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4 Don’ts for Teen Filmmakers Making Their First Documentary

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Along with the PBS broadcast premiere of Only the Young on POV on July 15, 2013, we’ve collected tips from filmmakers and media organizations for first time filmmakers. In this post, Project VoiceScape alumnus and Tribeca Film Fellow Matthew Seife offers four warnings for young filmmakers. Read all of the posts.

In 2011, I was awarded a documentary film grant from Project VoiceScape, an initiative of POV, the Adobe Foundation and the PBS Foundation. After the initial excitement, I realized that the task ahead was not going to be simple. I had to craft a film that would have to hold an audience’s attention without exploiting the lives of the people who trusted me to tell their story.

Crazy thoughts were passing through my head and for a little while I didn’t know where to begin. Nobody had ever handed me money before and said, “Here, make a film!” After a first disastrous day of shooting that produced almost no useable footage (if it wasn’t a camera malfunction it was an interview that didn’t add anything interesting), I still stepped out again the second day and tried again. While I am proud of the finished film (Little Steps: A Story Of A Boy And Baseball), looking back the learning process of creating it has been the most valuable to me in the long run. And today I am going to share what I learned then with you, young filmmakers!

1. Don’t Panic!

I can’t take credit for this piece of wisdom. In one of my favorite books of all time, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book-within-the-book has written on the cover “Don’t Panic!” in huge letters. This motto might as well be that for documentary filmmaking.

The original proposal for my film focused on a program called The Magic To Do Players, a theater troupe for children and young adults with developmental disabilities. I had been volunteering with the group for the past few years and I’d visualized the documentary I wanted to create, however, legalities prevented me from making it.

Now I had a deadline to create a finished film, but no subject in sight to make it on and I did the easiest thing to do: panic and run around like a chicken with its head cut off. While this was the easiest thing to do, it is far from productive and it got me nowhere closer to completing my goals. After settling down for a little, I was newly motivated to find a way to make this documentary. Through research I learned about The Miracle League Spectrum Program, which focuses on helping children cope with autism through baseball.

I had other obstacles while working on Little Steps too. My computer with all of the video files crashed, while a massive hurricane lead to extended power outages. Once I stopped panicking, I was able to find ways to work around these stumbling blocks — I made a late night trip to the Apple store begging them to fix my computer THAT night, and I worked at a friend’s house that had miraculously avoided the storm.

2. Don’t Limit Yourself to Your Plan

While many unpleasant circumstances are unavoidable, good planning can make everything run smoother and can even help prevent those panicked situations. For me, planning constitutes having a list of people I want to interview and the questions I want to ask them in addition to certain specific B-roll shots. This planning helped me to focus in on a specific story arc and make sure that I told a cohesive narrative. At the same time, this pre-decided story arc has to be flexible to accommodate the real lives of your subjects. I couldn’t get upset if the subjects didn’t give me the answers I predicted because then I should have just made a narrative where I scripted everything myself.

You can expect many surprises that might go against your original plan, but if you think on your feet, you might be able to add to your film. For my film I wanted to interview the founder of the baseball league but instead I talked to one of the coaches and a parent. They provided heartfelt stories that became the foundation of the final narrative.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask For Help

Documentaries are very hard to make, and even harder to make when you are working by yourself. There is a lot of equipment to operate while you really want to be engaging your subjects in conversation. I learned this the hard way on the first day of shooting Little Steps. That night, I revised my strategy and a friend for help. The next day was infinitely easier — and produced higher-quality work.

It was also helpful for me, at the end of the process, to have others watch the film to ensure that it provides the viewer with the intended experience.

4. Don’t Let Technology Get in the Way of Your Story

Filmmaking can use a lot of expensive and complicated technology. But in 2013, a smartphone can achieve HD video quality. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter what camera a film is shot on or what computer and software is used to edit. All that matters is that the story is engaging and that the audience cares about the lives of the people in the film.

Read more posts about “first film tips.” »

POV presents the national broadcast premiere of Only the Young on PBS stations on Monday, July 15, 2013. (Check local listings). The film will be streaming for a limited time on the POV website starting July 16, 2013.

For updates on the 2013 season of POV, subscribe to POV’s documentary blog, like POV on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @povdocs.

Matthew Seife
Matthew Seife
Matthew Seife is a 2013 summer intern in the Digital Department at POV. A rising sophomore at Columbia University, Matthew studies computer science and film studies. He participated in POV's 2011 Project VoiceScape with his documentary Little Steps.