How to Direct a Documentary: Pre-Production to Post | Zoë Davidson | Skillshare

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How to Direct a Documentary: Pre-Production to Post

teacher avatar Zoë Davidson, Software Engineer & Cinematographer

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      How to Choose a Subject


    • 3.

      AV Scripts


    • 4.



    • 5.

      Which Setup to Use


    • 6.

      Camera Support


    • 7.

      Cameras + Lenses


    • 8.

      Natural and Available Light


    • 9.

      Studio Light


    • 10.



    • 11.

      Asking the Right Questions


    • 12.



    • 13.

      Less is More - Cutting From Your Film


    • 14.



    • 15.



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About This Class

My name is Zoë, I'm a cinematographer, occasional director, and professor of film. I've been shooting films for many years now, and the projects I've worked on have gone on to be shown at dozens of film festivals including Sundance and CaribbeanTales. Additionally, I've won several awards for the documentaries I've directed. You can check out my work here.

This class is for anyone who has ever wanted to direct their own documentary. This course has lessons in it for everyone from the beginner to the advanced student. Your class project will be to film your first short doc.

This class will include a step-by-step guide on how to plan, capture, and get ready to edit your documentary. A few things you'll learn include:

  • How to choose a subject
  • Scripts for documentaries
  • How to work with available light

Finally, the course will conclude with a few tips on how to deal with common problems documentary directors typically face when working on the edit.

Meet Your Teacher

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Zoë Davidson

Software Engineer & Cinematographer


Hey! I'm Zoe, a software engineer, filmmaker, and former professor from Toronto, Canada. I have an MFA in Film from Howard University, and also do work as a software engineer.

In the past, I've worked for the University of the District of Columbia, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Lionsgate, Huffington Post, and I'm a member of organizations like the Canadian Society of Cinematographers.

The films that I've worked on have been featured at festivals around the world, including Sundance, ABFF, Trinidad Tobago Film Festival, and CaribbeanTales.

Check out my latest work, here:

See full profile

Level: All Levels

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1. Intro: Directing a documentary is very different to directing a narrative film. What the role of the director is, just as if not more important when making a documentary. Typically, the subjects are not actors and of course don't have a script. So oftentimes the director really has to work with individuals to get them feeling comfortable enough to share their stories. Hi, my name is Zoe. I'm a cinematographer, occasional documentary director, and a Professor of Film. I've directed to documentary so far and both have been great experiences. Today, I'm going to go through everything you need to know so that you can go out and film your first or next documentary with confidence. Let's get started. 2. How to Choose a Subject: How to choose a subject when you're choosing a subject for any film, but particularly for documentaries, it's important to do your research. With documentaries, you'll often do a lot of filming upfront and having a strong grasp of your topic, the right people to talk to, and the best questions to ask can have a massive impact on the quality of your film. Both of the documentaries I've done have either involves substantial research or my own life experiences. And when it came time to work on the questions asked in the interviews or even the shots to capture. I felt confident making those lists due to my familiarity with the subjects. As far as who should speak to. If you're doing a documentary with interviews, that will really depend on the subject you choose to work with. However, another tip is to have an informal conversation with any potential contenders you're considering to get a sense of what stories they could bring to the film. Makes sure that you're taking either mental or physical notes during this discussion, as you may end up wanting to tailor some of your questions to each of your subjects. Ultimately, if you're struggling to pick a topic, think about what things you're passionate about or what story you could tell to try and help make the world a better place. 3. AV Scripts: Av scripts. Although documentaries don't rely on scripts in the same way that traditional narrative films do. They can still make use of something called an AV or audio visual script. This script is a basic two-column table that lists the audio elements on the left with the corresponding video footage on the right. If you plan to do a voiceover throughout your documentary, this can be a great way to plot out the footage for it. Av scripts are also a great way of figuring out what B-roll you may need to capture throughout your shoot and help you plan those shoot days to include those moments. Here's an example of what an AV script could look like. 4. Treatments: Treatments and narrative film treatments are a way of outlining your story before writing the actual script. With documentary, the general idea is the same, except that there'll be used until and possibly throughout the filming and editing process. A documentary treatment typically has four elements. The working title of the film, the logline, a summary of the topic, and a narrative synopsis. It's important to make the distinction between summary and narrative synopsis. The summary might contain some backstory or other necessary information to understand what the film is about and why now is the time to make it. The narrative synopsis, on the other hand, is the explanation of the plot of your film in prose. As far as length goes, documentary treatments are typically between 15 pages. I definitely recommend creating a treatment for your film. Not only does it help you get your story clear before you start filming, but if you have people who are interested in investing in your project, it can be a great way to provide them with concise information on what the film is about. 5. Which Setup to Use: Which set up to use having the right camera setup when shooting a doc is crucial. But honestly, you can shoot on almost anything from an RA Alexa to your iPhone. What's more important is ensuring that you have the right tools to support the device that you're working with. What do I mean by tools? 6. Camera Support: Cameras support if you're gonna go out into the field following your subject around as they go about their task or daily life, you'll want to make sure that you have a setup that's going to allow you to be as portable as possible. For this, I'd recommend either a shoulder rig, but preferably an easy trick. To clarify, a shoulder rig is a tool that allows you to rest your camera on your shoulder for balance and take a bit of the weight off of your arms. These are great for short bursts are particularly styled documentaries. But with most documentaries, the reality is, is that you usually rolling for 51015 or 20 minutes at a time. If you can get access to one, I'd highly recommend either buying or renting an easy Rick. These devices are wearable vest that allow you to hang the camera right in front of you, even when you're not holding onto them. They work using an extremely strong and secure cable to hold your camera and then distribute that weight throughout the best. This then freeze your arm muscles to do the more important tasks like focusing and guiding the general movement of the camera. I've worked with an easy read before. And while the whole setup does have some weight to it, I'd much rather use one of those than carrying a Canon C3 100 with a zoom lens on it, with a monitor on the camera, on just the shoulder it alone. If you're just shooting talking head interviews, then a tripod will be essential as these usually last upwards of 20 minutes. You'll want to ensure that you're maintaining the same frame and the entire way through for flexibility in the edit. 7. Cameras + Lenses: Cameras and lenses. As far as lenses go, in an ideal world, you'll wanna be using some level of a professional cinema zoom lens, ideally one that maintains the aperture as you zoom in or out. I'd recommend zooms over primes due to the unpredictability of docks at large, you'd be better off sacrificing some depth of field by using a zoom lens with an aperture of 2.8, then missing the most important moment of the duck because you're swapping around your 1.4 prime lenses. Ideally, you'll also have two cameras and two camera operators, especially if you're doing sit-down interviews or if you're covering multiple subjects at the same time, having more cameras will give you as the director more to worry about, but with dots, It's definitely worth it, as you'll usually only have one chance to get each moment authentically. And this thing, you'll also want to make sure that you have the largest memory cards that work with your setup and that you get as many of those as you can fill up during a day. The most important thing when shooting a doc is to not have to stop because of technical issues. You want to be able to be as efficient as possible with the tools that you have. 8. Natural and Available Light: Natural and available light. As far as lighting goes, if you're out and on the go, you probably won't be able to set up lights as you're following your subject down the street or wherever they're going. In this case, you want to try and get your hands on another tool for your lens and ND filter. Nd filters will enable you to make the most of the natural outdoor lighting without sacrificing stops with aperture because your images are too blown out. Nd filters come in different size threads. So if you do choose to use one, make sure you get the compatible size for your lens. You can also use step, step down rings. If you find that you have access to an incompatible lens and filter combination, if you're shooting at night, on the other hand, you won't need the ND, but you'll definitely, definitely want to bump the ISO of your camera as much as it can handle without producing noticeable noise, as I've mentioned in other videos, this is something you'll want to test beforehand by shooting with the lens or the camera cap on and seeing at what point the noise becomes unpleasant within the camera. Another tip when you're using available light is to remember the fundamentals of lighting. Does the key to fill ratio suit the story that you're trying to tell? If not, is it possible to use a better position for the shot? Are you shooting with a short or a broadside key? These are all questions you can ask as you get in position for your current shot. But what if you do have access to a lighting setup? Let's go over some of those fundamentals and talk about studio lighting. 9. Studio Light: Studio light. If you do get the setup lights or even work near ones that you can adjust, try and remember the principles are short side and broadside key lights as a quick refresher on what those are. Let's keep in mind that the key light is your main source of light. While your field is the one that fills in those shadows that are created by the key, right? Moving on to the setup when you're setting up lights, most cinematographers favor a short key lighting setup. This is when the key light hits the opposite side of the actor than the camera. This follows an idea in cinematography that lighting is more interesting when it comes from either the side or behind, rather than from somewhere closer to the camera. Regardless of whether or not you have studio lights to work with, you'll want to attempt to have your subjects sit in a direction that will allow for short key lighting. That way, you're getting that additional cinematic dimension without too much additional work. Opposite to short key lighting is broad key lighting. This is a situation where the light from the key and the cameras are on the same side of the subject. This type of look has its own place and is typically reserved for more dramatic or jarring moments in a film. But you should definitely try both out to see what works best for you. Depending on whether or not you're shooting an interview, you'll want to be aware of what role light plays in your scene. If you're shooting something other than an interview, you want to make sure that your lighting setup doesn't interfere with the natural and realistic feel of the documentary. For instance, seeing a Seasat at a nature documentary might throw off your audience. If possible, make use of the ability to bounce light and generally just like your overall environment, it's also worthwhile to test the practicals or the existing lights location and see if any of them could work either on their own or with the studio lights that you might set up. If you are shooting an interview, there are a few ways in which to best set up your lights. Sometimes in a documentary interview, it won't be desirable to have the background lit up as the focus of the shot is really just on the subject. Sometimes directors actually want to make it appear as if the subject isn't in a completely black space. In this case is, we'll use three-point lighting to our advantage. Assuming we're using short key instead of broad key lighting will want to ensure that we're ever replace our key light. We leave room between the key and the camera for the interviewer. This can mean requiring a stronger light, taller stand, or a larger room, but this is an essential step to allow for a proper eyeline to be established. While shooting islands are essential when shooting documentary interviews, as they make us feel as if the subject is connected to another person's, even though we may or may not ever see the interviewer. If we do feature the interviewer in the scene, then we'll need to adjust our lighting setup just a bit as well. Now have at least two or maybe three cameras pointing at different angles in order to cover the whole scene. In this scenario, we'll want to maintain having individual key lights for each of our subject. But instead of to fill lights will just have one large Philip that can actually cover both subjects. That way, we avoid having too many unique sources of light to manage and work around. In this modified three-point lighting setup when position correctly, the two key lights actually serve as hair or back lights for the opposite subjects. Now if you want to use four-point lighting, it's a slightly different setup. Four-point lighting features, the four lighting positions we spoke of before. Key, kicker, backer hair, and a background light. Here's an example of what the left that would look like. As you can see, the fill light on the bottom right of the image is placed at an opposing angle to the key length. This is so that it can fill in the shadows on the front of the subject created by the key. The backlight, hair light or kicker in the upper right hand illuminates a subject from behind. Finally, the background light in the upper-left illuminates the background of the scene. When you're doing quick lighting, It's important to remember to keep the setup a simplest possible, and focus on telling the best story you can. 10. Audio: Audio with documentaries, as with narratives, having a good audio setup is essential. If you're doing running gun work, It's a great idea to get your subject Mike with a wireless lav. That way, even if they're out of the frame briefly, you can still hear what they're saying and connect it to the scene. Another essential Mike to have is an on-camera or other types of boom mic. This will ensure that not only do you have the clean audio from your subject, but you also have an environmental noise trap that you can build your sounds around in post if you're shooting an interview. On the other hand, let's talk about your options. If you only have an on-camera mic, that's okay. What I recommend is that you get as close to your subject as possible without distorting your shot to ensure that what they say is picked up clearly through the mic. If your camera allows it, you'll also want to be monitoring your audio. Now, monitoring is when you're listening to the audio on headphones. As it comes in. This will allow you to ensure that you're getting good quality sound the entire time. And you'll be able to make adjustments if necessary. Ideally, especially if you're the interviewer, you'll want to have a second person just focusing on the audio as you want to keep your mind focused on what your subject is saying as opposed to how they're saying it. If you do have a lavalier mic, that's great and you should definitely be using it to get better audio. When using level ears are labs as they're called in interviews. Don't be too concerned if you end up having to place it in a position that's visible to the audience. Unlike in fiction films where it'd be a bit odd to see an actor as loud mike. Seeing these mikes and documentaries or other types of interviews is fairly normal. And it's not something that would typically distract the audience or take them out of the film. You'll want to make sure that your lab is connected either directly to your camera or to some kind of secondary recording device like the H4 and pro, or a sound advice. If you are using a secondary recording device, it becomes even more important to have someone monitoring your audio as they will need to adjust for spontaneous moments like Louder laughter. Or if your subject starts speaking more softly than they did at the start of the interview. Finally, if you have the equipment, a third Mike to have would be a boom mic. These are professional Mike's use on film sets usually held by boom operators. Although in documentaries due to their length, I've typically seen them rigged up to C stands. These mikes are a great way to get audio if your subject is facing the same direction throughout the interview. However, if you can only choose one out of all the mikes I've mentioned, I definitely recommend a lavalier, preferably a wireless one, as it will give your subject the most freedom and if placed correctly, give you the best audio. 11. Asking the Right Questions: Asking the right questions. If there are points within your documentary, we'll end up asking your subject questions. You should sit down ahead of time and make a list of what those are. Try and keep the list between ten to 20 questions at most as you don't want to exhaust your subject within one side. This is also where your familiarity with the topic will be essential. You want to make sure that you're asking questions that allow your subjects to tell a story. Try focusing on questions that can't be answered with a yes or no. Typically, questions that begin with how or why are good place to start. You always want to think about the edit before you start filming, which leads to my next to think about the role and the presence of the interviewer is the interview scene. And are they miked? If they are, great? But if not, you may need to coach your interviewee a little bit beforehand. Since the audience won't be hearing the questions that they are being asked, it might be in your favor to ask your interviewee to repeat or summarize a question they'd been asked before the answer them. That way, the audience has contexts. And if you find that your subject is a bit nervous about being on camera, it might help to start off the interview with some throw-away material. Ask them about things that are unrelated while the camera is already rolling. That way, once they do get comfortable, you can seamlessly transition into the interview. If you're interviewing multiple subjects for your film, you'll also want to consider what your processes for asking questions. Do you ask each of your subjects the same questions? If not, which subjects get which set, and why did they get those questions? Do you have a core set for everyone that you interview and then specific ones for each subject depending on their unique circumstance or relationship to the topic. These are all things you want to think about before you start shooting as having a clear idea of your questions will be essential in the edit. 12. Editing: Editing. Once you're finished, it's time to edit, right? Right. With any documentary, editing will take up the largest portion of your time. They say that a documentary is actually made in the edit because unlike scripted work, you really don't know what you're gonna get when you set out to shoot. You want to leave yourself as much time as possible to edit your film before it's due to be screened or submitted. By not leaving your work to the last minute, you can put yourself in the best position to get the most out of what you shot with documentaries in particular, depending on how many interviews you have or how long the HR, some directors find it useful to get their interviews transcribed before they sit down to edit them. That way they can go through and highlight the exact portions they need for their film and begin to flesh out the script that way. If you've asked a core set or even all of the same questions, it becomes really easy to catalog each subject's response to that question or even summarize it in a few words. A lot of the time, you'll find that you only use a small portion of what each subject says in their entire interview when you get to the final cut of your film. So it's important to go through their responses and see which part of the interview contributes the most to the overall film. For instance, do they bring a unique perspective to the topic and one of their answers? Or do they simply summarize the topic itself the best? These are a few things to think about when working on your edit. 13. Less is More - Cutting From Your Film: Less is more cutting from your film. Nine times out of ten, once you've finished your first pass over your edit, your film will fall into one of two categories. Way too long or way too short. If it's way too short, this usually means you didn't get enough solid footage the first time. And you either need to go back and reshoot or shoot some additional content to fill out your story. If your doc is too long, you're faced with the task of cutting. There are several ways you can make a film shorter. You can remove a theme, character or a repetitive seen, something that has already been established in another scene and really doesn't need that additional scene for that added reinforcements. Cutting your film can be hard depending on your chosen subject. It might even involve removing a family member or a close friend from a film that they may have been really excited to be in. Trust me, I've been there. I've shot interviews that ended up just not working with the overall theme of a doc. Usually the person you're working with will understand and hopefully there's a project you can include them in, in the future. I've also found that once that person sees the final cut of the film, will understand why their segment didn't fit in with the overall direction you decide to go in. That's the exciting but also challenging thing about documentaries. You can pick a subject and choose a theme and have everything prepared. But at the end of the day, you never know what someone's going to say when you ask them a question in an interview. 14. Re-shoots: Reshoots. Sometimes when you're editing, you will notice that you might not have enough footage. Maybe you forgot to ask a question on your list or you simply ran out of time. If you've tried to work with what you have, but find your story is stuck. Let's talk about what you can do. It's very typical for films to either include reshoots are additional shooting days. This can be because a mistake was made on the initial shoot day or the producer might have underestimated the time it would take to capture all of that footage, and then the production needs those extra days to finish. With documentaries in particular, this can be a great opportunity to go back and to speak to your subject. Again. Oftentimes you don't even have to completely redo the first interview unless a technical mistake was made, you can simply add onto what you capture that first time. 15. Conclusion: We've talked about a lot in this video, from choosing a subject to cameras, to editing. I hope that some, if not all of it will be useful to you as you go and get ready to shoot your documentary. I have a few other videos on how to work with cameras, lenses, and lighting. So be sure to check those out. As always, let me know if you have any questions, comments, or concerns with anything I shared today and I'd be more than happy to address them.