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Attention, Filmmakers: Here’s 10 Tips for Finishing Your Documentary

Attention, Filmmakers: Here's 10 Tips for Finishing Your Documentary

The 5th annual Doc NYC Film Festival wrapped up yesterday in lower Manhattan. Earlier in the week, Indiewire attended a day full of master classes designed to help documentary filmmakers, both active and aspiring, to get their projects wrapped up. I attended four classes of these classes, each a little over an hour long and each detailing a different aspect of the documentary filmmaking process (which, after spending a single day in that world, sounds both emotionally grueling and physically exhausting). It was endlessly informative. And now, we pass that information along to you with these highlights from the day:

1. Local is a good angle.

One of the more surprisingly engaging classes of the day was one on the utilization of archival footage, featuring documentary filmmaker Tom Jennings, a former investigative reporter who has done a number of documentaries consisting exclusively of archival footage, including “The Assassination of Martin Luther King.” He said that one key to doing a historical documentary utilizing footage from the time exclusively is to find an angle. For a documentary on 9/11, he used news reports and footage from other parts of the country, since most 9/11 documentaries are focused almost entirely on reporting from the northeast. But local, he says, is always better. As Jennings said: “We try to stay local and the reason is that you want it to feel like you’re watching it for the first time. You’re seeing newscasters whose faces and voices you’ve never seen before. Walter Cronkite is a familiar face and we try to find the unfamiliar faces who are just as enthusiastic about the reporting that they’re doing.” This, of course, can occasionally lead to thorny legal issues, since the local affiliate and the network usually has to sign off on usage. But there’s no bigger enemy to documentary filmmakers than… the Internet.

READ MORE: Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: Here’s What You Need to Know Before You Start Production

2. Never take anything from the Internet.

Yes, compared to local news stations, the Internet is the black hole that you want to avoid. Jennings recounted an incident where he was working on a documentary about Fidel Castro and found footage online of Ed Sullivan, who two days after the Cuban revolution, went down and interviewed Castro in a bid to be taken seriously as a journalist. He cut the footage into the documentary and then found out what it would cost him: “They wanted $2,500 a second. And I wanted to use a couple of minutes of it. They made sure that we had to clear it through the Ed Sullivan estate. And that would have been additional fees. As much as I wanted it, it would have taken up 25% of the footage budget.” Jennings then sighed and said: “So I had to let it go.” Later someone else asked about why they should avoid the Internet and he said, “You never know who owns it.” Jennings cautioned the crowd of filmmakers not to “love” footage until you have the rights. He then said, somewhat forlornly, “It’s so painful to cut stuff out. All the films we’ve done like this, usually at the end I have to cut 20% of it because we can’t get the rights to it or it’s too expensive.”

3. It all comes together in the sound mix.

Three creative principles from the documentary “E-Team” were on hand to talk about the editorial process and specific the use of music and sound effects. Todd Griffin, the composer, David Teague, the editor, and Tom Paul, the mixer and sound designer, came together for a frank deconstruction of single music cue in “E-Team” and how that collaborative process is evocative of the work as a whole. As Paul said, “The mix is when we make the decisions. That’s when we figure out what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. By the time the three of us get together, we’re making the decisions minute-by-minute.”

4. Don’t worry about hiring a composer late in the game.

With some narrative features, the composer could be working on the music before the movie is even shot (Hans Zimmer did something like this for “Interstellar”), but in the documentary world, when things can come at such a quick clip, the composer is often hired late in the game. And that’s okay. Griffin had been hired on “The E-Team” after most of the movie had been assembled, and it didn’t put undue pressure on him either. Towards the end of the master class, he made a really profound statement about how to expend energy and where to place that energy: “Some composers make the mistake of trying to get it right the first time. I always limit myself on time in terms of creating something before I show it to someone.” Griffin does a lot of musical “sketches” before whittling things down to the final product. Teague added: “What seems like a big step back in the editorial process is actually a big step forward. You have to remind yourself not to freak out in those moments.”

5. Don’t fear the temp music.

Temp music is often placeholder music, made up of other bits of film score, meant to get scenes a general atmosphere or emotional tenor. Griffin admitted that, “Temp music is loathed by composers.” But that there’s no need for it to be. He said the “E-Team”temp music was “a very useful thing,” adding that, “it worked as a springboard for a lot of creative things.” So, if you’re looking to create the music for a documentary feature, don’t get scared off by the music that’s in place.

6. Sometimes you find the narrative structure along the way.

During a panel with editors Carla Gutierrez (“La Corona”) and Aaron Wickenden (“Finding Vivian Maier”), the two discussed that you sometimes have to find the narrative structure as you go along. This is another one of those don’t freak out if it’s not perfect from the get go pieces of advice. Gutierrez said: “I would say from the very beginning, my tendency is, unless something is very specific, just follow a very linear, chronological structure at the beginning. And have that first rough cut that follows that and then play going out of the chronology and moving pieces around. But usually that first outline is more linear.” Wickenden then added: “I gravitate towards the material that is the strongest. Usually the first assembly is different than we talk about the film being because the footage that shines the most isn’t necessarily what you think when you’re shooting it. I put things together that feels right and see if that folds back into the structural idea. So the structure comes back later.”

READ MORE: 9 Tips on Making Your First Documentary

7. Music can change everything.

Wickenden showed an very early sequence from “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” and it was very dry and featured a bunch of talking heads recounting a boxing match. Then he showed the finished one, which was pumped up with a jazzy, funky score, and even these tiny alterations seemed to wholly alter everything about the sequence. Wickenden said that working with the music is one of the things he adores the most. “I love to get deep into that stuff and the musicality of it. Joshua Abrams was the composer and he’s fabulous,” he said. Gutierrez added: “To me, editing is a marriage of visuals and sound. You always have to think about those two things working together and helping each other. With music, sometimes you don’t have the right texture but you have the right energy. Sometimes a composer will come in and give you the right stuff. Sometimes a director gets really excited about temp music and they want to buy a song and I try to convince them to go to the composer and they’re going to get a much better moment.”

8. Animation is a great way to get information across.

During a master class on the use of animation and graphics, which featured Jillian Schlesinger (the director of “Maidentrip”), Nick Clark (an editor), Diana Whitten (director of “Vessel”) and Emily Hubley (an animation director on “Vessel”). They all agreed that animation is a wonderful way to get information across in a concise and informative way. Whitten said it was beyond necessary for “Vessel,” a movie which documents the legal ambiguities of a ship-bound medical center that gives abortions to women who live in countries where it is illegal. “We had a lot of stuff to set up – all of these details. And every time we showed it to audiences, everyone was overwhelmed. That was a main reason,”Whitten said. “The other reason is that we wanted to have medical information that could be exported, where we could use it virally and in educational purposes.” For Schlesinger, it became apparent that she needed the animation to detail where and how the young girl at the center of her film sails around the world. This master class was so information-packed that it could have used its own animation.

9. Animation is also helpful when you don’t have footage or can’t film certain sequences.

Clark edited “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest,” the story of a man who was arrested for a petty crime when he was a teenager and has spent the rest of his life in prison. He detailed an animated sequence that recounted the number of times he was written up for bad behavior, and what’s so amazing about the sequence, rendered in a graphic novel style not unlike something like “Sin City,” is that it clearly marries a number of recorded interviews (of varying degrees of audio quality) and also really showed you what it was like inside the prison, even it was produced in a stylized aesthetic. Since there weren’t any cameras when Mark had his shoes shaken out or when a prison guard beat him up, animation can save the day.

10. Don’t give up.

This may sound like a trite platitude, but listening to these filmmakers talk all day about the process, that was something that almost all of them would certainly express to you. “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest” director had been accumulating research for 14 years, Jennings nearly had an entire film fall apart due to rights issues at local television news stations, and many other creative principles had films that were so hot button that it seemed like even if they were finished, they might never screen for audiences. But at the end of the day (and at the end of my day spent with these filmmakers), they all have amazing final products to show the world, to be proud of, to make the investors happy. And that’s what’s really important. If they had given up, waved the white flag during a particularly different phase of production, they wouldn’t have anything to show for it.

READ MORE: Are Graphics and Animation Revolutionizing Documentaries?

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