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Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: Don’t Make These 10 Common Mistakes

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: Don't Make These 10 Common Mistakes

This article originally appeared on the Raindance Film Festival blog and has been republished with permission.

READ MORE: The Top 8 Pitches at the Hot Docs Forum: What Worked and What Didn’t

I made my first documentary while in film school, and have been doing it ever since.

Documentaries are the flavor of the month now – people love real and true life stories. Documentaries are an easier way for emerging filmmakers to break in as the production costs can be lower than with a narrative film.

I’m now an adviser on the Raindance MA and specialize in docs even though I have made three narrative features. It really pains me to see new filmmakers attempting a documentary and making the same mistakes over and over again.

1. Making worthy films that no one cares about

Michael Moore recently reminded us that there’s no harm in making entertaining documentaries that an audience want to watch: “If you want to make a speech, join a political party. If you want to give a sermon become a priest. Make a movie! If you make a movie people might go and see your documentary!” This doesn’t mean that your film should be dumbed down schlock. “The Story Of The Weeping Camel” (2003) is a documentary set in Mongolia about the creeping influence of modernization on nomadic life – and yet it’s both intelligent and wonderfully entertaining.


READ MORE: Michael Moore’s 13 Rules for Making Documentary Films

2. Bad sound

If I had a dollar for every first-time documentary-maker who has sunk a load of time and favors into their film, only to come up with something that sounded like the audio was recorded inside a sock then I’d have my own yacht by now. Your film can be shot on an old phone and look scrappy (if there’s a creative reason for it) but there is no artistic justification for less than great sound. Ever.

3. A film with no question

A great piece of advice to filmmakers struggling with their film is: What question are you asking in the process of making it? If you already know the answer to that question when you set out then you don’t have a proper question. A filmmaker should set off on a real journey of discovery when they go out to make a film and having a great question that they are answering along the way gives their film dramatic tension as well as offering the filmmaker creative inspiration.

4. No conflict

Whenever I discover that a filmmaker has no conflict in their film then I know that their film is probably going to have problems reaching an audience. Conflict doesn’t have to mean a fight between different people – the conflict can be something as innocent as “success” and “failure,” as in the Oscar-winning “Man On Wire” (2008).

5. Not having a great one-line pitch

When filmmakers struggle to give a succinct and compelling one sentence summary of their film (like you might get in a film festival catalog) then I know there’s probably trouble ahead. The great thing about coming up with a compelling one-liner is that it helps you discover whether you really have a film (as opposed to a piece for radio) and gives a sense of how you’re going to make it.

6. No story

When people talk about what they love about their favorite documentaries one of the main things they mention is a great story. This is probably one of the main reasons that people choose to watch a $100,000 documentary at the cinema over a $20 million blockbuster. Concentrating on a story that excites you not only helps give your film much needed structure, but your audience will be eternally grateful for being taken on a dramatic journey rather than being shown a series of unrelenting episodes.

7. Playing It Safe

What do the directors of your favorite documentaries have in common? In all likelihood they didn’t play it safe – they struck out confidently with a real vision of their film. As “Grizzly Man’s'” editor Joe Bini said: “Too many people nowadays produce films whereas Werner Herzog directs them.” An audience wants films with a personal, distinctive vision and you don’t get that by being one of those play-it-safe directors.

8. Choosing the wrong music

Just because you’ve met a composer at a party who has offered to write some music for your documentary, the odds are that he or she won’t be right. Your choice of music needs to come from the overall vision that you have for your film and must serve that vision. The wrong music, or just too much music, can kill your film.

9. Not knowing what you want your audience to feel

A really useful tip for giving your documentary a distinctive vision is deciding what the main emotion is that you want your audience to ultimately feel – i.e. emotionally moved or entertained. Without knowing this, making creative decisions can be hard and is made by guess work or a vague sense of creative instinct rather than from a position of real vision.

10. Complaining about how hard it is to get financing

As Werner Herzog recently said: “The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. Roll up your sleeves and work as a bouncer in a sex club or warden in a lunatic asylum or a machine operator in a slaughterhouse. Drive a taxi for six months and you’ll have enough money to make a film.”

READ MORE: Watch: 90-Minute Masterclass With Legendary Director Werner Herzog

About the Author

Col Spector is an award-winning director who began his career producing and directing documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4. He then went on to write and direct the short comedy drama “New Year’s Eve” (with Stephen Mangan & Keira Knightley) before making his feature debut with the low-budget unromantic comedy “Someone Else” (with Stephen Mangan & Susan Lynch), which was distributed by Soda Pictures in the UK and the IFC/Sundance Channel in the US. His second feature, the relationship comedy “Honeymooner” (with Gerard Kearns) was also distributed in the UK by Soda Pictures. He is currently in pre-production on his new dramedy “Marriage Material.”

Col runs a  documentary consultancy service for professional and non-professional documentary filmmakers and teaches the popular Documentary Foundation Certificate at Raindance. 

READ MORE: Tribeca: Award-Winning Documentary Filmmakers on the Challenges of ‘Capturing Reality’

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Comments

Julian Grant

Great article. Well stated. Herzog quote is actually ten years old – but it’s still relevant. It’s not about the gear or the money, it’s about the experience that informs us and our work. Thx for the great tips.

reed

Good points here. But #3 & #9 are at cross-purposes with each other, both practically and ethically, and point to one of the problems in doc-making today: imposing tidy fiction story structures on non-fiction stories. Some of the best docs would never have been made if that expectation always ruled- films like Grey Gardens, all of Wiseman’s films, even Citizenfour. Sometimes truth obliges, but trustworthy doc-makers know they won’t understand what the real story is until it is shot. Vision is a pretentious cliche; step-by-step unfolding is the nature of this form. Unfortunately it’s risky; many funders and doc makers today want a slam-dunk.

ASLAM PARVEJ

Thank you

Quentin Thwaites

One more rule for you… Make it personal, not all third person dialogue!

Roy Hanney

Brilliant! I wish my students would follow these rules!

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