Wednesday, 25 July 2007

The art of documentary filmmaking

I've been really enjoying reading Alan Rosenthal's Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos, despite the really really long title and the fact that it's over 10 years old (the edition I read anyway).

Starting to read the book, I remembered I'd downloaded podcasts from this year's Sundance Film Festival. Some really interesting insights on the evolving nature of documentary.

It's fascinating see what's changed and what's stayed the same. Since Rosenthal's book was published in 1996, we've seen cable TV and the internet open up huge new markets for film producers. Yet that is only still unfolding as filmmakers - often more traditional in their thinking than they would care to admit - slowly grasp the opportunities of micro-films on YouTube.

What hasn't changed is the need to tell a good story. And Rosenthal has some really sound advice on that, which I'll summarise here:
  1. Have a clear idea of what you want the film to accomplish - this will help you identify your audience and secure funding.
  2. Know the language of documentaries - actually, of filmmaking in general - and use what works for what you want to do.
  3. Write, rewrite and rewrite.
  4. Think visually.
  5. Avoid abstractions, statistics and lists. Instead go for personal stories that follow someone's journey or conflict.
  6. Where possible, let the story's characters tell their own story.
It's all stuff I'd heard before, but it was good to hear it specifically applied to docos.

It was also great to read Rosenthal's examples, as well as hear the up-to-date examples in the Sundance podcast.

All in all a good read - part of my self-selected curriculum bringing together the communication skills and languages of a whole bunch of disciplines.

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