The Insiders’ Guide to Factual Filmmaking
Author: Tony Stark
Once, while in film school, I was wandering through old Tallinn together with my camerawoman. We were both carrying heavy filming equipment and concentrating on finding good shots for our homework. Some locals approached us and asked what we were up to. Having realized that we were filmmakers, they offered to take us up on a big construction tower. On the way, our guides expressed many clichéd opinions about the bohemian lifestyle we, as artists, should be leading. We were laughing because our directing and cinematography studies were extremely intense, filled with 12-hour shooting days and worries about financing our graduation film. Our philosophical wine evenings were far less common than the stormy parties thrown by economics and natural science students from our dormitory.
The Insiders’ Guide to Factual Filmmaking by filmmaker Tony Stark also brings the often mythological and idealized profession of filmmaking down to earth. The book offers very pragmatic tips on how to do a TV and online documentary film in a very competitive market, starting from idea proposal and continuing through its shooting and financing. There are many juicy quotes from interviews with 19 British and American industry professionals. For some art-house filmmakers, the book might seem a bit dry as it only briefly discusses filmmaking from its creative side. However, it could serve aspiring filmmakers and starting directors as a source of good advice for some phase of their work and a reminder not to make simple but common mistakes.
With the development of digital technology and younger audiences switching from television to online media, filmmaking is changing completely. On the one hand, making a movie is now easier than ever. If the content is good and the filmmaker is talented, a film can be made with a smartphone and cut with free editing software. Also, there is a high demand for content, as a lot of traditional media are now putting videos online, and even radio stations have starting to make visualizations. However, this development makes budgets lower, and filmmakers are expected to do much more. Freelance filmmakers enter a highly competitive market and are often supposed to be producers, directors, cinematographers, and editors all in one. It’s hard to get a commissioned film from a TV broadcaster, but making a movie for the web will most probably not pay off. Even if the films are made for big players like The New York Times or The Guardian, the prices are so low that nobody can really make a living from it. Stark says that most commissioners won’t even admit how low their rates are, but The Guardian gave a hint that normally they would pay around £15,000 for a 20-minute film. On the other hand, publishing a film on a big platform can get a filmmaker’s work to be noticed. It can be a «calling card», a push to his or her career.
most commissioners won’t even admit how low their rates are
Broadcasters and commissioning editors are looking for dramatic and humanistic stories. Treatment writing and pitching seem easy, but in reality, it’s an art on its own. The book provides practical hints on how to present an idea and shoot the actual film. A comment by Louisa Compton from Channel 4 gives hope to beginning directors and producers: «If it’s a strong pitch and it’s a story we’re going to want to do, then the producer’s experience or otherwise doesn’t make any difference.» In this case, the TV station would try to match the filmmaker with a more experienced production company, which certainly could mean losing some creative freedom. The positive side – one can learn from seasoned professionals and actually get the film done.
The interviewed film professionals also emphasize the importance of feedback one gets in the editing room. Kathleen Lingo from The New York Times’ Op-Docs says that normally first-time filmmakers are very bad at receiving feedback. The more experienced a person is, the more they usually listen. From my own experience curating a short film festival, I have observed a similar tendency. It’s painful to see good footage just get stuck in the first edit and never become the strong film it might have been. A good idea would be to listen, take notes, sleep it over, and try some things out.
#Ethics are an important and sensitive topic in documentary filmmaking. Drama and human tragedy sell. The sad truth is that often the worse it gets for the film character, the better a film the director can make. Film journalist Anton Damen discusses with Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitza on why he didn’t make Donbass (2018) a documentary. The experienced director answered that making a documentary about the war zone would be not only dangerous but also completely unethical. How can the filmmaker be a passive witness to murders and killings?
Filmmakers could get access to characters who don’t understand the consequences their participation in the film might entail for them. It’s worth considering how to protect the filmed persons so they would not suffer or even get hurt afterward. The audiovisual medium offers plenty of possibilities to show persons without revealing their identity.
Furthermore, with the amount of fake news around, the filmmakers should really stay truthful to their professions and avoid lying in their works. A documentary film always has a certain perspective it emphasizes. Nevertheless, it is completely unethical to edit the interviews in a way that makes the film characters say things that they actually didn’t mean. Filmmaker ethics also include not lying to the commissioners, keeping the crew safe, being thoughtful when filming children, and doing undercover filming responsibly.
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