Making of a documentary film on a budget and tips on what to avoid.
Trailer Part II
I recently shot a 20 minute documentary for the German government about youth work in the city of Gelsenkirchen. This post is to share some insights, facts, challenges and learnings I took away from this project.
The challenge of this film was to create a piece that highlights how the work of the youth welfare services in a small town of western Germany has real life impact on the teenagers it tries to reach with its projects.
I felt that rather than doing an assembly piece across the many social workers and teenagers the services have worked with over the years, it would make it a much more personal story if we focused on two projects with two people each. We found three young men and a young woman who were part of at least one youth project who were open to being in the film and telling us about their story. So we had our four main characters to lead us through the narrative and this is where we started.
Working on publicly funded projects always means the budgets are tight. Tighter than they are already becoming in commercial work. However I knew I couldn’t shoot this on my own so I got my friend and brilliant dop Matt Rozier involved because Matt is the kind of guy you will want in your team when for whatever reason all odds are against you. And I cannot stress this enough, a good spirit and positive attitude makes such a massive difference! So choose your players wisely! I always choose the people I work with not only by their skill level but also by their attitude because when it gets stressful (and it will) the last thing you will want to deal with, is a moody or negative crew.
So once Matt was on board I knew we could make this work.
We had 6 shooting days scheduled and in that time frame we had to make it work. So what we decided to do was to split those days up into two blocks. So we shot three days at a time. That allowed us to get to know the city, get to know the subjects and also look back at the footage without any rush and figure out what was missing. This was so valuable because as much as you can plan ahead and shoot according to that plan - there will always be unpredictable obstacles. Also getting to know the people you are shooting and meeting them several times rather than just one time is beneficial, especially when shooting documentaries. Essentially you are a stranger to them and you want them to open up about some really personal stuff a lot of times. So you can’t rush that. You need to build up trust and that trust you need to earn.
So the first time we went over to Germany was in December which is never really ideal because the days are short, the weather is usually difficult (in this part of the world at least) and low temperatures can make it difficult to shoot outside for extended periods of time. So if you have the luxury of picking your season, better aim for some warmer days. Since we were on a strict timeline though we didn’t have a choice. And indeed, it was one of the major difficulties of that shoot. Personally, I love outdoor locations and I love working with natural light so it was difficult. Three out of four days it rained, it was extremely cold and the days were short. This brings me to the next crucial part of production that you don’t want to mess up, if you don’t want to make your life more difficult than it needs to be. If you are shooting in another country make sure you have a good fixer! This will make all the difference! Like… ALL the difference. If you are on a budget and tight schedule like we were, there was no time or money to do location recces. And the last thing you want to do when you are there, is try and find a good location. It will all eat into your shooting time tremendously which you always wish you had more of anyway. So make sure locations are dealt with before. And by that I mean not only knowing where you would like to shoot, but have a permit and a time scheduled. Another thing that was really difficult was making all four characters work around our schedule. Never forget that you are asking people to take out time in their schedules for you, so it’s on you to find that very fine line between making sure to get what you want and not expect everything you want from your subjects to happen. Those were all young people who had their heads in the clouds and more than once we had to replan and reschedule arranged shooting orders. Which then can get you into real trouble with locations etc… so plan b is your best friend. (Which is why you should have one) Think about who you are shooting with and try to put yourself into their shoes. Someone who is retired will probably have a different relation to time than a 20 something year old, trying to get through exams.
When we came back in March to shoot the second part of the film, we literally just got it done in the very early days of the Covid-19 outbreak. If we had scheduled to shoot two weeks later, we couldn’t have done so anymore. So you want to make sure you have a contract with your client if for any reason you can’t go ahead with the shoot and what happens in a situation like this.
However, we were lucky so we were able to drive over to Germany before the borders closed. And driving, as it turned out, was another very wise decision. Flying over the first time was quick and comfortable, of course but we were extremely limited with the equipment we could take. And since the second part of the shoot was where I wanted to get creative, I knew I needed a bit more than just the basics. And moreover, even before thinking of what we needed I wanted to see whether we could go with a slightly greener option than flying. And in hindsight that was a real lifeline, as our fixer broke a rip whilst we were over and couldn’t have driven us anywhere. (Talk about unpredictable obstacles) We were a lot more flexible this way and we had all the equipment that we needed.
Speaking of equipment to get real tecky for a moment, we shot this whole doc on two cameras. The main camera being a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema 6k and the second b-roll camera was a Sony A7 III. The BM Matt operated handheld and I did some b-roll on a gimbal. Since I love my b-roll and GV to be slow motion, we had no issues with handheld footage at all since slowing it down always smooths things out a little anyway.
To wrap this up I spent about a month editing, excluding grading. Which brings me to the last crucial point - never underestimate how time consuming post production is!
You want to have enough time to bring the piece together in the edit.
I used Audionetwork for scoring the documentary as they offer great value for money. (not a sponsored promotion)
I hope this was a little helpful for anyone who is looking to shoot something similar.
Keep it up, good luck and do your best!