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Old April 16th, 2005, 05:55 AM   #1
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Advice for Short Documentary

Hi all,

I'm currently in the planning stages of a short doco film (6-7 mins) for a film festival for the end of this year.

Can anyone give me any advice on doing such a short doco? Does the storyline (beginning-middle-end) differ due to it being only 7 mins long? Is there any online info, good books, examples of work or just personal advice you can give it'd be much appreciated.
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Old April 21st, 2005, 09:36 AM   #2
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James, I assign media students a similar exercise (documentary 7 minute running time). Without knowing the specifics of the project it's hard to give direct advice but here's some of the things I tell them.

Exactly how far have you got in your planning stage. Just got an idea, or have you scripted storyboarded? what are the detail, is the subject a person you know, or a social/political issue, a place, an past/historical or current event etc?

Do you want a traditional formal approach or something more experimental? there is no set for mat for a 7 minute documentary, it can be as varied as a 90 minute documentary, you can have talking heads interviews, you can show the film crew as a part of the narrative (Nick Broomfield style) or attempt to render filming process invisible (More like the Maysles Bros).

With such a short running time I would make these recommendations:
nail your narrative down as much as possible. Narrative is just as important, but it doesn't have to be as strong. For a ninetyminute film obviouisly you need something to hold an audiences interest for that amount of time. In seven minutes you can't cram as much into your stry but there should still be some kind of development that people will take away. Don't make the mistale of being clear and linear with being boring, or being experimental with being pretentious. If you want to try a strange offbeat approach that's great and to be incouraged, but as long as the form fits the content. Use your 7 minutes to expore something small in a little detail, rather than skim over something big of which you'll barely scratch the surface. Maybe with a 6-7 minute film you can be a little more abstract, but don;t use that as an excuse for just shooting something that's pretty without affecting or informing the audience.

Make sure your showing something new or unusual. Every year at least one group of students want to make a film about a student who is also a DJ, as if that was something new and revolutionary that had never happened before. Whateve3r your subject is, remember this fact: YOUR FRIENDS AREN'T INTERESTING". Every year at Sundance, Raindance, Barndance, whateverdance, there are documentaries submitted about "a great group of friends who grew up to be diverse and interesting people, the documentary looks at their hopes and aspirations when they were young and how they've measured up to them..." a kind of Video School Reunion. Don't go there unless the orimary audience IS your friends family and neighbours, or your friends and relatives ARE the strangest wierdest most unusual offbeat characters you could hope to find (like Robert Crumb's family for example, Mark Borchardt[/url] and his American Movie gang, or The Friedmans.)
If you're doing interviews, then pre-interview first, make notes and prepare questions. Decide whether you want your questions to be heard in the soundtrack or not (Errol Morris chose the former approach in Fog of War, and the latter in The Thin Blue Line) as this affects how the quewstions are phrased and how you might record the sound.

Write a script, even if you don't know all the subjects answers yet, imaqgine what they might be, research and pre-interviews would help you here. The script should contain visual as well as verbal information.

once you've done your interviews, do a transcript and then a paper edit. It might seem nice to just sit down with howmany hous of footage in the machine and just tinker with it but really you're wasting your own and your editor's time. You can always improve on the paper edit, but it goves you the equivalent of a script to work on when you go into the edit room.

Plus, when shooting, get a good crew, if you're also shooting, get a good sound recordist, if you want to be the sound recordist get a good DoP. Preferably get both and concentrate on directing.

Do transcriptions and a proper paper edit before you started editing the footage. It seems like a drag but it will save you loads of time. You can always improve upon the paper edit, but it gives you a map to work with.

And finally, the above is, as the man said "more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules."

...Except the bit about paper edits.

That's a rule.
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Old April 21st, 2005, 09:58 AM   #3
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Hi Dylan,

Thank you very much for your detailed reply.....

I should've mentioned in my first post but its an environmental doco on the negative effects of housing & man made developments on previously untouched coastline. Obviously its slghtly biased against the development companies involved. The conflict is reasonably current but at the moment no development has been allowed although apparently the development companies are appealing this. There were a number of protests, petitions etc last year. I've also contacted the environmental groups involved who will give me interviews & more info as needed so i can research the topic more.

I have some ideas on paper, vague at this stage, I have some ideas of the shots I want to use for the opening & filll ins for interviews etc. I also have a few songs which I believe would suit the doco well which I should be able to get permission to use. The doco will be mainly targeted locally where I am for ease but I want to give the message of "think global, act local" to make people aware everywhere that this can happen to them. I'm also unsure whether to use a voice over style narrative or just use interviews & perhaps titling... what differences does voice-over make to a doco in terms of style? (if that makes sense)

What I really want to do is watch many more doco's also to get some inspiration..... any suggestions?
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Old April 22nd, 2005, 04:32 AM   #4
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It might be worth seeing of you can get any of the oscar winning short documentaries out there. SOme of them MUST be available. There is a real renaissance in Popular Feature documentaries at this time, but obviously they're feature length. Howver there are plenty of short documentaries out there. It would be worth getting to a few short film festivals and seeing some there. You could track them down on the web but I tend to find online short films generally tend to be of a pretty low standard. I've seen compilations of short documentaries on VHS and DVD around.

I think it's great that you make a documentary with a particular campainging stand point, that's to be commended, as long as you're sure of the facts you use to back up your point of view. It's also good that you're thinking in terms of shots. On of the great weaknesses of my students' projects is they tend to think documentaries are simply talking heads interrupted by the odd cutaway.

The key is research research research before you even think of shooting a second of footage. write it out as a script, everything you want to get - if you can't actually get it then work out an alternative, on the other hand, material may emerge in the shooting stage that you can use that's as good or even better, but don;t start without a really solid plan.
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Old April 22nd, 2005, 06:11 AM   #5
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thanks again Dylan, you're the only one giving any advice so far!

i've actually just got a reply this arvo from one of the environmental groups involved who are keen to help me with info, interviews, etc. currently i'm just writing everything down, all my random ideas onto paper under these categories: pre-planning, filming, interviews, audio, post production, etc. hopefully that will keep all my ideas reasonably organised. i think i'll also carry a pen & notepad with me at most times so if i get any good ideas or thoughts (they tend to happen at the most strangest times/places) then i can write them down!

also do you have any websites you know of who sell these great short docos? i've watched the michael moore docos, etc but have only watched a few shorts online, would be great to get a DVD or even download high res shorts online even if I have to pay for them...
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Old April 22nd, 2005, 06:36 AM   #6
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I have some experience creating "Advocacy" and "Issue" docs in short form like you describe. Dylan's comments are all bang on. In the case of creating a short issue doc, I like to write out the script, including what I expect the interviewees to say. Then, when I am conducting the interviews, I ask questions that will result in the sorts of answers I am looking for.

Is this 'objective'? It is as objective as your advocacy is. You still have to be flexible enough to follow the answers wherever they might lead.

The term "DOCUMENTARY" is a generic label for anything that's not 'narrative'. Within that label are investigative reports, issue docs, advocacy docs, expose's, biographies, etc. etc. Each of these subsets has a specific point of view going in.

Check out for some of the work I've been involved with. I recently won a Telly Award for my script "Heart in the Home" a 7 minute video about the Volunteer Services Council and the Brenham State School for the mentally retarded. This was a video that explored what the Volunteer Council did in support of the schools mission to help the retarded. It ended with a 'call to action' for donations. This mini-documentary is used as a fundraiser by the council.
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Old July 6th, 2005, 11:09 AM   #7
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Lots of B-roll!!!
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Old July 30th, 2005, 07:47 AM   #8
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James, I just completed a mini-Doc. 6 min. 40 sec. It was for the EPA in Region 4 (the south east USA). I used good background music, voice over, and, a combination of video, stills and powerpoint charts. I was told that it was to be shown as a presentation during a lunchion and it had to be under 7 minutes. Fortunately most of the shots I needed I had in stock footage. A good way to see what can be done in under 7 minutes is to simply watch CNN or the Whether Channal. They are always putting on mini-Doc. Good luck and let us know it turns out. Bob
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Old August 19th, 2005, 07:12 PM   #9
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A beginning, a middle and an end is a noble starting point and it should be no different for any film regardless of size. Now with that said- don’t limit yourself to this simply narrative. The short story is NOT a short novel. Your short documentary shouldn’t have to be a short feature.
Explore the art form. I have produced hundreds of picture stories (stills) for newspapers in my career. It is very limited. This might be one of the reasons I am moving into video. There will never be a Hemingway or Wolfe if photojournalists or documentarians are never allowed to progress out of the narrative. Go for it.
"The Light is the melody, the Motion is the lyrics..."
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Old August 20th, 2005, 01:12 PM   #10
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Try a documentary where the people you interview provide the narrative. If you have a faceless narrator, it can feel like a school filmstrip.
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