I am occasionally approached by young people asking, “How did you become a documentary filmmaker and how do I become one too?” I start out by responding that I still consider myself an ‘aspiring filmmaker’ but have invested a few years in the journey and am always privileged to share something about the path that I have taken. I’m getting this question more often lately, so I thought I would share the advice I give when asked.
The first thing I like to ask is, what’s your dream? what do you lay awake at night thinking about? what do you have a passion to do? I have found that this vision for one’s future purpose that comes out through a driving desire to achieve great things is the foundation on which the rest is built. The journey is a long one for most people, and it is this vision that motivates and provides the drive that carries you on through all the hard work and failures to the victories and accomplishments.
When this level of vision is present, these are the steps I recommend:
Be the consumer you would want watching your films.
Filmmaking is about stories. Stories that entertain, inspire, teach, move people to act. Emmerse yourself in stories of every kind. Read, go to movies, watch documentaries and TV shows, look below the surface when watching even commercials. What was the writer, director and producer hoping to communicate? how is the story arch structured? what are the hooks that capture your heart? what were the technical methods, tools, lighting, sound reinforcement? how were graphics used to help communicate the story?
I like to watch documentaries at least twice. The first time, I just allow myself to get lost in the story and pulled along emotionally through the experience. The second time through, I analyze how the film was written. What format was used? what style of filming? how was the lighting done? how does the music underscore the story? how were graphics or animation used to help tell the story?
Write and tell stories as often as possible.
Write stories, draw storyboards, shoot a bunch of photos with a digital camera (even your phone or a cheap point-and-shoot) and put together a photo journal piece on something that interests you. Interview people and draw their stories out. Anyone you meet on any given day can be an opportunity to ask the right questions and think through how you would tell their story. Start conversations with people who look interesting and practice learning all you can about their story.
I see a homeless person pushing their cart down the street or a mother with her children in the grocery store and I imagine what their story must be. I think about how I would capture it and what kind of conflict would emerge and the kind of images I could film where the homeless guy lives under the bridge. I consider how I could tell the story visually and what lens I would use and how the story leaves off with the viewer wanting to become a part of telling how the story ends by getting involved with a homeless shelter or helping a single mother in their community.
Use what you have available to capture and create short videos.
Whether it’s your camera phone or a consumer video camcorder, shoot short videos of the stories you discover and put them together. Try different interview styles and settings. Try telling a story with only visuals and no narrative or interviews. Show them to your friends and family and be open to input on how the story could be strengthened. Team up with others who have a similar interest and work together on projects. Post your videos on YouTube and see what kinds of responses you get.
When I got my first camera, I shot everything that moved. I captured and edited to music the story of the sunset, the ant colony near my house, the youth camping trip, family parties and get-togethers. I made stop-motion animations of a Coke can. Anything I could frame in the lens was a possible story.
Get training and experience any way you can.
Find out what resources are available in your community to learn. I got my start in 1988 at Access Tucson, the community access cable station in my city. The classes were inexpensive and sometime free. Once I completed the training and got certified, they had camera, lighting and sound equipment I could check out for shooting and had editing equipment that could be reserved for post-production. I then began taking classes at the community college. I looked for internship opportunities. If you go to church, your church or youth group may have a media department where you can volunteer and get experience. Many Jr. High and High Schools now offer classes in media production and photography. The parks and Recreation classes in your community may include photography and video production classes.
Explore all your options and take every opportunity to learn and gain experience.
Serve non-profit organizations in your community.
Once you feel you have a level of proficiency adequate to begin offering your services to others, consider seeking out non-porfit organizations in your community and offering to produce a short promotional or fundraising video for them for free. Your local homeless shelter, inner-city youth outreach, humane society, Christian ministries of all kinds are ideal settings to find stories of human (and animal) need and the heroes who help them. You can not only find amazing stories to tell, but can help them show what they do and why they do it so they can mobilize volunteers and raise support.
My first serious project (besides weddings) was for Prison Fellowship, where my father volunteered. They used the video at a fundraising event and before I knew it, I had several other non-profits in my community asking me to do videos for them. The price was right (free) and so there was no shortage of opportunity to grow.
I soon began offering the organizations I served an opportunity to make a volunteer donation to me based on what they felt the video was worth as they began using it and gaining support through my service to them. I was surprised to find that when I served them with the right motive, to see them succeed, they were so grateful that they generally gave me a larger donation than what I would have charged them if I was hiring out my services.
This system turned into a full-time job for me and has evolved into where I am today. Over the past 20 years, I have worked with nearly 150 non-profit, humanitarian NGO’s and Christian ministries all over the world. That experience has equipped me with the skills, determination and support structure to take on my first feature length, independent documentary film, It’s a Girl.
So, consume and immerse yourself in story. Use whatever you have available to you to start telling stories. Get training and experience any way you can. And put what you’ve learned to work serving your community. You will discover that along the way, opportunities will present themselves and before you know it, you will be looking back over 20 years of capturing stories that change the world.