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KingVidiot
09-15-2005, 06:22 PM
Based on your favorite doc's and some of the standard "rules," what would you say are some real "don'ts" for a successful (although possibly unorthodox) documentary.

robmyers
09-15-2005, 07:16 PM
don't explain too much.

Duct Tape Films
09-17-2005, 07:49 AM
There are no rules. There are only styles. My style is "fly-on-the-wall", influencing the events as little as humanly possible (which is difficult in and of itself, as people ALWAYS change based on the presense of a camera). I try to not inject my views, even going so far as to NOT have a voiceover. My subject matter takes precendce over the subjects, meanig I follow themes as opposed to characters. This is my style. Does that it make it any better or worse than someone else's? Nope. My suggestion would be to watch as many of the documentary masters as you can, and figure out what kind of documentary elements you like, or don't like. I'm sure after viewing about twenty docs or so, you probably develop a dogma, or perhaps more fluid preferences, all your own. Best places to start: DA Pennebaker, and his diametric opposite, Michael Moore, and somewhere in the middle would be Errol Morris. Start there, and then expand at will...

Josh_Boelter
09-19-2005, 08:21 AM
I read an interview with Werner Herzog and he says he sometimes includes scripted material in his docs. For him, and I tend to agree, you can use whatever means necessary to tell a story. Include a set of rules for yourself if you want. If not, screw the rules.

Cheers,

Josh

vidled
09-19-2005, 08:34 AM
Possible things to avoid: Talking Heads....BORING!

Everyone does it, as it's relatively easy. And it has it's place....but not for 90+% of a doc! Yikes! But like others suggested, no rules, just personal preferences.

galt
09-19-2005, 05:01 PM
#1 don't:

Don't be like Mike. :)

Adam Crabbe
10-30-2005, 04:52 PM
Structure is the main thing.
-Beginning, Middle, and End.-
The end being an outcome or a kind of "alter call." (Asking for a change).

Good luck man!

adkimery
11-11-2005, 07:45 PM
I think my only hard and fast rule (or at least my biggest rule) is:
Don't abuse your subjects and don't abuse your audience. Treat them w/respect and honesty.

Yes, sometimes a bit of dramatic or creative license is needed (for example, reenacting something) but you should strive to keep it accurate and honest. A good doc serves to educate as well as entertain. It shouldn't be a soapbox or propaganda tool, IMO.


-A

jcsoc
11-11-2005, 08:33 PM
for a real documentary, try not to have a viewpoint, the point of making the documentary is to establish one, not push one on others. Michael Moore doesn't make documentaries.

Moonwind
11-11-2005, 08:56 PM
Don't stretch the truth, don't bend the truth, don't edge around the truth.

dustino
11-11-2005, 09:58 PM
Tell a story using images and footage. Footage, footage, footage should be the story or "evidence" - as opposed to voiceovers and talking head interviews. Those are fine to use, but only when visual "evidence" is unavailable or only in support of that evidence. In other words - SHOW the audience the story, don't TELL them the story; it's usually much more compelling that way. Also, respect your audience's intelligence - it's a lot more satisfying to absorb a film's ideas rather than have them handed to you.

But, most of all - tell your story your way. Imitating others is a great way to learn, but your film will only be good if it's true to who you are as a filmmaker.

Also, for all the Michael Moore bashing - at least most americans know his films. While I'm not a huge fan of his self-martyrdom at times, there are elements of each of his films I enjoy. And long before Michael Moore was the cultural lightning rod that he's become today, there was "Roger and Me," accepted and praised by a MUCH larger portion of viewers than his last couple of films. If nothing else, notice how he infused snippets of found-footage and pop music to lighten the tone of the often "serious issue" documentary, something not done too often before him in the genre.

A great exercise I learned in art school was to spend time imitating those artists (or filmmakers in this case) that you hate. This can just be an exercise, but you often learn a lot more from this than from imitating those you love. It forces you to explore your biases and really consider why you have them. Not only that, it opens you up to approaches you might have never considered but that actually work well for you or for a particular scene or particular project.

xander76
11-13-2005, 08:20 PM
I think my only hard and fast rule (or at least my biggest rule) is:
Don't abuse your subjects and don't abuse your audience. Treat them w/respect and honesty.


I'll second that.

I usually express it by saying that I do my very best to be fair to what I observed. That doesn't mean that the film is objective or doesn't have a viewpoint or doesn't sometimes mislead slightly about small details such as chronology. It does mean that in every important way (factual and emotional) the film is a fair representation of what I observed when I shot it.

Luis Caffesse
11-13-2005, 09:10 PM
There are no rules. There are only styles.

Couldn't agree more. Absolutely right.

I'm putting that on a tshirt damnit!
:)


Best places to start: DA Pennebaker, and his diametric opposite, Michael Moore, and somewhere in the middle would be Errol Morris. Start there, and then expand at will...
I would also throw The Maysles Brothers in there along with Ross McElwee and Alan Berliner.

Again, no rules...only styles.

Joe Kras
11-14-2005, 07:11 AM
I'm not sure if you guys really mean there are no rules or not.

If you purposely twist the truth, tell outright lies, and present things that aren't so, can you still call it a documentary? And is this fair either to the subject or the audience?

I think not. The rules may be interpreted differently somewhat over time, but I think there are some rules that are absolute.

Luis Caffesse
11-14-2005, 07:32 AM
I'm not sure if you guys really mean there are no rules or not.

If you purposely twist the truth, tell outright lies, and present things that aren't so, can you still call it a documentary? And is this fair either to the subject or the audience?

I think not. The rules may be interpreted differently somewhat over time, but I think there are some rules that are absolute.

I don't know if they are absolute.
We're talking about 'rules' not what is ethical or right.

If we can all agree that Michael Moore makes documentaries, or even someone like Alan Berliner or Errol Morris... then I think the definition is definitely flexible.

I don't think it's a good idea for anyone to tell outright lies, or to present things that aren't so.... but then again I don't think anyone does that intentionally anyhow. People tend to create things with good intentions, no one thinks they are lying.

Besides, someone who is going to lie through their work isn't going to be stopped if you tell them that it's against the 'rules.'

I stick with the belief that there are no 'rules.'
There are definitely different approaches and different styles.
But, by seeing the vast differences in many of the documentaries out there it is difficult to see any rules that are accepted by all.

Now, each filmmaker creates his/her own guidelines for sure.
Albert Maysles refuses to do interviews (Errol Morris on the other hand relies almost solely on interviews).

Ross McElwee and Alan Berliner rely on their voiceover, whereas Errol Morris won't put in voice in his own work unless he absolutely has to for the clip to make sense.

Now many of these people 'twist' the truth... and it's that 'twist' that has given them their success. Alan Berliner's work is all about his perspective, the same could be said about Ross McElwee. Without their twist, there wouldn't be much to their work.

So, yeah, I would say there are no rules.
But that doesn't mean there are no ethics... a documentary full of lies would still be a documentary...it would just be a bad documentary.

but now I'm delving into semantics.

Joe Kras
11-14-2005, 08:24 AM
but now I'm delving into semantics.

Perhaps I am, too.

I realize that there are tons of different styles to docs, and that it is probably impossible to not have your personal perspective color what is left of the editing process.

I just think of ethics as internal rules that need to be followed to be true to the genre.

And if new filmmakers come in being told that there are no rules, then they may let their point of view color their work to the point of justifying anything for the sake of telling their side of a story.

Luis Caffesse
11-14-2005, 08:32 AM
And if new filmmakers come in being told that there are no rules, then they may let their point of view color their work to the point of justifying anything for the sake of telling their side of a story.

And what would you say someone like Michael Moore does?
I think it's pretty clear that he lets his point of view color his work to the point that he justifies just about anything for the sake of telling his story. He goes so far as to insinuate he knows what people may have been thinking at certain times, adding voice over to that effect. And it's pretty clear he's seen as a documentary filmmaker.

And seeing as he's won so many awards I can only assume that putting your point of view into your work is fully accepted in documentary filmmaking.

*****I don't want to turn this into a political thread, and I've purposely said nothing about my personal feelings about Michael Moore, so let's try to keep this focused on the process and not the subject matter*****
(just a little preemptive strike, seeing as I know that the mere mention of Moore can incite riots on forum threads)


I guess my point is I still feel there are no rules. It's up to the individual filmmaker to decide what sort of film he wants to make. Are you out to convey an idea that you believe in? To present a story and a series of events? Or are you presenting an argument that you are trying to win people over with?

When presenting an argument (as in many modern documentaries) it is virtually impossible not to "twist" the truth, if not directly then at least by omission of information which may not fit your point of view.

Joe Kras
11-14-2005, 09:49 AM
I purposely have omitted references to specific people, as I too have seen the political storms related to certain filmmakers with the initials "MM". The fact that such a storm erupts, however, is testament that not "everybody" accepts that particular style as documentary.

To get back to the abstract, I think we agree on the following:

1) It's virtually impossible to not inject some subjectivity into any movie.

2) There are a myriad of different ways to tell a story.

3) A good documentarian will be governed by ethics that forbid them from injecting out and out falsehoods into their work.

That being said, there are a variety of different truths and viewpoints that may be presented (either in the same movie or in different treatments of the same subject). I was downloading an old doc off of the Prelinger archives a few months ago for one of my wife's cousins who is in to trains. It was one of these typical early 50's docs produced by the railroad showing the expansion of the West by the railroads. It focused on the technical aspects of this expansion, and the facilitation of cheap transportation by the railroads. While I don't think they lied about anything in the doc, there were undoubtedly a lot of other "truths" that didn't get presented. Things such as the effects on the environment, local economies, or even on the other methods of transportation that were being displaced.

I think you can get your point across without becoming dishonest (and have a much stronger film because you weren't). But just as newsgathering folk have become somewhat rushed and "lazy" in getting all the facts straight, I don't want to see documentarians going down a similar (or worse) path.

Luis Caffesse
11-14-2005, 10:47 AM
The fact that such a storm erupts, however, is testament that not "everybody" accepts that particular style as documentary.That's a great point.
Though I would say that I'm not sure if the storms erupt due to people's disagreement about whether or not it's a documentary, or due to the fact that they disagree with the point of view being presented.

But, that's definitely something to consider.


To get back to the abstract, I think we agree on the following:
1) It's virtually impossible to not inject some subjectivity into any movie.
2) There are a myriad of different ways to tell a story.
3) A good documentarian will be governed by ethics that forbid them from injecting out and out falsehoods into their work.1) Absolutely
2) I'm with you.
3) Right on.

I think you can get your point across without becoming dishonest (and have a much stronger film because you weren't). But just as newsgathering folk have become somewhat rushed and "lazy" in getting all the facts straight, I don't want to see documentarians going down a similar (or worse) path.We're on the same page.

I suppose that the one way to think about it would be, what separates documentaries from other work? I suppose the answer would be something along the lines of: They aim to present reality to the audience.

Given that, you may be right.
One rule of documentary filmmaking could be "Do not interject or omit content to purposely distort the reality of the subject"

Of course, even with something like that I can see gray areas.
Many people criticize Errol Morris for staging shots (i.e. Mr. Death (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0192335/?fr=c2l0ZT1kZnx0dD0xfGZiPXV8cG49MHxrdz0xfHE9TXIuIE RlYXRofGZ0PTF8bXg9MjB8bG09NTAwfGNvPTF8aHRtbD0xfG5t PTE_;fc=1;ft=21;fm=1) shows many 'mood establishing' shots of Fred Leuchter - drinking coffee, driving, sitting in his home, etc).
Techincally I suppose that staging a shot with lighting, direction, etc can be considered "distoring reality." Personally I don't find a problem with it.... but that gets to my point. Some people do have a problem with it.

When it comes down to it, what does and does not 'distort reality' is really a subjective call. Where do you draw the line? That's a question that each documentarian needs to answer for him/herself.

That's why I said it's a question of ethics, not rules.
Everyone draws the line in a different place.

Joe Kras
11-14-2005, 11:17 AM
One rule of documentary filmmaking could be "Do not interject or omit content to purposely distort the reality of the subject"

Of course, even with something like that I can see gray areas.

Agreed. I personally would be against "staging" shots, but agree that that's more a stylistic choice.

Luis Caffesse
11-14-2005, 11:23 AM
I suppose then that we can agree that there are rules.... and the issue of when and where those rules may apply are up to the individual.

Because you are right, it is inherent in the nature of documentary that they are attempting to present the reality of their subject matter, so sticking to that is definitely a 'rule.'

Wow, how often does this happen?
Usually if these debates begin they just devolve and fizzle out... here we actually found some sort of conclusion, or at least a compromise we can both agree with.
Too bad that's rare.

Joe Kras
11-14-2005, 11:50 AM
Too bad that's rare.

Actually, that's one of the things that I like about this board. I think that, all in all, this board functions fairly well.

On some internet boards I've been on (for video as well as other interests) it's obvious that the rule "any 14 year old idiot with a key board and an internet connection can post" applies. This, of course, leads to a coursening of the discourse and a distinct worsening of the signal:noise ratio.

n.b. I've got nothing against 14 year olds per se. One of my favorite posters on another board was a 15 year old who made a bunch of shorts, including my fav- "Mall Cops Suck".

Luis Caffesse
11-14-2005, 11:55 AM
One of my favorite posters on another board was a 15 year old who made a bunch of shorts, including my fav- "Mall Cops Suck".

Glad there's another "Dummy" fan among us.
What ever happened to Alex anyhow?
Last I saw he dropped his camera for a drum set....too bad.

Joe Kras
11-14-2005, 01:13 PM
No Idea what happened to him.

Alex dropped in to another forum in 2004, then took off again. He's 17 or 18 now, probably into girls or supercomputers.

He certainly had a raw talent.

xort
11-20-2005, 05:51 AM
The United states and the supreme court used to accept the idea that black people were worth 3/5th of a vote. So don't accept that MM is a documentary filmaker just because it's a popular notion.
Do the research on MM to see just how far he manipulated the facts and created new facts by mixing unrelated statements together. There's a book written detailing his BS. It's called "MM is a big fat stupid white man"

Joe_Digital
11-26-2005, 09:02 AM
Regardless of what one thinks of his subject matter or the quality of it, Moore has brought documentary filmmaking to the mainstream and brought 'our' films into theatres -that is theatrical release. Look at March of the Penguins, Weeping Camel, Born into Brothels, Shake Hands with the Devil -these films are making money in theatres because they're well told and offer a great alternative to the junk Holllywood is putting out. These films still would have been made, but far less people would have seen them and been affected by them...

What this 'new documentary phenomena' has also done indirectly is created a theatrical release strand at Telefilm Canada -they have recognized the box office potential of big ticket/large concept documentaries. While that may not help others on this thread (that is only canadians can apply to the fund), it does show many people are taking documentaries much more seriously as a storytelling medium.

xort
12-04-2005, 12:16 PM
Joe D
From that last post it sounds like you are saying...so what if MM is a liar and a manipulater of the facts. He brought attention to docs and so that's good. Am I misunderstanding you?
I find it harder to get doc subjects to cooperate because they think they're going to get the MM treatment.

Serif
12-05-2005, 10:04 AM
My biggest rule I go by is, I am a documentarian, not a journalist. I can do what I want so long as it is ok with the subject. It often means having lunch with them and making a relationship.

bikefilms
12-16-2005, 08:56 PM
The doc has gone through a ton of changes over time. What is considered "documentary" today, would not be cosidered during the 60's or 30's. It's all relative.

For example: the graphics and animation in "SuperSize Me" by Morgan Spurlock. Animation has for a long time been at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Has anyone here an education in documentary? One would show that bias is lurking around every corner. And that telling the truth is very secondary. In documentary, informing the viewer of your point of view is priority, historically.

it is true, that the audience labels the genre, not the author.

-a

valdez
12-26-2005, 02:05 AM
Jeez,
Firstly, I agree with most posts that there aren't really rules to follow, just styles and methods. Documentary is just so fluid and there are so many variables in every individual film that you can't have special rules and so many newbies ask about this. Part of documentary film, I've found, is just having good intuition and being flexible (at least in your production phase). You can't really be too much of an introvert and direct a lot of documentary film, I've worked on some failed doc shoots with indecisive introverted directors.
There is a misconception that much of documentary is done just walking up and shooting a bunch of great 'stuff' with a video camera and then all the brilliant work is done in post by some great intilect. The shooting/directing is dicy and difficult and often uncomfortable, and requires a lot of careful, respectful negotiation between people. Being honest and up front about your intentions goes a long way with people.
I'm not sure what the bit in that post is about who's been "educated" about documentary. Documentary "education" itself is pretty subjective. I've made documentaries for years, and eventually took a few classes for a certificate at a small doc school in NC, but that didn't qualify my point of view anymore than when I was doing it before and using the same methods I'd learned through trial and errors. That gets back to the "rules" issue. The best doc education as well as set of rules you'll learn for yourself is obtained by just getting out there and doing it. Trial and error; experience. Especially with doc work. Just be honest and throrough.
It's a shame that someone had to jump into a good thread with all this MM bickering, too. I've found that the mark of an inexperienced Doc filmmaker is one who always complains about MM. That just screams "he's not following the 'all docs should be polygraph proof, poignant, PC, Ken Burns, movies about knitting circles that save children" rule'. If you actually work on/ make doc films I would think that you understand the nature of it; that there aren't any absolutley honest docs and thats what makes it so tough. If you don't like his views or the way he twists facts and figures to get his views across than make another one to contrast it, or just deal. Thats why we all know his name so well; because we know that they are HIS VIEWs, not the ultimate truth. Anyway, I don't like or dislike his films that much, ROger and Me is an undeniable triumph and he has popularized the form a lot more which helps but he's no saint. No ones been hurt over them, so I say, whatever.

AshG
12-27-2005, 09:51 PM
I used to be a MM fan... huge fan... then, it got old and I come to find out he is not even from Flint... he lived every night of his pre-college life in a rich all white suburb called Davis... he is an EXCELLENT crafter of a STORY... he is not a liar but he IS an editorialist, not a doc maker.

While I dont have a body of work behind me, I have been a huge doc fan my entire life and my first feature doc has been received extremely well, being covered in the likes of Entertainment Weekly (half page last week), RollingStone and the NY Times. It has also been added to the curriculum at several colleges including NYU and USC. I just did a full interview for a bigger story in the NY Times which should run in the next 2 weeks and I was asked to comment on MM.... dunno whether they will run my comments but I pulled no punches....



ash =o)

ngraha3
07-08-2006, 11:12 PM
Exploit your subjects. Go into their rerigerators when they aren't looking and eat their food (hey, you probably need it more than them anyway). Lots of nudity is pretty much a standard so I feel silly even bringing that up. If you are ever lost, storywise, then it is well established in the pro arena that one should take their subjects out of context to make them appear racist (or more racist than they actually may be.

I'd say, the basic rule is to always assert your own superiority to your subjects. Let them know that they aren't really people on a regular basis. When you walk into their home, don't try to conceal your laughter at their lugubrious furnishings - let them know what inferior taste they have. Correct their grammer often. If you are not sure if a certain word they use is proper or not, just make up a reason why it isn't, I mean, you'll probably end up being right anyways.

If possible it is also a good strategy to, whenever possible, infer that your subject has some sort of venereal disease... chlamidia is probably the funniest.

Good Luck!

Dino Santoro
07-27-2006, 11:06 AM
Exploit your subjects. Go into their rerigerators when they aren't looking and eat their food (hey, you probably need it more than them anyway). Lots of nudity is pretty much a standard so I feel silly even bringing that up. If you are ever lost, storywise, then it is well established in the pro arena that one should take their subjects out of context to make them appear racist (or more racist than they actually may be.

I'd say, the basic rule is to always assert your own superiority to your subjects. Let them know that they aren't really people on a regular basis. When you walk into their home, don't try to conceal your laughter at their lugubrious furnishings - let them know what inferior taste they have. Correct their grammer often. If you are not sure if a certain word they use is proper or not, just make up a reason why it isn't, I mean, you'll probably end up being right anyways.

If possible it is also a good strategy to, whenever possible, infer that your subject has some sort of venereal disease... chlamidia is probably the funniest.

Good Luck!

Now that is funny!

Laughing aside, I would say that if you did the complete opposite of what ngraha3 said you'd make a decent documentary.

alexdias
07-28-2006, 10:30 AM
Documentaries (any filmmaking btw) have 3 basic rules:

Story
Story
Story

A.

mediamogul
07-28-2006, 10:40 AM
I just reviewed a fantastic book: The Art of the Documentary: Ten Conversations with Leading Directors, Cinematographers, Editors, and Producers by Megan Cunningham.

Link is here http://filmmakingcentral.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=41&Itemid=33

Im working on having her on my show soon too.

fu-pow
07-28-2006, 04:48 PM
On one end of the film spectrum you have realism on the other end you have formalism and in the middle you have classicism.

Example of realism=c-span

Example of classicism=most fictional movies

Example of formalism=pretentious "art films."

Extreme realism is just putting a camera somewhere and recording events.

In classic films the idea is to bring the viewer in to a fantasy world that is supposed to be "real." There are all kinds of conventions in classic films that are accepted by the audience that have no basis in "reality."

In formal films (I think? correct if wrong) the viewer is made aware of the "fakeness" of the medium. The film is not supposed to feel "real" at all. Its a very kind of self-concious poking fun at the medium itself.

I think that "documentary" sits somewhere between realism (c-span) and classicism (hollywood movies).

Documentary has storytelling conventions like classic films that the audience accepts but the content, the visual "evidence", is also expected to have some basis in the "real" world.

Where the documentarian fits in between realism and classicism is a stylistic and ethical choice. His credibility is always on the line. He expected to bring something like "truth" to the viewers.

In cinematographic terms there are no "rules." There are only conventions. If you get too far away from the conventions of filmmaking you will lose your audience. If you follow them too closely then you are unoriginal. There's always a balance to be struck.

The documentarian is part journalist, part filmmaker.