Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Building a Documentary

I am currently in the process of editing a documentary on what happened to a pair of bald eagles in Manassas, Virginia, which will also include the plight of other eagles around the country. As predicted by biologists and conservationists after the eagles recovered from the scourge of DDT, habitat loss would be the next big issue. And we see it front and center in many communities today. Landowners are selling off unspoiled woods and grasslands at record rate without much concern for what it will do to the surrounding ecosystems. At some point, my hope is, they’ll realize that enough is enough. But that’s a focus for another blog post. In this post I will discuss how to build a documentary, as well as a few different types of documentary styles.

Expository Documentaries
These are the most common in which the filmmakers and narrator have separated themselves from the content; they are only there to film it and tell the story. Think of March of the Penguins or any Ken Burns film.

Participatory Documentaries
This means exactly as it sounds. The filmmaker, who can also be the narrator, has participated in the story. You may hear him or her asking questions to the people interviewed. If they also become the narrator, they can give the piece a more personable feel. You are no longer a fly on the wall; you are allowed to feel the emotional state of the filmmaker at various points. Think of Michael Moore documentaries.

There are also other styles of documentary: Poetic, Reflexive, Performative, Observational. Some have overlapping similarities. There are also documentaries where the narration is made up of only the subjects themselves. Search out Trophy Kids on Netflix. In this film parents and coaches forcing kids to excel in various sporting activities provide all the narration. They talk about what drives them to push their kids, and you also see them "in the moment" egging on their young prodigies. How the filmmaker was able to capture a father belittling his son for five minutes at the beginning of the documentary is beyond me. I’m guessing they spliced together the most shocking moments over that one day.

In any event, you have to decide what category your documentary fits into. And this was part of my original struggle. I knew I fully participated in the documentary. It’s my voice you hear when interviewing subjects, and there are several pieces where I directly address the camera. I was fully involved. So it would be wrong for me to write the narration in a totally expository way. For instance, look at this one sentence:

"It’s only fitting that the City of Manassas, Virginia, located just 32 miles from the Nation’s Capital, has its own pair of bald eagles. After all, the bald eagle is also the mascot for the local high school."

It seems fine. But I have pulled myself out of the picture. It would be better written as follows:

"It’s only fitting that our City of Manassas, Virginia, located just 32 miles from the Nation’s Capital, has its own pair of bald eagles. After all, the bald eagle is also the mascot for our local high school."

See the difference? It maintains my closeness to the subject. But there are certain sentences in the narration of a Participatory documentary that can be written in an expository way. Like this:

"Manassas is a vibrant community with a historic past. Two major Civil War battles were fought here. At times it can be the picturesque embodiment of hometown U.S.A."

In this case I don’t need to impart my connection. It was already stated in the previous sentences.

All films are made of segments, which are sequences of shots put together to cover a point in time or a certain topic. In this film I will edit a segment on eagle symbolism. I’ll also edit segments on events that took place. Some segments have finite beginnings and endings, like a day where a lot happened, a council meeting, a groundbreaking ceremony, etc.

After you’ve outlined what you want to cover in the film, you begin editing those segments. You have to figure out where each segment should be placed in the film for maximum impact. It can be challenging at times, to figure out the order in which the sequences should occur. Sometimes you’ll realize that a little foreshadowing of later events can be very effective. Once you decide, you typically fade from black or dissolve between the sequences to signify a change in direction or a passage of time.

Writing Narration
I find myself writing and recording test narration, editing a piece, and then rewriting the narration to better fit the shots I’ve chosen. And that’s okay. Things don’t always work out as first thought, or there may be a better choice of words to accentuate the images. In some cases, the shots fall into place so well that a segment turns out better than you ever imagined. Those are the magical moments.

Failure is Not Failure
The most important thing I’ve learned in any creative endeavor is that if you realize something sucks, it is not failure. It’s you successfully ascertaining that something needs to be improved. Ask yourself why it sucks? Is it the narration, the delivery of the narration, the music, or the selection of shots? Does a certain segment bring the film down or detract from the overall message? Does it steer the film in the wrong direction? Like writing, editing video is an art that involves reediting and retrying. Don’t get discouraged. You’re already on the right track if you realize something is amiss.

The Overwhelmingness of it All
Making a feature-length documentary can be a daunting task, especially if done by one person. Look at the credits of other documentaries you’ve seen. Twenty, fifty, one hundred people or more are sometimes involved. But great documentaries can be made with little money and by few people. Today’s digital cameras shoot in full HD. Like never before creative folk are putting out some truly intriguing content.

But, it can be overwhelming at times. Where is the light at the end of the tunnel? Is this too big a task for one person? When it comes to that I always think of Barbra Streisand’s song “Bit by Bit.” Check it out. All great works of art are created in pieces: a mural that takes a month to paint, a song that takes a week to write, or a movie that takes four months to shoot and a year to edit. All good things come in time. Unless you win the lottery, of course, but you still have to wait for taxes to come out and the check to arrive.

Deferred gratification. It will come. So be strong and persevere.

To watch the video trailer and make a donation to our documentary, please visit our GoFundMe page. We appreciate your support! Vic

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