most important to
a successful on-time, on-budget production, and the person responsible for making
sure this happens during the course of your shoot is your Line Producer (LP) or Production
To sum up, from a studio’s perspective,
the Unit Production Manager protects the budget; the Line Producer protects the
film. Now that we have those definitions out of the way, for the purpose of the
rest of this article and with the assumption that you’re shooting a nonunion feature film, we’ll define the business
manager who organizes, plans, and schedules your production manpower and resources
so that you have enough money from the budget-on-hand to complete your shoot – we’ll
call that person your Production Manager.
The Production Manager / Director Relationship: How the
Think of making your movie as fighting
a war. Long before the heat of battle of principal photography, and even before
acquisitioning your supplies and mobilizing your troops in preproduction, you (the
Director) need to sit down with your quartermaster/ logistics officer (your Production
Manager) to formulate a battle plan. Thus, I recommend the Director’s first order
of business with the Production Manager is to have a session – usually lasting several
hours – where you jointly go through the script scene by scene, to create a “Production
The Production Shooting Script
Let the Production Manager be the
one to input your final writer’s draft into Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft
software so s/he can create more accurate slug lines and become more specific in
terms of production requirements. At the end of the process, you’ll have a script,
without typos, without logical or plot inconsistencies, with a common vocabulary
of description and with all elements that are going to cost money well defined.
At the end of this session, your PM
would have also walked you through every scene to determine approximately how many
camera set-ups you’ll need to get the coverage you want to tell the story. From
this feedback, your PM can realistically construct an accurate schedule for the
budget constraints that are externally imposed on the creative process.
After your PM and you have collaborated in creating this Production Shooting
Script, you now have your blueprint, your battle plan, from which your department
heads (Cinematographer, Costume Designer, Production Designer, etc.) when they sign
onboard the project, can glean all their information they need to properly do their
The Script Breakdowns
At this point, your PM will do the Script Breakdowns. A script is made up
of scenes; each scene is made up of shots or camera set-ups; and each shot requires
several takes. S/he thinks like a Director, reading each scene as if you the Director
are actually on set with the cast and crew. Once s/he has that image in mind, s/he
starts listing EVERY element required to shoot it as scripted, breaking each scene
and shot down by:
Time of Day
Then s/he groups the breakdowns by:
Similar Sets at the
Same Actors on the
Same Days at the Same Location
on Same Days at the Same Location…or grouped in 2 or 3-day periods so you can use
up your rental minimum effectively.
The Shooting Schedule
Now, from this very thorough Script Breakdown, your PM will be able to generate
a realistic Shooting Schedule, which tells us: whether we have enough days for all
the scripted locations; how many cast we have in total; how many days each of those
cast work; how many extras are required on how many days. It tells us how often
we will need expensive elements such as action vehicles and animals, or night lighting
and cherry pickers. It doesn’t have to be the final schedule, but the “ideal”
first draft schedule should look like this:
Starting with days
Group locations and
Of course, it will probably be a balancing act between these factors.
The quality of the shoot will be affected by how much work you are asking
the crew to do in each 12-hour shooting day. How much the production crew shoots
during principal photography is determined, not by scenes or page count, but by
the number of camera set-ups. The Production Manager also keeps in mind how physically
and psychologically demanding it is for cast and crew to make a movie, especially
if for economic reasons, you find yourself pushing to achieve 20 or more camera
set-ups each production day.
The real skill comes in making the schedule, the process of moving all the
scenes (strips on the board) into a logical shooting order. Again the PM must think
like you, the Director, and also in this case, like the Producer – asking:
How much can you
shoot on any given day?
How many days do
you actually have to shoot?
How many set-ups
do you think will be needed in each scene to tell the story properly?
How long will each
How will the shooting
order affect the performances?
Which locations can
be combined into one place?
Can scenes requiring
the same special equipment be combined on the same day?
When will specific
locations be ready (build vs. on location)?
Do you have weather
It’s only at this point in time, that your Production Manager knows:
How many days in
How big a cast do
How many locations
do we need; and
stuff does the crew need (costumes, set building, stunts, s/fx)
Once an initial shooting schedule is available, it’s time for the Production
Manager to start the budget. The schedule is the essential prerequisite for the
budget: without a schedule, a budget is just guesswork since it’s impossible to
budget any film to any degree of accuracy unless you have the concrete basis for
Once ALL of this has been accomplished, the PM is ready to export the schedule
into a budgeting program. Then the real fun begins – assigning a cost for EACH AND
EVERY ITEM s/he has identified in the schedule.
At this point in time, you are probably officially in the preproduction stage
of your shoot, and you have some department heads and key personnel signing on board
your production, as your PM hires the rest of your crew.
The Production Budget
Every film is different and every film requires a complete breakdown and
schedule before you can even think about making an accurate budget. A budget is
NOT just a list of numbers; it represents the overarching philosophy for one particular
production. Just as no two scripts are the same and no two productions are quite
the same, no two budgets are the same.
A template is to a budget is what typing is to writing: nothing but the bare-bones
fundamentals. It has almost nothing to do with the final product. What’s the point
of a line item for, say, FX/Stunts/Car if you’re shooting your film about ballroom
This is why a one-size-fits-all budget doesn’t work. It’s also why it always
takes several people to write a budget. For example – the design category typically
starts as a big fat figure with a lot of zeros. The actual allocating of that is
done by your designer(s). It makes no sense for an accountant to be calculating
the number of feet of velour that’s going to take to build the gowns for the ballroom
scene, or to itemize the costs of building the false front for the cabin-at-the-beach.
It’s equally important, with today’s shifts in technology, for your DP or
1st camera assistant to work out a scheme with which s/he can best allocate the
camera-department money. A good DP will not only be concerned with the best way
to allocate money for camera, lighting and grip during production, but will also
know how these decisions made in pre-production and executed in production will
affect your costs in post. This will have serious ramifications for how the movie
is ultimately produced.
While it’s good to know what elements you can “mix and match” in
your budget, it’s much more important to understand exactly the kind of film you
want to make. The choice of a union or non-union crew, the choice of film or tape,
a big second unit or none at all, a crane or not, helicopter, explosives, extras
and what’s for lunch all depend on the specific script and very specific ideas for
this one specific production.
It is for this reason the I have said from the beginning that you can’t do
a budget without a schedule and I believe NO sample budget listed in any book will
be of any value to your project.
Next, pick your format. Format discussions can go on forever, so I’ll just
say that if you’re shooting a short, I wouldn’t bother with film. Shorts are usually
(95%) projected on video. That’s just me.
SAG/non-SAG. Going SAG adds certain costs (if not now, then later) and of
course paperwork, but opens you up to working with a larger pool of actors.
In terms of budgeting, there are “soft” line items and “hard”
line items. The “hard” ones tend to have semi-fixed costs and are easier
to budget than the “soft” ones, which vary greatly from project to project.
The “hard” ones:
Hard Drive Storage
(on a short, these are usually nil or close to it)
DAT stock costs,
The “soft” ones:
Labor costs in general
– this depends mostly on (a) what friends you have; (b) what’s the most you can
spend; (c) what you’re prepared to accept in terms of experience. Generally, once
you establish a key rate, stick to it for all dept. heads, at least during the initial
negotiation (some may end up getting paid more than others).
Fringes: This depends
on state of employment, union/non-union, whether you’re treating people as employees
or subs, etc. This is very important to get right.
Locations: This depends
on who you know. Tip: don’t count on free locations. You’re friends WILL get scared
at the last minute.
I usually search out the chain motels, but prices can vary widely. Plus you have
to feed the crew and cast two squares a day (they of course get lunch on set) or
give them per-diem money to feed themselves.
There are two general styles of budget – those that lump materials and labor
within a department, and those that separate labor from materials. I prefer the
former; while it makes things somewhat confusing it does give you a functional understanding
of how the film will actually get made (in other words, a set doesn’t build itself).
Remember to include a contingency. There are different philosophies on this,
but I no longer budget anything without a 10% contingency. But I will usually quote
the budget minus the contingency to other crew people if asked. Since many of the
crew will think you’re lying anyway, you might as well lie on the safe side.
I start at the top (ATL) then work my way down through post and overhead
(which usually includes publicity). What follows this is a few weeks of phone calls,
internet trips, emails, and reading.
A good rule of thumb is to look at the overall ATL/ BTL/ Post/ Overhead ratio.
ATL should be somewhere between 20-25% of the total budget (more if there are significant
star attachments); BTL should be 40-50%; Post should be 25-30% (though it depends
a lot of f/x and format, and how far you’re budgeting to); and overhead should be
5-10% of the total budget (overhead would include publicity and festival fees, as
well as ongoing office expenses, working meals, etc.). This is a rough guide, not
a rule. If your salary is tipping the balance – if you’re finding that you have
to take out essential line items to accommodate it – then you should look at adjusting
your salary down a notch.
It’s almost never the case that a script survives unchanged through the budgeting
process, that people “discover” how much the movie is going to cost after
they’ve done the budget. You enter a new film project knowing exactly how much you
intend to spend.
The function of the budget is far more mundane – it has to do with allocating
the funds that you’ve got so that the movie can be made. As often as not, it’s the
script and production expectations that end up being adjusted by the budget, rather
than the other way around.
Now that your PM has completed your production budget, ideally you’re still
in your second week of preproduction, deciding on selecting locations, building
sets, and beginning actor rehearsals.
AFTER THE PLANNING, NOW THE PRODUCTION
TEAM’S WORK BEGINS
Meanwhile, at this time, your PM will be responsible for most of the financial
negotiations on equipment deals, stage costs, and post production facilities. If
at this point, you’ve decided you’re going SAG, s/he would have filled out the SAG
A Successful Preproduction = An Organized Shoot
What’s most important in making sure
you have enough money to shoot your movie is finding what in a screenplay keeps
things low cost. Too often, independent producers are in such a rush to shoot their
feature, they spend little time in the development and preproduction stage of their
production. This haste results in wasteful time, resource, and manpower mismanagement.
More specifically, it can be something as obvious as the actor not playing their
role convincingly or continuity errors in wardrobe or set dressing, because respectively,
the actor or the costumer or the set dresser didn’t have their adequate prep time
for the scene. As a veteran Line Producer succinctly told me: “Remember the Seven
P’s: ‘Piss-Poor Preproduction Produces Piss-Poor Production. ”
In the end, the production manager’s
goal is to find a balance between the work that has to be done and the time we have
to do it. A well-scheduled film project and its attendant realistically constructed
budget are the groundwork for a great shoot for all concerned, and hopefully generate
a quality feature film.
Special Thanks and Acknowledgement for info used in this article
Arthur Vincie, ArtMar Productions. http://www.artmarproductions.com
Stewart Young, Many Tails Productions.
Norman C. Berns, Moderator,
Tony Estrada of Wild Horse Films,
is a Navajo Director, Producer, and Line Producer for Independent Films and
Documentaries. He’s worked on Native projects with notable celebrities like
Dennis Banks, Wes Studi, Gil Birmingham, Gary Farmer, and Chris Eyre. He can
also be reached to work on your project through his email at email@example.com.