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]

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War Room Exceeds Expectations at Box Office, New Slate of Biblical Movies Upcoming

The new film from the Kendrick Brothers held its own against theory movies, on fewer screens, for the opening weekend. $11 Million earnings for the weekend was more than double the estimated amount, proving once again that there is an audience for faith based films.

Noah and Exodus notwithstanding, religious people will shell out their hard earned cash to go see films that affirm (Pun intended… Affirm Films put out war Room) their faith. For a budget of $3 Million, War Room will turn a tidy profit for Sony. And that;s one thing that will keep these kinds of films coming, profit for the companies. I used to hear that Hollywood wasn’t open to movies about faith, but if there is money in it, they are open to movies about anything.

Not everyone loved War Room, Christianity Today’s review took them to task on writing quality:

“But when it comes to screenplay writing, the genre seems stuck in a rut. It’s more committed to heavy-handed providential plotting than imaginative explorations of character or setting.”

There’s no doubt that religious filmmaking has a ways to go in terms of craft. But we have made progress. And, for all of it’s “heavy handedness” War Room resonates with the target audience, Christian women. My own church already has a War Room inspired women’s Bible study scheduled. And the overall message about prayer is solid and needed in most Christian families.

because of the success of films like these, we have seen, and are seeing more films dealing with faith and biblical subjects. Early next year we will see two more, larger budget movies:

MGM is re-booting Ben Hur, due out in February of 2016.

Sony/Affirm has another biblical epic coming out in January, 2016: Risen

It’s an interesting story idea. I’m hopeful.

When the Kendrick’s made their first movie Flywheel, I doubt they knew what they were starting. Churches and filmmakers can do films that will reach a much wider audience than they might have before this. And studios are more open than ever to tapping into the religious market. That has the possibility of helping Christian filmmakers disciple more and share the Gospel more than ever before.

BRKN Update

BRKN logoPost on the short film BRKN is making progress. The edit is complete, and I need to add music and color grade. I hope to complete it this week.

Assuming all goes plan, from concept to completion in under a month.

I hope to do another one in late Summer. I’d like to do the sci fi/thriller I have the script for, but will need to see if I can find enough cast and crew. If not, I will come up with another idea.

Filmmaking is fun. And scary, because you are putting something you created out there. The more I do it, the better I get at it. But I always have the same fears before I shoot and before I release a project.

2 Ways Afronofsky’s Noah is Like Other Christian Movies

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 6.39.04 PMI confess, I finally saw Noah.

I got it from Netflix. I know, I told everyone to embrace this movie and go see it in the theater. But then the reviews (not the speculations, but actual reviews from people who had seen the theatric release) came out. It was bad. Really bad. I mean… rock people? Wonder why those didn’t make the trailer. Oh right, because they were a horrible plot device. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Because of the hype and controversy, the movie still grossed $43.7 million on opening weekend in the US. $95 million worldwide. It was well on its way to making back the $125 million it cost. It wouldn’t be a flop. So, I decided not to spend my money on a bad film. I don’t mean bad as in unbiblical. I mean bad story.

But, now I have seen it and I can say that it is likely the most unbiblical Bible movie ever made. There is just so much that is way out in left field. That topic has been thoroughly covered by others.

But there are two ways Noah is just like other Christian movies.

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 6.29.22 PM1. Heavy handed message. We get it, you think people who eat meat and destroy the environment are bad. Stop hitting us over the head with it.

No one wants to have any message shoved at them. Tell the story. Trust your audience to see the themes. You don’t have to be so obvious to get your message across. Your audience is media literate. They will get it.

Screen Shot 2014-08-01 at 6.27.37 PM2. Convenient plot devices. Oh, you don’t want to deal with Noah taking hundred’s of years to build the ark? OK, just create a fictitious race of rock people and have them feature prominently in the film.

It’s just unbelievable. There’s no reason to add them to the story. Noah needs help to build the ark? Rock people. Noah needs help to defend the ark? Rock people. We need a reason for the division of humanity and an origin for the bad guys? Rock people. They are such a large part of the film story that we have to wonder how the biblical story ever got told without them. Frankly, it’s lazy. It’s unnecessary and it clouds the bigger story… which apparently in this version is that men are evil and eat meat and destroy the world, so they must be cleansed from the earth.

Blake Snyder in Save the Cat talks about this particular plot mistake. He calls it Double Mumbo Jumbo. He says that “audiences will accept one piece of magic per movie. It’s The Law. You cannot see aliens from outer space land in a UFO and then be bitten by a Vampire” or in our case you can’t have the “Creator” supernaturally destroy the earth and save one family in an ark AND have a race of fallen angels walking around in rock bodies. There are lots of common story mistakes, and many religious films have them. So does Noah.

The moral? A huge budget can’t fix basic issues in your film. No amount of ILM created CGI can cover them. An all star cast can’t save you from them. Even this blockbuster suffers from the same things that many religious projects do (my own included). Don’t worry that your budget isn’t million of dollars, or your actors aren’t A List. Just tell a good story. If you do that you’ll be miles ahead of a most movies.

Small Miracles

IMG_3542Sometimes it’s the small miracles in life that keep you going.

God’s been doing some stuff. We are selling our house. Heard we should get an offer today. I’m looking actively for a different “day job” so we can make ends meet and still have time for family and working toward the calling and vision we believe God has given us.

On my birthday, of all days, my car blew a head gasket. I got the report from the repair guy… don’t put any more money into a 16 year old car.

We are debt free, except our home. We don’t want a car payment. I went looking for a car. Small cars are expensive. I was down to throwing a few hundred at some clunker just to get around… driving it into the ground like my last car.

Then my in-laws asked to come over. I had borrowed their van during this time. They said they had been planning to drop down to one car. And they were giving us their van. 2001 Sienna. My father-in-law was meticulous in maintenance of this car. Not brand new, but a lot of life left in it.

Huge answer to prayer. One less issue to distract from the vision and dream. So thankful.

Telling Stories in Interviews

cameraI have a confession. Even though I have worked in media production for over a decade, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I really had a strong sense of the components of story. I mean, I knew about story. But I had little need of writing content. Mainly I would do highlight videos and interviews. In interviews I’d have the subject tell me their “story” and I would pass the interesting parts along in the final video.

I rarely had powerful, gripping interview videos. And when I did, I assumed the content was just better, or the people were better on camera. Don’t get me wrong, the other videos were fine, but a lot of times they were just conveying information, not telling a story. Yeah, that’s embarrassing. I was a professional, but I didn’t have the concept down.

So, for the last few years I’ve been doing better at understanding the parts of story… but that still didn’t necessarily translate into my interviews. I read “Story” by McKee, I recently read “Save the Cat” by Snyder. I wrote 10 episodes of Peculiar, and have been working on my feature length project, Flawed. I am getting better at storytelling The other day I was editing an interview for a church, and I realized I was naturally editing with story in mind. I started identifying the inciting incident, the conflict and resolution, the parts of a story. It was all right there in the content. The final edit will always better if you keep this in mind.

So how do you always make sure to get the parts of the story recorded?

There are 4 basic things you need in order to have a story: A beginning state, and inciting incident, conflict, and resolution. There can be more parts to stories, but if you don’t have one of those 4, you don’t have a story. You have information. You can ask a few basic questions during the interview to make sure you get the parts of the story you need.

Interview questions that lead to a story:

Beginning:
This is the exposition.
Tell me about X before Y.
What’s the backstory? What were things like before the change? Describe what the life/the ministry/circumstance was like before.

Inciting Incident:
This is the event or idea that started the change or growth.
How did Y begin?
What brought this about? What changed? When did the problem first surface? Tell me how you first learned of this new opportunity?

Conflict:
This is the process of growing, changing, accomplishing the goal, overcoming obstacles.
What were the obstacles moving from X to Y?
What was the hardest thing about doing this? Tell me about the problems this caused, and how you overcame them. What happened when you tried this new thing?

Resolution:
This is the result.
Now that Y is here, describe your circumstance.
What’s the ministry/project/life like now? How have you changed?

That’s it, pretty simple. Obviously you can draw out more of the story in each section if you want. But if you answer these questions you will end up with a basic story for your interview.

Example of Interview with Story Elements:

Beginning: 0:00-0:30
Inciting Incident:0:30-0:55
Conflict:0:55-2:45
Resolution:2:45-3:53

Christian Character Honesty

fake guyOne of the biggest complaints about Christian film/TV/video is that the characters are not honest. There are exceptions to this, but many times, too many times, this is true.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m no expert character developer. I’m no expert scriptwriter. I wrote 9 of the 10 episodes of my show, Peculiar. I’m writing a feature length script now. I’ve fallen into the trap of creating a one dimensional character to achieve a plot point. I’ve presented characters in my work who change little over the course of the story. I’ve created weird moments where characters are set up to preach in a conversation rather than talk like normal people. But I am working to get better. Trying to educate myself, taking classes, reading books, writing.

One thing I did not do in the show is present the main character as a perfect Christian, who knows all the answers. He is a new believer, with little religious background. He makes mistakes. He learns, he is discipled. He is trying to live according to his faith.

I think a lot of times we see religious works and the main “Christian character” is this snapshot of life. They are static. The world happens around them, and they react to it. Almost like the writers have said that this is how believers act. This moment of life, they are the Christian, and Christians act like this, so watch them be Christian.

Salvation isn’t just limited to a moment. It’s a lifetime of faith and learning. The Bible says we are justified and sanctified. Justification is like God looking at us, but Jesus steps in front of us, so God only sees his righteousness, not our sin. It’s immediate. Sanctification is a process of molding our sinful nature into the shape of Christ. It’s ongoing.

Christian writers seem to get tied up in justification. It’s like we have this story with conflict, and the character is this perfect believer with no doubts and nothing to learn. Let’s watch what a “real Christian” would do in this situation. And then we watch them make all the right decisions, and in the end… I guess we are supposed to feel convicted because we are not where the Christian character is? We are supposed to leave the film saying, “Wow. I need to get my life right so I can be like that guy, he’s a real Christian”? Or, “I sure was glad that sinful person ended up choosing to be more like that Christian character.”

But no one is like that. Not in real life. I’ve known some pastors and speakers who present their lives like that on stage, but in reality, they are just as mixed up and full of inadequacies as we are. People who try to live like that remind me of a guy sitting on a three legged stool, sawing on a leg. Eventually they are gonna fall. Christianity as a whole has a problem being real, being honest with each other. We don’t show weakness or flaws. And if we do, the most common response is not support, but attack.

And that rubs off on Christian film and story. It’s like we are afraid to let a character be raw and honest. Maybe the investors won’t like it? Maybe we think Christian audiences can’t handle it? I don’t know, but too often we set up these unreal Christian characters.

Christianity isn’t about following people. It’s about following Jesus. Believers who follow other people will always end up disappointed. Setting up dishonest characters in our story will always ring false to the audience.

Audiences don’t want fake characters. Let’s let our characters be honest and real. Let them struggle to overcome. Let them change. Let them be real.

Caught in the Middle

I think I’m experiencing what many Christian filmmakers go through: The struggle between making the show you think you should make and making the show you think people will like/support with money/allow to be on their station and making the show somewhere in between.

I know, we shot the pilot for next to nothing. And the next 5 episodes will be shot for not a lot more. We have the capability to do that, but long term that’s not going to work. We have to come up with donors, investors or sponsors. Or some combination of the three.

It’s appealing to think about the established Christian TV model. Make a heartwarming, if somewhat cheesy, story attached to a non profit and watch the donations pour in. But that model is doomed. There’s some life left in it, but it’s not a long term solution. And really, who wants to make shows like that?

Or you could just do what you want. Don Miller and the people who made “Blue Like Jazz” did the movie they wanted. When I was watching I wasn’t sure I liked it. I really thought the main character was a coward. Then at the end, they totally got me. I finished the movie thinking this was the first Christian themed movie that a non Christian might watch without being coerced into it by their Christian friends. It had a lot of content that makes Christian movie watchers/makers uncomfortable: swearing, drugs and alcohol, and a main character who is a lesbian. And then it didn’t go on to condemn or show life transformation on all those people. We finish the movie with the lesbian still being a lesbian. Not a common Christian film.

Of course, it wasn’t accepted by a lot of Christian viewers. Not a big problem when you land distribution through a secular company. That would be a major problem for my show. We have the Youtube channel, but if we want to get broadcast, then we are looking at Christian TV. I don’t think many religious TV stations are going to broadcast anything close to Blue Like Jazz.

Of course, I’m not making Blue Like Jazz, or anything close to it. That’s not to say we are not dealing with issues that many TV shows shy away from. Last night we taped a scene which honestly answered questions about why God would send people to hell. One episode deals with sex and abortion. We’ve got bullying, cheating, politics, Christian sub-culture and even Halloween. But still, these are tame compared to Blue Like Jazz.

If you took Blue Like Jazz and put it on one end, and took the movie Courageous and put it on the other end, then placed my show in the spectrum in between. We would be so, so much closer to Courageous. Neither movie is bad, in my opinion, but both are aimed at different people. Both are telling different stories.

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting with someone about the show, and I had to describe the target audience. I said my goal was to make a show that 13-25 year old believers wouldn’t be embarrassed to watch. One they could tell their friends about.

That means that I can’t be super safe, and make a bland story, following the traditional model of funding and distribution for Christian TV. I want to deal with real issues, and show real people. But I can’t move too far down the continuum or I won’t be able to utilize any of the existing distribution channels. So I’m caught in the middle. But we are getting the show done.

We are working to tell a good story. In doing so, we are showing what it means to really try to live out your faith in the world. We are putting on display the life of a new believer who is trying to develop a biblical worldview. It’s a lot of hard work. And when we are done I am sure that some will say we should have gone farther. And some will say we have gone too far. But in the meantime we are doing our best to tell a good story and follow God’s call on our lives.

Blame Entertainment, Then Tell Your Own Story

I recently read “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV” by Ben Shapiro. He outlines the history of TV, and the messages we see in primetime. As I finished the book I was reminded of the power of store to impact people, and that the author/screenwriter/director/producer’s worldview is the basis for the stories we see in entertainment.

And that is why Western Civilization is where it is today.

The power of story.

Story takes the worldview of the creator/author of the story and makes it into something people will accept, ingest, maybe even adopt. Messages couched in entertainment are more powerful than speeches. A speech can reinforce an attitude or belief, but it will rarely change a mind. But a heartfelt story can go a long way toward changing a heart, and a mind.

A long time ago I took a class on Persuasion. One of the things I learned was that some attitudes and beliefs are harder to change that others. Moving from the position of not liking wheat bread to liking wheat bread is much easier than moving from liking gay marriage to not liking gay marriage. Attitude and beliefs that are more central to who people are, that people identify as self defining, are much harder to change. And they take a long time to change.

I’ve been alive long enough to have seen some of those deep attitudes and beliefs change. There are things that are accepted today that never would have been accepted 20 years ago. And that’s not completely a bad thing. Some things needed to change. But not everything.

Going back to Shapiro’s book, the people that make our entertainment, that tell the stories our culture consumes, primarily have one set of values. They have very similar world views, and their stories reflect that. Their characters interact with the world based on how they see it. When they come into a conflict, they act, and the worldview of the creator is shown to be true in the show.

It’s not a conspiracy. It’s natural. Jesus never told a story that wasn’t based in his worldview. I will never tell one that’s not based in mine. You could claim that sometimes they go out of their way to put characters in situations that undermine an opposing worldview, but Christian story tellers do that all the time. That’s what evangelistic films are. Over time, our culture is gradually adopting and accepting the worldview presented in our stories.

If we Christians ever hope to influence our culture, to see people with a biblical worldview, to see the Gospel spread, it’s true… we must learn to be great storytellers. But things don’t stop there. We must take those skills and put them to use in entertainment. If you want to change the world, don’t go into politics. In today’s politically landlocked climate, legislation doesn’t change the world. Entertainment changes the world, or at least Western Civilization.

Geeking Out vs. Creating

I’ve been looking for a new mid level HDSLR. So I’ve been reading the internet a lot. There’s a lot to read.

One thing that strikes me is that there are tons and tons of videos available on Vimeo and Youtube that compare the features of one video capable DSLR to another, but there are not that many simply creative videos that tell a story. Do a search on either site for any major HDSLR and you can see all the video reviews you want. But there are far fewer stories for your viewing pleasure.

It’s easy to geek out on tech specs, and shoot test videos. I’ve done it, I’ve enjoyed it. But it is much harder to carry a creative idea to completion.

My challenge to anyone reading this is to not get tied up in the technical so much. Learn to use your tools. Make them do what you need them to do. But move past the tech to using those told to create.

Don’t just Geek Out. Tell your story.