Then stop wasting time if it’s time for you to get your lights, camera, and (start taking) action.
” …when it comes to telling your story, it all starts with great access” says Marco Franzoni. Read on for more about these “musts” for filmmakers.
Hometown: Bologna, Italy
Current Residence: New York City, Los Angeles
Occupation: Director, Cinematographer, Producer, Composer
Areas of Focus: Socially-transformative films, thought-provoking TV programs, inspiring transmedia projects
You’ve worked on documentary projects for 20 years in film, television and (on the) web. Drawing on all this experience, what would you say are the most important steps to consider before the filming actually starts?
Well, first things first. What’s the story? Meaning, what makes you pick up a camera and tell your story? How different is your story from that of some other filmmaker who has approached the same subject matter? What is your specific angle on it?
How “worthy” is it? Never mind that technology is becoming more and more affordable. Producing a film these days is still very expensive in the long term. Being a documentary filmmaker who is not very commercial requires total commitment and sometimes strange compromises in your private life!
Before you even pick up any camera, get to know your characters, location and subject matter. Do extensive research. Google, YouTube, Bing, every-thing/body you need to know. Plan to spend as much time as you can with the people you want to film, without necessarily become too emotionally involved. Be close but “detached”.
Gain great access. Entering the world you would like to film requires a lot of public relations and “schmoozing”. Choose the characters to film based on the comfort level they show towards you and the camera. Pay a great deal of attention to that. Sometimes great characters fail to express themselves in front of the lens. And vice-versa, people that are not very interesting to the naked eye become real characters on camera.
Pick the right equipment and media format that serve the story and then know how to use them well. In order to get the best story you have to be able to fit into the filming environment. Sometimes you have to be quick, discreet, and invisible. Other times, if you have a bigger and the flashier the camera – and great access – the happier and more comfortable your filming subjects will be. For example, if you are filming a drug dealer in his environment you better go with a lower resolution, small, fast, robust, concealable, and responsive camera rather than a bigger camera with a higher resolution. It may be too bulky and not as flexible.
On the other hand, you don’t want to end up shooting a breathtaking landscape at sunrise with a cellphone camera.
Which step do you think is the most critical to the process and why?
I believe gaining great access is one of the key steps. If you can make your subjects comfortable while you direct them and just have them available for a longer time period in case you need to film for many hours, you pretty much have a film.
How can you describe the journey of documentary filmmaking and why people create them?
I believe the most basic reason for this journey is a genuine obsession with the creation of a factual record; a report; a piece of cultural audiovisual exploration that hopefully will contribute to history. And if you can make the journey entertaining for both viewers and the filmmakers themselves, you will have definitely arrived. I personally think it is important to provoke audiences to a certain degree, as well.
What are the prerequisites needed for an individual to be ready to embark on that journey?
Commitment, passion, obsession.
How do you know when you’ve found really good material?
When you don’t have to explain anything to whoever is watching.
What is the best way to organize and/or structure the material?
Not sure about the” best way” since every filmmaker has their method. Briefly, after the shooting part is done, I found that a very effective way to structure the material is to transcribe every piece of information you have captured. then edit the resulting documents and compile a script. The editor will start organizing files and folders following the storyline dictated by the script.
In your opinion, what creates a very compelling documentary story and how can filmmakers practice to create compelling stories?
I always liked the “fly on the wall” type of approach in documentary filmmaking. The fact of not acknowledging the camera adds a very strong, invisible element to the truth being told. It can take the viewer straight into the story. Many situations in which the camera is not supposed to be there but is in that moment, unseen, undetected, can evoke great interest, admiration and become powerfully irresistible. It reveals the “truth”.
This is not about hiding the camera so people don’t see it. It’s about making people around you forget that you are actually filming even if they see there is a camera.
The practice should be based on the fact that you are always, constantly filming or at least looking thru the lens very often… even if you don’t actually press the REC button.
You and the camera are inseparable, even when you take “breaks”. The moment you start capturing a situation should never be emphasized. Sometimes the best part of interviews with people are when you are not “officially” shooting.
Who was the most interesting character that you encountered while making documentaries?
I was lucky to meet many interesting characters during my filmmaking experience. Two people who were extremely interesting were Oscar Gubernati and Alison Thompson, filmmakers from The Third Wave (2007). They became pretty unique characters in their own film to the point where they dropped their filmmaking career to become full-time volunteers on disaster relief area around the world.
Their message was so strong that Sean Penn was personally inspired to take our film to Cannes. Then he joined Alison and Oscar in earthquake-destroyed Haiti. His life became the full-time business of helping rebuild the country from scratch.
Can you elucidate the research process?
Research process is the foundation of a documentary film. The first step is all about investing time and money to come up with as many interesting, revealing questions about the story with the purpose of disclosing new information about the subject matter.
Second step is collecting any available material that can help answer those questions, either in written form, pictures, existing video and connection with people. The key is to convey a brand new angle, possibly a conflict about a story that may have been told several times already. For example, if a person is your actual subject matter, try to get as personal as you can.
Are there any surprises during the research where story lines take a different turn than their original direction?
Well, almost every time. If you dig really deep in your research you will definitely find surprises. To me this is one of the most interesting aspects of the documentary filmmaking process.
What can you say about building the right team for the pre and post production?
What about the principal photography? That is the most important! Find the people who are committed and passionate about the subject! Then select the best professionals among them.
Have you seen teams in crisis? If so, how did they pull out of it (or not)?
In any film I participated in there was some sort of a team crisis along the way. Things are never really smooth. It may take several years to make a film. You have to “live” with your team-mates just like in a marriage. Things gets personal and your obsession, energy, money invested, and stress about deadlines sometimes can hurt the film. If you are the director and/or producer you have to take few breaks and let somebody with a fresh eye cut the film and do their thing. Sometimes something really great can also emerge out of the basis of a team crisis.
Have you seen documentaries undertaken as solo projects, and if so what are the benefits and tradeoffs?
I have worked few times on solo projects. I can make my own schedule, shoot, direct and edit. Certain projects can work much better that way. Once I wanted to do a story about drug dealers in the underground of downtown L.A (Angels, 2005). There are not many people who wanted to come with me for safety reasons. In this kind of situation it is better to be one man band. The story became very personal at the end and I ended up editing the project myself. Lots of flexibility but also an enormous amount of time can be spent on undertaking “solo” projects. It becomes very easy to be inefficient. If there is a crisis you are the only responsible party. At the same time you can make your schedule around the film easily.
What should people keep in mind in terms of finding an audience for their film?
I strongly believe in the power of the web. Social networks these days can very well help finding your audience and most likely distribution.
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