Talks and Takeaways
I’ve been lucky enough, the past two days, to sit in on a few filmmaker conference panels at SILVERDOCS. I learned quite a bit and it’s been tough to narrow down the items I want to share, but here they are:
DSLR Cameras in Documentary
This discussion, co-presented by Steve Bognar (a filmmaker in residence at SOC this past year) focused on equipping filmmakers with the knowledge necessary to make the choice between shooting their films with DSLR cameras or HD video cameras.
The presenters detailed the pros (shallow depth of field, more compact/inconspicuous) and cons (prone to overheating, 12 minute maximum recording times) of using DSLR cameras for video, allowed participants to try equipment and presented the group with a “starter kit” checklist for people who opt to use DSLR for video. (Items on the list included, but were not limited to: the camera, a shotgun mic, an external sound recorder and headphones.)
The audience was treated to clips from films showing at Silverdocs, shot with DSLRs (Dragonslayer and Hell and Back Again) and the filmmakers spoke frankly about their experiences (good and bad) using the cameras to shoot their films. The key takeaway from the presentations – allow your story to inform the camera and equipment you choose, not the opposite.
Changing the Public Perception of Documentary
Likely a topic near to the hearts of documentary filmmakers, this panel explored the stigmas and connotations, if any, associated with the idea of “documentaries”. The panelists debated the term “documentary” and how it should or should not be applied to any programming purporting to depict “reality”.
While opinions and ideas differed quite a bit (from suggestions of creating and using documentary sub-genres to proudly using the word “documentary” and getting away from sugar-coating terms like “Reality thriller”) the panelists concluded that American audiences are not turned off by the idea of watching a documentary like they may have once been (back when documentaries were largely defined as educational filmstrips in history class).
In fact, as pointed out by Paola Freccero, co-founder of Crowdstarter, in a survey where respondents were asked their likelihood to see “indie films” and a “documentary films” more people were open to seeing documentaries. She further noted, if your film resonates with people on an emotional level and is on a subject in which they have interest, you should have no problem finding an audience.
Reverse Angle, When the Filmmaker is in the Film
Moderated by our Media that Matters 2011 keynote speaker, Katy Chevigny, this panel was an emotional discussion with three filmmakers who have put themselves into one or more of their documentaries.
Each filmmaker had his or her own personal reasons for putting themselves into their pieces – in the case of Mimi Chakarova, maker of The Price of Sex, the reason was a combination of guilt and story structure. Steve James (The Interrupters) and Chico Colvard (Family Affair) both found, that their presences in the films (even quite briefly) rounded out the stories they were creating.
The panelists shared a number of suggestions with filmmakers contemplating the same idea – if you are narrating, be sure it sounds like you and it’s conversational, don’t take on a new persona as the narrator; try making a version of the film without you, to see if it’s stronger that way; and realize that you’ll become hyperaware of yourself and your flaws and make sure you are prepared for those things to be seen by other people. The panel encouraged filmmakers to make sure putting themselves in their films moves and contributes to the story in a significant way.
Master Class: Editors, The True Storytellers?
Julia Reichert (also a filmmaker in residence at SOC this past year) moderated this discussion among Toby Shimin, the editor of Buck and Tome Haneke and Heather Courtney, co-editors of Where Soldiers Come From. The editors were asked to provide before and after clips, highlighting problems they had in early cuts of their films and how those problems were solved.
Sometimes the problems were solved thematically – adding footage or discussion based on a certain theme and perhaps taking away material that does not fit the theme. Other times the editors made their scenes more focused on specific characters by adding footage of some characters and/or taking away footage of others. Attendees were shown “problem areas” from the beginning of both films with the reminder that the beginning of your film must be strong, otherwise people will not care about watching it for the next 90 minutes.
Of course, attendees were left with sage advice from the panelists – make sure to organize and categorize your shots; shape the story when editing by finding the themes and characters; and if you’re a director, be sure to articulate your vision clearly to the editor and check in with him or her once a week.
That’s the first two days in fast forward. I wish I could attend more panels this week, but alas, other obligations call. However, if you are a documentary filmmaker or enthusiast in the DC area, I highly advise heading up to Silver Spring and sitting in on a panel or checking out a film.
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