Shooting a Personal Documentary: Try These Tips for Success By Jane Lehmann Expert Author Jane Lehmann
Want to shoot a high-impact personal documentary? While there is no rule book to documentary film making, there is others' experiences that may help guide you. In this article, I am going to give you some tips on how to make a successful personal documentary. Some suggestions here relate to the project generally, and some relate specifically to filming interviews and shooting on location.
What is a personal documentary?
A "personal documentary" is a branch of documentary film making that focuses on one particular human subject, or sometimes a couple or a family. Commissioned by the subject in question or a family member, it is a bespoke (custom made) video biography which takes advantage of the immediacy and emotion of film to tell personal and family history stories that would otherwise be told in print. Being "commissioned" doesn't mean that the personal documentary is pure flattery or devoid of difficult issues. On the contrary, to be successful the personal documentary must contain objectivity and some real dark to balance the light. In my experience, subjects themselves have no interest in saccharine stories. But where mistakes were made, or wrong directions taken, a personal documentary will give the subject the opportunity for explanation, context and desirably - understanding. Ultimately, though, editorial control rests with the party commissioning (paying for) the personal documentary.
Tip 1: Keep your subject front and center
There are a lot of twists and turns to a life, and many rabbit holes that a well-meaning personal documentarian could disappear down. But resist diversions, unless they bear on the subject's progression. When asking questions, try to relate events to motivations and feelings. Subjects are typically very good at giving the "who what and when". The personal documentarian has to work to get at the "why", and the "why nots". In telling stories involving former generations, try to connect the story to, or tell the story from the perspective of, someone still living. The thrilling exposition of even the most fascinating of historical detail (e.g. "Grandfather George Unwin once killed a tiger in Bengal") means little unless it is connected to someone or something tangible for the audience (e.g. "Old George Unwin was an adventurer, like his grandson Frank, both of whom joined the military by the time they were 18...")
Tip 2: Go beyond the surface
In a personal documentary, most of your information will come from the subject and their friends, colleagues and families. But you should dig a little deeper whenever possible, and don't ignore the documents. For instance, I always do a little genealogical research on my subjects whether they ask for it or not. It's common to find mistakes in the family's collective memory, and it sometimes happens that odd and surprising revelations come to light (like underage marriages, name changes and significant understating of ages).
A successful personal documentary
A successful personal documentary will have feeling, humor and layers. It will cover the main "stations of the cross" in the person's life without seeking to be comprehensive (an impossible task in any medium, at any time). It will also take a view. Depending on the time available, you can do historical research into the city or the state or the events recounted or the time period involved. Newspaper searches can turn up interesting
material (you may need to join a library to get access to the best data bases). And some film makers even conduct Freedom of Information Act searches to bolster their research.
Tip 3: Be patient
Barry Hampe in "Making Documentary Films and Reality Videos" says much of documentary film interviewing consists of running endless tape through the camera waiting and hoping the subject will say something interesting. That's a little harsh. But it speaks to the truth of good fact gathering: you can seldom force the pace. By and large, with careful, patient and open-ended questing you have to let the story come to you.
Tip 4: Shooting the interview
Chances are you will be filming both in interview set ups as well as on location. When interviewing a subject, ask the prepared questions but also ask questions (and shoot footage) that might tell us something about the person e.g. their job, hobbies, the location itself, etc. Also, capture a range of shots of the subject during the interview - from wide shots (of the subject with the interviewer and even lights etc), to close ups (say, waist and above) to extreme close ups (face only). Avoid moving the camera while the subject is speaking. Try to record (full) names, ages/birth dates (if they're going to be relevant), place names etc either in writing and/or have the subject say their name and spell it on tape. Of all the mistakes you make in a personal documentary, getting names wrong or misspelt seems to draw the most attention. Having shot a scene, think about whether there are any worthwhile close-ups to get at the end: e.g. hands, feet, objects. Consider POVs (point of view shots) - where you walk around behind the subject and film things (often an object or an activity) from their point of view.
Tip 5: Shooting on location
On location in a personal documentary, you may be following the subject around while they go about some activity, or shooting places of personal significance or places from the person's past. For each location, try to capture a 5 to 10 second "establishing shot" - i.e. a long shot showing the whole building/village/room/whatever. This helps to orientate the viewer and provides you with some shot variety. Avoid moving the camera during the establishing shot, save for a smooth and slow pan or zoom. Keep an eye out for signage and writing of any kind which are usually worth a shot - place names, warnings, graffiti, ads... And unless you are shooting a fishing show or a music video, avoid fast pans and fast zooms. Generally, it's best to frame the shot carefully first, steady the camera, then let the action happen in front of the lens - without any noticeable panning or zooming.
Bonus tip: Find a rhythm
When it comes time to edit your personal documentary, try to find a rhythm to the edit. Just like a poem will often have a rhyming scheme, a personal documentary can also often have a pattern (e.g. chapter 1- interview clip, image and voice over, interview clip, location shot and interview audio, interview clip, interview clip then repeat for chapter 2). Having established the material you wish to use and a satisfying pattern, be sure to break the pattern from time to time.
A successful personal documentary
A successful personal documentary will have feeling, humor and layers. It will cover the main "stations of the cross" in the person's life without seeking to be comprehensive (an impossible task in any medium, at any time). It will also take a view. Take a view? Chances are, if you are making a personal documentary focusing on a life or a family, you have come to know your subject well. A personal documentary is not a polemic, but you are allowed an opinion. You may express that through the facts of the life you choose to
cover, through the title of the documentary or the title of chapters (if you create named chapters - it's certainly an option), or even - if you are very careful - through narration. Some documentary makers are leery of narration, preferring to let the story unfold without "a voice of God" telling us what to think. But used carefully, voice-over can save time.
And never forget: have fun!