Production Tips

Ultimate Guide to Documentary Pre-Production

Post by
James Parker

There is no greater drama than that which we find in the real world. Documentary films can be exciting and adventurous, dark and suspenseful, and inspiring enough to create movements that change the course of history. They can give voice to the oppressed, and shine light on people and issues in a way that is quite unique to this mode of storytelling.

But there is also a deep responsibility that documentary filmmakers have to their subjects, and to the audience they are sharing their stories with.

As we continue on our journey of developing docs and learning from our peers, we wanted to share a couple best practices we utilize when developing a new story. Maybe they'll be useful for you on your filmmaking journey. Or maybe you'll find a completely different approach that works better. Thats part of the beauty with this process. There is no right or wrong way to make films. It's never black and white.

Step One: Develop the vision

What are you making a film about? Who are you making a film about? Why now? Why you? These questions may seem a little elementary, but they can pay dividends as the process becomes more and more complex. Write your thoughts down during this phase so you can reference back. Also, keep an open mind. Many times docs unfold as you develop, produce, and edit them, so remember this entire exercise is subject to change.

Step Two: Research

Once you have a general vision, it's time to do your homework. Dive as deep as you can into the issue and/or people you're going to tell a story about. What exists in the world about your subject already?

Use this time to Identify potential characters, organizations, partners. And watch as many films as you can! Get a sense for what already exists in the world about your story (if anything) and start to think about style and approach references you like.

Step Three: Treatment/Paper Edit

Alright, now it's time to get our hands dirty and put pen to paper! The treatment and/or paper edit is like trying to write a script for your doc... knowing that everything will likely change once you actually get in the field. So why do it? First, you'll need this to get any funding. Its key in helping communicate your vision to others. Secondly, it'll force you to start thinking in specifics. How are you going to capture this story? What might it look like? Where might it take you? And why does the audience care?

There are probably close to a thousand ways to put together your treatment and/or paper edit, but here are a couple key areas to focus on:

• Logline (1 sentence that hooks. Captures central conflict of the film.)

As an example, here is what we came up with for one of our recent films Other Side of the Hill: In a time of unprecedented divide between rural and urban Oregon, we find common ground in an urgency to address a changing climate.

Vision Statement (AKA Directors Statement. Capture your vision for the film and connect it to desired outcomes. What impact will the film have? Your case for why it should be made.)

• Paper Edit (Visualize your film scene by scene, act by act. Capture a clear structure and introduce your key characters. Write this in a present and active tense.)

• Visual Style (How will the camera relate to the characters? Will it be a fly on the wall? Or more subjective?)

• Team (Identify crew & include bios. Think about how your field team will impact characters. Big crew with lots of peeps vs. skeleton crew)

Step Four: “Cast”

In most cases, subjects in your doc will make or break. The importance of strong characters can't be understated. This part of the process is ALL ABOUT TRUST. Think about how you would react if someone called you up and asked for intimate access into your world. For most, this is a huge ask, and one that comes with a considerable amount of risk and exposure. You as filmmaker have a great responsibility to be ethical throughout the process of making your doc.

Some tips:

               • Leverage personal connections
               • Use organizations to make connections
               • Validate yourself (“I’m with XYZ productions or XYZ film program working on a doc project about XYZ”)
               • Be open to possibility. Never know where things may lead.

Step Five: Budget

Putting together a rough budget will help you start to transition from thinking theoretically to how you are actually going to execute this thing. You may already know how you are funding your film, in which case you will build around a set amount. Or, you may be putting together a budget for the first time before starting to identify potential funders. Either way, this step is key. Here are some key areas to focus on:

• CREW (Producers, Director, DP, Cam Ops, Sound Mixers, APs, Fixers, Editor, Assistant Editors, PAs)

• PRODUCTION EXPENSES (camera, sound, G&E, media & storage, travel, meals, hotels, cars)

• POST PRODUCTION (transcriptions, edit bays, graphics & animation, color & sound mix)

• INSURANCE (general liability, inland marine, errors & omissions, workers comp)

• RIGHTS & MUSIC (stock footage, music, composer)

• DISTRIBUTION (staffing, promotion & publicity, website, EPK, subtitling & CC for broadcast, screenings, film festival submissions)

• CONTINGENCY (10% contingency)

Step Six: Schedule

Start building out your shoot days and coordinating with characters/organizational partners. In this phase, it could benefit you to build out a shot list and/or scene list. Other times, this might be less relevant because you want to be an observer. In general, try to makes as detailed a plan as possible, but be ready to adapt.

Step Seven: Define post workflows

Often the most overlooked phase of pre-pro, but one that has saved our asses more times than one. Think about how your post-workflow will be handled. What resolution are you shooting in and outputting in, what frame rate, sound (sync or non-sync), codecs, etc.

How will media be ingested in the field? Who is responsible?

What is your data management plan? How and when will footage be backed up (here's a horror story in case you need some motivation to do your backups)

What is your ingest protocol? Transcoding? Logging?

So there you have it! Some tips to get your doc off the ground. While there's tons of material we didn't cover here, including the elephant in the room, film funding, we hope this helps in your journey! Always remember there's no right or wrong way to do this, so just start! Think about how many incredible stories have gone untold because the filmmaker let doubt creep in.

Get out there and tell some stories!

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