Saturday, October 20, 2012

Recommendation: Make Your Own Documentary

I really enjoy watching documentaries. Heck, I like the American Experience better than most movies that have come out lately. I was seriously thinking about writing Ken Burns an email and telling him he's not working hard enough; I'm tired of waiting so long between premieres. So it shouldn't come as a shock to you that I (and I suspect there are many others out there) have always had a closeted desire to make documentaries myself.

Geek that I am, the first thing that I do when something bright and shiny floats by in my mind is to go to Amazon or the library and look for a book on the subject. Like my dad told me when I was a kid: "Anything you can think of, someone's written a book about it. In the library you can learn how to do anything." A few months ago I picked up the book "Making Documentary Films and Videos: A Practical Guide to Planning, Filming, and Editing Documentaries" by Barry Hampe. I've had it on the shelf for a while and I recently picked it up and read through it. You know how it goes, more bright shiny things distracting me, but I can honestly say I wish that I had read it sooner. Why? Because, along with technique, the book gives you an appreciation for how much work goes into producing, writing, filming, and production of the simplest of documentary films.

Right out of the gate let me say that this book is not for those who want to make a two-minute short for YouTube. The author acknowledges that with the technology available to us today, just about anybody can become a documentary filmmaker. But the book is written for those who might want to work on a production that rivals a full-length film, like Mr. Burns' Prohibition. That's not to say that there isn't a great deal of useful information for those of us who want to do short videos.

Probably the most valuable part of the book for me was Chapter 20 The Script. I'm proud to say that I've written a book and a number of articles, but I had no idea how to write a script for a documentary. Trust me, from my limited experience in playing with my little handheld Panasonic Video Camera, and Pinnacle Studio for editing and voice-over, I know that the end result will be tremendously more professional if you write down what you are going to film and what you are going to say long before you start filming. The author devote sixteen pages to writing and formatting the script, which is all I really felt I need. (Although I know that there are many volumes dedicated to the art and science of script writing.) The "Two-Column Script Format" (pg 201)  just makes sense. The book includes a chapter sample of a script and a full treatment of a couple of documentary scripts is included in the appendix.

The author, Barry Hampe, has had a long and full professional career having participated in the making of over 200 documentaries. He talks to his reader in a forthright and straightforward style. This book is about no-nonsense information, presented in an interesting and palatable form. This might not be the sole-source for you if you want to make documentary films but I think it should be on your reading list. After all, I now know what "shooting B-roll" means. ;-)