Making documentaries isn’t easy.
Sure, video recording technology is more accessible than ever – but compare the number of people messing around with their iPhone cameras to the number of films screening at SXSW. It’s not enough to have an idea and a camera.
You have to avoid the typical pitfalls of young documentarians, including:
1. Going in blind. You’ll need to have some idea of what you’re tying to accomplish with your film. Happy accidents can change the direction of your film along the way, but if you can’t see the purpose of your own project, how can you expect your audience to do it?
2. Poor scheduling. You’re going to have to coordinate a schedule with your subjects and interviewees. Shooting time is not unlimited, so plan carefully.
3. Too much shaky-cam. Seriously, a tripod is a good investment.
4. Poor sound. You conducted some great interviews. It would be a shame if they were all unintelligible.
5. Language barrier issues. If you’re filming people who speak another language, your film will need subtitles. Make sure the subtitles are accurate – if you’re not fluent, find someone who is. Not everything translates perfectly. The translation should convey the sense of what is being said in good English.
6. Overly intrusive voice-overs. Narration is great in moderation, but hopefully you have footage compelling enough that it can speak for itself. If you have Morgan Freeman as your narrator, that’s a whole different story.
7. Bad editing. You’re going to end up shooting a lot of footage – and you’re going to have to throw a lot of it out. Very few filmmakers can get away with a three-hour movie. Choose what gets into your film carefully.
8. Corny effects. No one wants to watch a movie that looks like a PowerPoint presentation. Watch a lot of other documentaries to see what a professional production looks like. This goes for music as well as visual effects! Good music can really add to a scene – do you really want to settle for that awful Euro-disco stock music?
9. No funding. Don’t run out of money! Before AND during the filmmaking process you should be looking for ways to finance your project. Indiegogo and Kickstarter are always great options.
10. No clear storyline. Sure, documentaries show “real life.” But you have to shape your formless mass of footage into a film! This is what separates the filmmakers from people who are basically shooting home movies.