The 1-Man-Band Documentary Film: 6 Things To Think About Before You Begin

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.

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Just a Few Hours Left in the Crowdfunding Campaign

Less than 7 hours until my crowdfunding campaign ends.

To be frank this one has been tough. I put in more work setting this one up than any of the previous ones. I had the “large” donors set up to drop their donations in the first few days. And I had built relationships in communities that will be the target audience for the finished movie.

When the campaign launched, I had several large donations come in. But almost zero small donations. When I did the campaigns for my TV show I had lots of small donations and almost no large ones. A couple of the communities I was in were a bust. I don’t know what happened to the rest.

But a few larger donations have come in outside the campaign. I am under $500 away from reaching the goal.

It’s not likely that I will reach it, but I will have enough to make the film, and tell these stories. Later, I will try to figure out how I misread my audience so much.

Sigma 19mm DN Art f2.8 Amazing Lens with a Video Auto Focus Problem.

The very first lens I bought for my Sony a6000 was the 19mm Sigma DN Art f2.8. For under $200 you get a lens that is super sharp. According to most reviewers, dollar for dollar, it outperforms the competition.

Flag over Washington (Half Mast)I have been very happy with it. I’ve taken some great pictures. On an APS-C sensor, the 19mm is a handy focal length for catching pictures of kids inside the house. It’s not too bad for wider landscapes. Or shots like the one above.

There is a problem, however, when you use it with AF turned on for video recording.

I didn’t notice it for a long time. If you’re running hand held, you might never notice it. On Youtube it’s not easy to see, unless you’re looking for it. And I wasn’t. The I pulled up the footage on my computer. How could I miss this?

But now that I’ve seen it, I can’t look at any footage on a tripod or slider without seeing it. What is it?

Here’s a video that shows the issue very clearly. Watch the edges:

Slowed down like this, the jitter on the edges of the frame is very visible. I pulled down a few videos I shot with it. (But not everything.) But every video I’ve checked has the issue. I’ve used the lens for several videos, but none were reviews of the lens. All were about something else, so I didn’t notice. they look fine where the center of focus is, where your attention is drawn. I don’t “pixel peep” with most of my gear. The center of the lens is sharp, and looks great. But with the autofocus on, the edges shake and jitter.

When I was researching this lens, every review was positive. I didn’t find one mention of this issue. Now there are a few posts about it. Some videos like the one above. I’d hate for someone who wanted this lens for video to not know about this issue, so I’m doing my part.

I love this lens for pictures. But I can’t recommend it for video.

Captioning for Amazon Video Direct (using Adobe Premiere)

I have previously written about Amazon Video Direct (AVD). It’s an awesome opportunity for indie filmmakers to get your content in front of a large potential audience, and it pays better than Youtube. For stand alone or episodic content, it’s a great outlet.

One thing might slow you down as you start to publish your videos on Amazon: Captioning.

Amazon Video requires that all content be captioned before they will publish it. Period. That can be a bit scary. A few years ago I paid about $2500 to a captioning/delivery house to caption and deliver 10 episodes (22:30 each) to a TV network. Now, they captioned the shows in both 708 and 608 captions, and delivered the files in HD to the network and gave me copies of the .scc 608 files so I could use them later. But still, $250 per episode. I’m making indie films with budgets less than that.

Luckily, Amazon suggests a few online captioning services which are much less expensive. One, Rev.com, offers captioning for $1 per minute and delivers in various formats. They can provide captions that are AVD compliant. They even have a free caption converter, should you need one. That means my 22:30 shows would cost about $23 for captioning for AVD.

Still, $23 is money you may not want to spend. What if you want to make your own? You can, but Amazon is very finicky about their files. I will share what I have learned. I have 1 season (10 episodes) of a show and 2 short films available right now, with 1 more short film in review. (Now published)

Adobe Premiere has the ability to create and export closed caption files. But getting a caption file that AVD likes is not simple. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Create a 608 Caption file. Premiere will do 708 files, but Amazon does not seem to like these 708 files. I have only had success with 608 files exported from Adobe for Amazon. Premiere can even import existing .scc files, allowing you to edit them.

Export .scc or .srt. When exporting your video file for upload, export a sidecar caption file as either an .scc or .srt. If you have content that is 29.97 use the .scc format, otherwise use the .srt. AVD says they will take an .stl file, which Premiere will export. But I’ve not had any luck using that format.

If you’re lucky, that’s all you need to do. Just upload and publish.

For my last short film I was not lucky. I was exporting a 23.976 fps file using .srt, and I could not get AVD to accept it. It was exactly like a previously accepted caption file for a previous short film. What was the problem? After trying multiple files over multiple days, I was frustrated. I turned up this post in the Adobe Community Forums. Scrolling through I found 2 solid things to try.

1. The timecode of your captions cannot overlap the same frame.

In Premiere you can see where one caption ends and another begins. Here’s a screen shot from premiere of my latest short film:

If the 1st caption you see ends at 00:00:20:08 and the next captions starts at 00:00:20:08, AVD has a problem with that file. So you need to go through all your captions and make sure none of them overlap.

2. Remove extra content.

During the exchange in the post in the Adobe Forum “Joshb88988268” says, “open the .SRT file with notepad and do a search for this: or the word font color. Delete any that pop up.”

As a mac user I found a free program called Brackets and was able to open the .srt file. Sure enough there were 2 lines with the tag and some extra info about “font color”. I deleted those lines and hit save. My captions in the code editor looked like this:

No extra tags or words. Just number of caption, timecode, and caption content. Brackets should also be able to open a .scc file.

So far that seems to have worked. At this point I have to ask myself, if I’m uploading a 4 minute short film, is it worth spending $4 to bypass all this effort? It might be. But since I have the captions done, I would like to be able to use them.

[Update: while I was typing this post, Amazon has begun approving my video. Looks like the latest captions with these changes worked.]

Why I Entered the Rode Reel Competition Even Though I Don’t Expect to Win- And Why You Should, Too

The Rode Reel short film competition is one of the largest in the world. Entries from 88 countries are all under 3 minutes long and must have been shot using a Rode microphone. In 2017 the prizes total over $500,000. If you watch finalists from previous years, many of them are just amazing looking, amazing sounding.

How can you or I, average independent filmmakers, compete? Why should we enter if we probably won’t win?

Perfecting your craft. Experience always teaches you. I made my first actual short documentary film. I learned a ton in the process and got to experiment with a new genre. Every project you complete has the potential to help you learn and improve. Do you think those Rode Reel finalists just woke up and magically were amazing filmmakers? No, they worked and worked. This is a chance for you to become a better filmmaker.

Exposure. We all have a sphere of influence. We have an existing audience, whether it’s just family and friends or something larger. But entering the Rode Competition will expose your work to potentially thousands of new viewers. Viewers who will meet you for the first time, who might find your social media contacts, who might subscribe to your channels. Viewers who could be fans of your work. And those viewers are available for free.

Free T shirt. And maybe more. If you’re among the first 1500(?) entries Rode will send you a nifty Rode Reel T shirt. Sometimes they throw in some of their small products. Who doesn’t like free stuff?

Deadline. Most of all, committing to enter places a real deadline in front of you. Talk is cheap. If you are actually a real filmmaker, what films are you making? A deadline puts a real goal in place. I wanted to enter last year, but I never committed. So I never entered.

So, want to see my entry?

You can watch it here: https://www.rode.com/myrodereel/watch/entry/3102 Hope you enjoy it. If you did, please take a minute and put in a vote for the People’s Choice award.

Before I submitted my film, I watched some of the finalists for that category in 2016. They were awesome. None of them were telling a story of an event. They were more like showcases, testimonies with nice B Roll. After completing my Rode Reel entry, I know why.

Trying to tell an actual story in 3 minutes, a non scripted story, is extremely hard. My film has a beginning, middle and an end. (Spoilers) There’s a mid point crisis and turn into the 3rd Act. But it all happens in 3 minutes. So it’s fast. I cut so much good stuff out I’m seriously considering an expanded version at a later date.

It’s not perfect, but it isn’t terrible either. And I can guarantee my next documentary will be better because of what I learned doing this one.

[Image courtesy of Greenleaf Designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

6 things I Learned Shooting My First Short Documentary Film

I’ve been working on a short documentary about my son’s last speech and debate tournament, specifically focused on the Team Policy debates in which he competed. It was a guerrilla style shoot. I had permission to shoot his teammate, but no one else. I could not disrupt the competition any more than any parent with a camera might. No extra lights. No extra people. Just capturing the event in real time with my Sony a6000, 3 prime lenses, and a Rode Smartlav+ microphone recorded into my phone. It was a true Run & Gun situation. Here are a few things I learned…

Story. Doing an actual documentary is different than most of the work I’ve done. I know how to shoot and edit a testimony video, but that’s not a documentary. Before the tournament, I spent time mapping out the structure of the short film. While I didn’t know what would happen, I did know the sequence of events, so I laid out the possible plan and tried to capture the actual events as they happened. As the tournament progressed, I could see how things would fit into my traditional story structure.

Pack Light. Because I was a one man crew, everything I needed was with me, all the time. I had gone through my gear, and left much of it at home. But I was still carrying around a medium sized camera backpack. And I still had gear I didn’t need. In order to grab my camera for a quick shot, I had to take off the backpack lay it down somewhere, open it up and pull out the camera. To downsize a bit more, and make access to gear a bit faster, I just ordered a camera sling bag. It’s large enough to carry a camera and a couple of lenses, etc… But smaller than a back pack and you can sling the bag around to the front, and access the gear on the run.

Invest in a zoom. Lens swapping is a pain. And real life doesn’t wait.

When shooting on a set, there is always time to swap out a lens. In between takes, you can switch over to a different focal length of the super fast prime you have. But in a documentary shoot, people aren’t waiting. Life is happening, the event is going on. Not only do you have a chance to miss the shot, but you might also disrupt the very event you’re trying to capture. During one debate round I was using my 19mm lens, and wanted a tighter shot. I was so nervous that opening my camera bag would be noticed by the competitors. I hope that didn’t happen, I tried to be so quiet. With a zoom, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Which zoom? On the Sony E Mount system, the reach and quality of the 18-105 F4 G series (SELP18105G) would seem to be a good fit. The longest lens I had with me was a 50mm, and I was wishing for longer options. It’s a constant aperture. I wish it was a bit faster, but it would only be a problem in the most dim rooms. I found that most of the time I was shooting f3.5 to 5.6. Of course the ISO was almost always at 1600 in the classrooms. Assuming I can continue to push the ISO that high, losing a couple of stops of light might be a decent trade off for the extra length. But at $500+, it’s out of reach for now.

Another option would be to adapt an older zoom of similar reach. You can often find vintage 35-105mm zooms for cheap. Just read the reviews on each one and make sure you have the proper adapter. Of course, you give up all automatic functions with these. I just ordered a Vivitar (Made by Koburi) 35-105mm f3.2-4 Macro lens for $26, shipped. I already own the right camera mount adapter. It won’t be as sharp or easy to use as the Sony 18-105mm. And I wish it was a constant aperture, but I’m hopeful it can fill the gap until I can swing the money. I’m sure I will still carry the 19mm and 35mm primes I have, but the 35-105mm could be my go to glass for future shoots.

A shotgun mic would help. Prior to the event I though I had worked out how to use a small shotgun (Rode VideoMicro) and record it into my phone. My goal was small footprint. I did not want to call attention to myself. I didn’t want to set up a full size shotgun with an external recorder. I tested the small shotgun, and would have sworn that I had the cabling worked out. But the day before the event I was charging batteries, and set up the mic to test it once more, and discovered that it was not passing signal. I needed a special cable to convert the TRS connection to a TRRS for the phone input. (Rode sells one: the SC7). I didn’t have time to get the proper adapter, so I punted. I ended up using the omni directional Smartlav+ to record audio. And, while it’s not as good as… pretty much any directional microphone at a distance, it was a lot better than the on camera mic. With some post work, some of the audio will be usable. But a shotgun mic would have been a huge help.

A camera with an audio input would help. My a6000 is a solid mirrorless camera. But it isn’t perfect, and one of the flaws is that it lacks an external audio input jack. While I would probably still use the Smartlav+ with my phone, having an on camera shotgun, recording directly into the camera would be good. Even if the small shotgun had worked, mounting the mic to my camera and then extending the cable to my phone would have been awkward at best. A much simpler solution would be to shoot on a camera that actually has the ability to record external audio. Of course the simple solution costs hundreds of dollars.

Get permission. I mentioned that this was a guerrilla style shoot. I got verbal permission from the judges in the room, and competitors. But the competitors are minors. So in order to actually use the footage I shot I cannot show any faces of minors since I don’t have permission from parents. They cannot be recognizable. I won’t identify the location, or even the organization. I knew that going in, so I shot accordingly. It would have been infinitely better to have the written permission from the event organizers, the location, and every parent of every student in each round. That wasn’t feasible for this project. In the future, I want to do more to get permissions, so I won’t be as constrained on the shoot.

As I’m closing in on the final edits of the project, I’m fairly well satisfied with it. Assuming I do similar projects later what I’ve learned with help make them even better.

[Image courtesy of Greenleaf Designs at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

“No Excuses” Sermon Series: Quick Comedy

In late 2015 our creative team met with pastoral leadership to discuss upcoming sermon series for 2016. One of the ones that got me most excited was called “No Excuses.” In our creative time we planned to shoot 6 comedic videos that show cased excuses that Christians give when talking about why they don’t share their faith. They had to be short, and they had to be funny.

2016 turned into a very busy year for video production at the church. Including the weekly video announcements, 2 video creators were tasked with completing 36 video projects in just under 3 months. A difficult task no matter what sort of videos are required. A short film project is a whole extra level of complication. after meeting about the workload, and planning an aggressive production schedule, we decided to go ahead with the series as planned.

Here’s the series broken down by the numbers:

-6 two-minute short films used as sermon bumpers.

-2 couples with limited acting experience playing the characters.

-4 days of shooting on a very small budget: We bought a few props.

-2 weeks after the first day of shooting the first film was shown.

-9 weeks total for production and post for all six short films.

-12 other video projects completed during the same 9 weeks.

Obviously,  that’s an insane schedule, but I wanted very much to keep it. I felt that sing humor to broach the subject of reasons why people don’t share their faith was the right approach. And I just like filmmaking. It’s incredible that I can sometimes do it as a part of my job. The fact that we were able to complete these projects is largely due to a lot of pre production and planning. Nothing ever goes according to plan, but that work paid off, as it always does.

Watch the entire series below:

Excuses #1: The only people I know are Christians.

Excuses #2: I’m not qualified.

Excuse #3: I don’t want to push my faith on other people.

Excuse #4: People might make fun of me.

Excuses #5: I’m too busy.

Excuse #6: I’ve tried it before and it didn’t work.

Recent Short Films and New Projects

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Thanks for visiting Scott Link Media. Stay up to date with the latest news by subscribing to our email newsletter.

If you click on the header above you will end up on the main page, where you can see 3 different video sections, Short Films/TV, Church Media, and DIY. Each contain several videos for your viewing pleasure; including links to some episodes of the award winning series Peculiar.

Here’s the latest short film from SLM:

And another of my favorites from a while back:

Mean while I’m working on some more short projects.

The major projects I’ve got cooking include a feature length movie about small church politics called Flawed, and a screenplay that’s a biblical epic based on portions of the book of Acts with the working title One Centurion. And there’s a campy comedy about church camp. And lately I’ve been drawn back to the documentary idea Gay Church. Follow the links to find out more.

The Experience- Short Film Cast List

experienceShooting in late Spring/early Summer in East Texas (Longview area), this 10-minute religious thriller is looking for cast and crew.

If you are interested in auditioning, follow the instructions below.

The Experience

A short film by Scott Link. A young married couple is on what is supposed to be a relaxing camping trip when the skeptical husband is thrown into a situation he can’t explain.

Cast:

The HusbandThis annoyed skeptic met the woman of his dreams, married her, and then she found religion. Twenty-something male. 2 days.

The WifeA recent convert to Christianity, this young woman just wants a relaxing weekend camping trip with her husband. Twenty-something female. 1 day

The LocalHe’s country and proud of it, and he likes to fish.- Middle aged male. 1 day

The DeputyNot much happens in his jurisdiction, and that’s the way he likes it. He’d rather be fishing at his favorite spot. Middle aged male. 1 day.

To Audition:

Email a resume and headshot to scott@scottlinkmedia.com. You will receive further instructions.

Crew Call:

We are also looking for several crew positions. These are volunteer assignments, and you will likely work multiple roles. We need Production Assistants, Assistant Directors, Audio, and Grips. We will be shooting outside with some very nice equipment. We also have some interesting practical effects to accomplish. You can get some good experience on set, but it will be hard work. If you’re interested in helping out, email scott@scottlinkmedia.com

Details:

This is a Christian movie, with Christian themes.

This is NOT a paid gig. There will be food and water on set, and you can request a copy of the finished short film for your reel.

We will be shooting in the Longview, TX area over 2 days. We will start late afternoon on a Friday, into the evening, and finish up by lunch on Saturday.

Find out more about me here. Email with questions: Scott@scottlinkmedia.com