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Indiewire’s Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking

Indiewire's Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking

Of course, the best filmmaking advice is the advice that works best for you, so take from this guide what works for you and disregard the rest. It’s not meant to answer all of your questions, but rather, to provide you with access to meaningful advice and tips from experts in the field. Every article below was published in 2015. We will continue to update this guide throughout the year.

Before You Get Started

25 Documentary Filmmakers to Follow on Twitter: Before you get started you should connect with your peers on social media and join the conversation about documentary techniques and ethics. Find your documentary support network.

Attention, Filmmakers: 6 Tips on Making Your First Documentary Feature: Advice from the pros is often what gets you through in the long run. But when you’re just starting out, it can sometimes be more helpful to get tips from people who aren’t that far ahead of you on their career path. Documentary newcomers Maya Newell (“Gayby Baby”), Suzanne Crocker (“All the Time in the World”) and Amber Fares (“Speed Sisters”) sat together on a panel at the 2015 Hot Docs Film Festival where they shared anecdotes from production and the lessons they learned along the way.

8 Things to Know Before Making a Music Documentary: With the release of “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” “Amy,” “What Happened Miss Simone?” and Les Blank’s previously unreleased Leon Russell documentary “A Poem is a Naked Person,” the music documentary is experiencing a renaissance. To discuss how film and music culture arrived at its current crossroads, Sheffield Doc/Fest brought together a panel of talented filmmakers that included Morgen, “Mavis” director Jessica Edwards, “20,000 Days On Earth” producer Julia Nottingham and “Sex, Drugs & Rock and Roll” screenwriter Paul Lee Virago.

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: Here’s the Online Community You Need to Know About: Founded in 1996 by “51 Birch Street” and “112 Weddings” director Doug Block, The D-Word is an online community in which documentary filmmakers can share information and stories about their experiences making films. On the occasion of The D-Word’s 15th anniversary, Indiewire spoke with Block about the larger goals of the organization.

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: Don’t Make These 10 Common Mistakes: Advice usually arrives in the form of “what you should do.” It’s rare to come upon a resource such as this article on common mistakes in documentary filmmaking, which will clearly communicate what not to do.

Fair vs. Balanced: The Difference for This Documentary Filmmaker: Two-time Oscar nominee Marshall Curry, director of “Point and Shoot,” explains why he tries to be fair, but not always balanced.

Pitching your film

What the Behind-the-Scenes Drama of a Documentary Pitch is Really Like: In a guest post, filmmaker Amy Benson share her behind-the-scenes experience at CIFF’s Points North Pitch.

The Top 8 Pitches at the Hot Docs Forum: What Worked and What Didn’t: This article breaks down and analyzes the impact of specific techniques used in pitches heard at the 2015 Hot Docs Forum, an event sometimes described as the “world series” of the nonfiction filmmaking world.

Here’s What It’s Like to Pitch Your Documentary at Points North:  Read this before you pitch your documentary. It’s a bit like wandering into a non-fiction film version of “Shark Tank.”

Production tips

The Challenge of Making a Music Documentary and Why ‘The Winding Stream’ Took 12 Years:  If you’re making a music documentary, this is a must-read. If you’re making a documentary that’s not music-related, this is still a must-read. Biggest takeaway: when you set out to make a documentary, be prepared for a long haul.

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 5 Tips for Shooting in Extreme Situations: Jimmy Chin, the co-director of “Meru,” explains how they shot  the award-winning documentary about three climbers’ two attempts of one of the most notorious high altitude big wall climbs in the world. Chin details the constraints of filming on a high altitude climb. But the advice he provides could also help filmmakers shooting on the ground.

‘Cartel Land’ Director on How to Insert Yourself into Dangerous and Impossible Situations: Before “Cartel Land,” Matthew Heineman had no experience filming in a conflict zone. So how did he manage to survive? The lessons outlined in the subheaders present a vast oversimplification of Heineman’s actual attempts at building trust with the film’s subject, as well as the possibility of taking a calculated risk.

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 6 Essential Tips from Brett Morgen: During a masterclass led by Brett Morgen at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, the “Montage of Heck” explained how filmmakers can get creative with the ways in which they incorporate various forms of archival material into a documentary narrative. Given the extensive use of Cobain’s journal’s and personal recordings throughout “Montage of Heck,” Morgen focused his discussion specifically on how archival audio and physical documents might be used to effect in a film.

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 6 Tips for Getting Your Subject to Open Up on Camera: There is no formula for “the perfect interview” — just basic guidelines to help shape your approach. Drawing on nearly two-and-half decades of experience producing and directing documentaries, “112 Weddings” director Doug Block wrote this article for Indiewire in which he outlines a set of guidelines for how to conduct interviews with the subject(s) of a documentary film. “They’re not rules,” Block prefaced in the article introduction, “just observations and lessons learned that have served me well over the years.”

How Steve James Finds Silver Linings When Things Don’t Go as Planned: Mistakes provide unique opportunities for growth and they served as the center point for the masterclass led by “Life Itself” and “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James at this year’s Oregon Doc Camp.

6 Lessons from the Making of ‘Shoah’: Thirty years after the release of “Shoah,” Claude Lanzmann’s groundbreaking, nine-and-a-half-hour-long documentary about the Holocaust, journalist-turned-filmmaker Adam Benzine sat down with the legendary French filmmaker to discuss the unique backstory of the production, which was riddled with obstacles and took 12 years to complete. Benzine’s conversation with Lanzmann serves as the basis for the documentary short “Claude Lanzmann: Specters of Shoah,” which was bought by HBO earlier this year and is slated to air on the cable network sometime in 2016. 

Award-Winning Documentary Filmmakers on the Challenges of ‘Capturing Reality’: Rachel Boynton (“Big Men”), Roger Ross Williams (“God Loves Uganda”) and Liz Garbus (“What Happened Miss Simone?”) participated in a Tribeca Film Festival masterclass panel and shared stories about building relationships with subjects, managing workflow and determining a project’s ideal length.

The Best Documentary Filmmaking Advice from Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: From how to hold the camera to when to quit your day job, veteran documentary filmmakers share the secrets to their long careers. 

5 Tips from Industry Pros on Staying Afloat in the Documentary World: Think you’ve got what it takes to be a creative producer? See what these veteran documentary film producers have to say on the matter.

Legal issues

Here’s Why the DMCA Exemption is Good News for Documentary Filmmakers: Thanks to a new DMCA exemption, documentary filmmakers can now access and use footage that was previously unavailable to them. We break down what it means.

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 4 Things to Understand About Fair Use: While speaking on a panel at DOC NYC’s inaugural Documentary Preservation Summit, attorney Michael Donaldson provided some clarity around licensing versus fair use. The tips gleaned from Donaldson’s remarks are certainly not the be-all-end-all on the topic, but they offer a context through which a filmmaker can begin to understand how to use the law to his or her advantage.

8 Legal Tips for Documentary Filmmakers: Written by Orly Ravid — who is both a practicing attorney and the founder of the educational non-profit The Film Collaborative — this article is meant to encourage filmmakers to pursue further education on legal issues that might affect the production and distribution of their documentary film project.

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: Don’t Panic About Fair Use: Written in response to the discussion about fair use in Orly Ravid’s story (above), this article from Patricia Aufderheide, professor in the School of Communication at American University, demystifies fair use. Aufderheide takes issue with what she describes as Ravid’s “needlessly pessimistic and alarmist,” approach to the topic of fair use, when, in fact, she says that “in recent years, documentary filmmakers have demonstrated they do not have trouble understanding the application of fair use when provided with the correct interpretative tools.” 

Post-production tips

The State of the Nonfiction Film Editor: “Paris is Burning” editor Jonathan Oppenheim delivered the keynote address at a special half-day event about editing documentaries, organized by the Sundance Documentary Program and the Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship. Over the course of the keynote, Oppenheim compared how the craft of editing has changed over time to the persistent tension that has existed between art and industry — a point-of-view that is important when trying to understand how an editor approaches his or her craft.

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: 5 Strategies for Working with Archival Footage: Filmmaker Manfred Becker set up a panel discussion with Jessica Edwards (“Mavis!”), Douglas Tirola (“Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon”) and Michèle Hozer (“Sugar Coated”) about what worked and what didn’t when it came to archival footage for their individual projects.

Getting your film into the world

7 Hilarious (and Borderline Crazy) Tips for Marketing Your Documentary: The brother-sister filmmaking team behind “Meet the Patels” detail their unconventional marketing approach.

10 New Ways to Think About Audiences for Social-Issue Documentaries: During this year’s Oregon Doc Camp, Film Sprout Founder and Executive Director Caitlin Boyle gave a presentation on grassroots distribution in which she elucidated the importance of a engaging in a dialogue with one’s audience. “It’s a common misperception that your audience is this faceless mass,” Boyle explained at one point in her presentation. “Your audience is right where you are. You probably know them.”

10 Things I Learned from Self-Distributing My First Documentary: After reading a two-part report assembled from release data provided by four different documentary filmmakers who opted for a hybrid release on their most recent films, “Finding Hillywood” co-director Leah Warshawski was inspired to write up a case study of her own experience with self-distribution. Warshawski’s article recounts both her successful and failed attempts at securing a release for “Finding Hillywood” on various distribution platforms. If you’re considering self-distribution, this is a must read.

How These Filmmakers Self-Distributed Their Documentary and Actually Made Money: The filmmakers behind “The 78 Project Movie” explain how they managed to pull together a successful multi-city theatrical tour on their own. The lessons they learned along the way — including the nuances of how to navigate relationships with press or partner with an arts organizations on promotion — are particularly instructive for filmmakers considering self-distribution.

7 Ways to Maximize Your Documentary’s Distribution: Independent film sales and marketing consultant Peter Broderick breaks down the success of “Age of Champions,” a sports documentary about the Senior Olympics that has grossed over $1.2 million. Besides releasing the film on traditional distribution platforms (i.e. television, digital and DVD), the filmmakers managed to generate additional income using a range of innovative techniques.

Make a Movie, Change the World: What It’s Like to Work with Impact Partners: Six films in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival lineup were supported by Impact Partners: “Sembene!,” “How to Change the World,” “Dreamcatcher,” “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” “Censored Voices” and “The Hunting Ground.” Indiewire spoke to Dan Cogan, executive director and co-founder of Impact Partners about how the company, which connects filmmakers with investors and philanthropists, works to promote social change through film.

Here’s Why A Grassroots Screening Tour May Be Right for Your Documentary: In this first-person piece, filmmaker Jeremy Stulberg recounts what he learned from using a small grant from The Fledgling Fund to organize a screening tour for his film, “Broken Heart Land.”

READ MORE: How a Series of New Music Documentaries is Shaking Up the Genre

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