In tandem with the broadcast of Only the Young, we contacted some programs from POV’s list of youth filmmaking organizations — Tribeca Film Institute, IFP, Old School Films, Reel Works and BAYCAT (Bayview Hunters Point Center for Arts & Technology) — to share their tips for helping young filmmakers to bring their documentary visions to life.
Visit POV’s first-time filmmakers page for more resources to help you get started.
Choosing a Topic
IFP: You have to go with your gut on this one! Whatever makes you happy, piques your interest, inspires (or enrages!) and activates is probably going to appeal to someone else. When you put passion into a project, others can see it. This makes them excited about the work too!
Reel Works: You don’t always have to look too hard for your story, sometimes it’s right in front of you. When choosing a topic, make sure you choose something that you can relate to and/or something that you’re passionate about. Keep these questions in mind: What story do you want to tell? Why is it important? Who is your audience? What is your essential question?
BAYCAT: My favorite types of stories come from compelling people. It really helps the viewer connect to a story when the person is vibrant, interesting and a great character. If you want to make a film about a certain subject, get interesting people to share their stories and experiences with your audience. At the base of many documentaries is human connection.
No Budget? No Problem!
Old School Films: Filmmaking is about using what you have and leveraging resources that you don’t. Be inventive and barter or trade for access to equipment you don’t have. For instance, if you need a camera and sound equipment, find someone who does and do something in exchange for them. Be creative and flexible. Don’t feel you need to be locked down to anything — actors, locations, props. Make sure to bake cookies or give thanks to the people that helped you. People make films, not cameras. You want to treat them well so they will be around for your next movie!
Tribeca Film Institute: Online is the way to go. Using cloud-based software, such as Pixton Comics, Popcorn, Machinima, and stock footage you can craft a solid documentary.
The Importance of Sound
IFP: At the minimum, you need a great idea and the drive to make it happen. After that, details like a camera and a team that you like to work with can come in. Once you’ve got all those things, then you can start worrying about getting great, careful sound.
Old School Films: Sound is often overlooked in amateur filmmaking, but it’s critical to record the best sound. Sound is almost impossible to fix in post-production and it is very noticeable and distracting when it is off. Thus, it is imperative to get it right while shooting!
BAYCAT: All you really need is a camera and a microphone. Good sound is so important that I really advise giving a lot of thought to what type of microphone you want to use. Lavs are best for interviews, and shotgun mics for capturing “on-the-fly” type of footage. We use Canon DSLRs (7D and 60Ds) and a juicedLink to connect the microphones to the camera.
Interviewing Like a Pro
BAYCAT: Make sure to prepare before beginning production. Write out clear interview questions and think about your shot list. Anticipate what you think might happen and think about your reaction beforehand.
Remember to be engaged when interviewing and above all else — be kind! Respect and appreciation, both with your participants and your crew, will take you a long way!
Other Filmmakers Made These Mistakes So You Don’t Have To
IFP: Mistakes are part of life — just accept them and try not to do them again! But, for a film, sometimes people decide a film is done, even though they haven’t shown it to anyone they trust yet. It’s always important to get feedback on a film before it’s complete. A film plays better to an audience than to a single person, and these audiences should feel unafraid to give honest feedback, which can only help your film get stronger! We also advise filmmakers not to send their rough cuts to festivals. You only get one shot to get into the festival of your dreams, so you must be sure to send them your best, most polished work!
Reel Works: Going handheld can work most times, but often it results in messy shots. If you have a tripod, great! Use it! But if you don’t, don’t worry! You can always just place your camera on a firm surface at the same level you want to shoot at. Or you can just use your body by positioning yourself to make your stance more stable. While editing, save your work often. If possible, make multiple copies. Most importantly, when shooting a documentary, always keep the camera rolling! You never know what it going to happen next.
- Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Take chances!
- Don’t let anyone ruin your vision. Follow your instincts.
- Don’t doubt the potential of your story and never doubt your ability to get it done.
- Don’t underestimate yourself.
- Don’t take “no” for an answer. Ever.
- Commit to the film. Don’t give up no matter how hard it gets along the way. It will get hard. But it will be worth it.
- It’s scary to get personal. But the real stuff is always the best stuff.
- It’s okay if your story changes along the way; there’s a large chance that your final result won’t be what you initially envisioned your film to be, and that’s okay.
- You can never have too much footage.
Thanks to Vee Bravo from the Tribeca Film Institute, Rose Vincelli Gustine from IFP, Cidney Hue from Old School Films, Mari Irizarry and Janil Santana from Reel Works and Zara Ahmed from BAYCAT for answering our questions.
For more resources to get started in documentary filmmaking, visit POV’s first-time filmmakers page.