As I’m putting the finishing touches on my documentary film, I thought I would write a bit about the process of producing, directing, shooting, editing, promoting a 1-man documentary- primarily things you should think about before you begin.
1. Evaluate your resources and limitations before choosing a story to tell.
There are many reasons someone might choose to produce a doc film by themselves, but one of the main reasons is money. A niche-market film iike mine most likely won’t generate revenue to justify additional crew. It was shot on the smallest budget possible, in the most efficient way possible. That means some sacrifices were made. But it also means I could go places a full crew could ever go.
Much of my film happens during speech and debate competitions. I would not have had the access I did if I was not just one guy with a camera. So, while there are disadvantages and compromises to shooting alone, there can be advantages.
Consider your limitations when choosing a story. If you’re doing a micro budget film, with just you as the whole crew, there are some stories you cannot tell. You cannot fly across the world to shoot B roll. And you cannot shoot elaborate re enactments of events. But you can do a lot. Find a story you can tell within your limitations.
What do you have access to? Who do you know? What stores are local to you? What gear do you have? What technology can you employ to allow you to tell the story that interested you? Are you really interested enough in this story to do everything in order to tell it?
What do you know? Or what do you want to know more about? They say you should write what you know, and I think you should shoot what you either know well or really want to know well. You will be the driving force behind this story. If you are not passionate about the subject, if you don’t like the subject, you will not finish.
2. You’re alone.
The very first thing you have to understand is that you’re doing this, and no one is helping you. All preproduction tasks fall to you; location scouting, getting permissions and release forms, gear prep, shooting, editing, building an audience… it all lands squarely on your shoulders. Luckily, if you work at being organized, you can make it happen.
To be successful on the shoot you need to adopt a guerrilla style of filmmaking. Your rig should be small, and easy to manage. Lights will be limited, if you can use them at all. For many days of shooting I just had my Sony a6500 with a Rode Videomic Pro+ and Zoom H1 mounted on it. I carried a spare battery in my pocket. And a monopod with feet attached. That was it. Other times I knew I would be in the same general area doing a lot of impromptu interviews and I added a small 500 LED light panel on a stand.
There are some benefits to this. A large crew or set up can make people nervous which makes them less natural on camera. And, for many locations, getting permission to carry a single, mirrorless camera around was much easier than getting permission to have a full crew on site.
Plus, since you’re the producer and the editor, you know what shots you need. you will naturally shoot with the edit in mind. The shots you take will naturally fit into how you see the film.
3. You’re not alone.
As much as you have to do all the tasks, there will be people along the way who will help. They will donate money, they will offer resources, suggest interviews, and generally help out in some way. You can get so used to operating in 1-man-mode that you miss opportunities to let people who have caught the vision for your film into the process.
4. You’re limited.
You just are. You cannot have two camera ops at different places because it’s just you. You have to plan for and around the fact that you can only capture what you can capture. You only have the man-hours of one person. And if you’re doing a 1-man project then you likely have a day job to work around. You cannot go everywhere and shoot everything. You have limited gear and limited resources. So when planning and executing your film, you have to plan for that.
One way I did this was to purchase and use a short zoom lens. I knew that during debate and speech rounds i could not move to get another angle. And I could not have a second shooter in the room. I needed different shots, framed differently to use as B Roll and main footage. Since I didn’t have another camera operator in the room, I used a short zoom to vary the framing during the round. It’s not perfect but it worked.
5. There’s no excuse for quality.
The viewer doesn’t care how limited you are. If the film is bad, it’s bad. They won’t watch it, they won’t recommend it to others, and generally it will flop. You cannot put a disclaimer at the front of your movie explaining how little money and time you had and expect that to have any impact on their expectations.
Now, that doesn’t mean you have to shoot on a Red something or other, and look like a $100 million movie. But you need a good story, decent audio and decent video.
Most consumer cameras, even phones, can deliver decent video if used correctly. So use what you have, and learn how to use it well.
One thing people will not ignore is bad audio. Poor audio quality will make your video appear amateurish, no matter how good it looks. There are 3 scenes in my film that are critical to the story that have challenging audio. They were recorded before I had a good microphone. I have struggled in post production to make these usable. I cut them as short as possible. Used noise reduction, and generally tried to walk the line between too processed and usable.
But more important than audio or video is the story. The story has to be good. It has to be interesting, and succinct. The first time i showed my film to anyone outside my family, it was 2 hours and 5 minutes long. The bones of the story were good, but there were some long and boring parts. In the end i cut another 20 minutes. That’s almost the length of a sitcom. But the story needed to be shorter, needed to move the viewer along.
Not every documentary can follow the beats of a feature film. The hero’s journey, the Blake Snyder beats, the 5 major plot points- many movies have a generally established plot progression, something viewers are familiar with. My film actually follows them to some extent, but not every doc film can do that. But every story needs a beginning, middle and end. That’s non negotiable.
6. Since you’re the one making the movie, then you’re the only one holding yourself back.
This is key. You’re making you’re film. it will get started when you begin it. it will be as good as you can make it. It will get done when you finish it. It will be seen when you promote it.
You have the green light! You don’t have to ask a studio for permission. You can start pre production today.