2020-05-05T17:47:53+00:00Categories: Lean Team Pro Tip|

Hi all, I'm putting all further Lean Team Pro Tips on hold during the pandemic. It doesn't make sense to promote a way of filmmaking urging you to get close to your subject material when we're supposed to be staying away from each other. If this continues for longer than we hope, I will need to re-frame my filmmaking experience for a new, distanced approach to documentary films. Stay tuned! In the meantime, please check out the trailer for my film in progress, Slow Revolution.

Lean Team Pro Tip #8: Evaluating Your Project’s B-Roll

2019-12-04T18:20:08+00:00Categories: Lean Team Pro Tip|

As of this writing in December of 2019, I’m excited to see a new film I’ve only read about it (I don’t count seeing the trailer; I’ve stopped trusting that trailers will ever accurately convey a sense of a movie’s true scope or artistic design). The movie is called Midnight Family, and it’s directed by the young filmmaker, Luke Lorentzen. The film is about a private ambulance company in Mexico City, one of hundreds that supplement the woefully thin government-run system. The film doesn’t sound like an agenda-driven documentary, it sounds more like a visceral thrill ride through the jagged, neon-streaked night streets of one of the world’s most exciting and complex cities (I’m going to make my second trip to Mexico City in less than a week). What I’m most looking forward to in Midnight Family is to see how Lorentzen pulled this film off as a one-man band:  directing, producing, editing and shooting (with two cameras!). His primary focus was the B-roll, the vital raw material that uniquely separates film from every other medium. He claims he wanted to make a strictly observational film, letting the sound and images speak for themselves. It remains to be seen if the film contains the raw grit of a classic like Streetwise or the prettied-up ponderousness of the recent Angels Are Made of Light. Both are also observational films, driven by all-consuming imagery, but rigorous intent doesn’t always translate into aesthetic triumph. As I write in my book, Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking, when evaluating your [...]

Lean Team Pro Tip #7: Evaluating Your Project’s Story-Part Three

2019-09-16T00:08:00+00:00Categories: Lean Team Pro Tip|

The next step in evaluating your project is to think about who (or what) your main character or characters will be. As I wrote in Lean Team Pro Tip #5, a character doesn’t always have to be a person. It can be a place, a thing, an idea, or an animal. In the 2019 film Aquarela, the film’s director Viktor Kossakovsky identifies his main character as a natural element: water. You can also have more than one main character, or an ensemble of characters. In our film The Church on Dauphine Street we featured several key characters: a priest, his next-in-command, the volunteer heading up the repair efforts on their church, and a union worker whose house was inundated by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. We tried to imagine the stories these characters would tell, and from those imagined scenarios we visualized how our film might flow forward. We wanted to map its potential momentum. Don’t reject your characters because they don’t seem to be inherently dramatic, or if they don’t represent extremes either in behavior or circumstance. In my book, Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking, I write: “Not every story needs to build up to a dramatic event or resolve itself with a positive or tragic denouement, but a story should have some kind of movement to keep a viewer engaged. Map out the plot points, the places where your story might turn corners or introduce surprises or reveal more depth. Again, don’t reject your film simply because it doesn’t contain “big moments,” but be cautious [...]

Lean Team Pro Tip #6: Evaluating Your Project’s Story–Part Two

2019-07-18T23:37:12+00:00Categories: Lean Team Pro Tip|

I ended Pro Tip #5 with a question from filmmaker and teacher Barry Hampe (Making Documentary Films and Videos), who asks if your film is posing a question or making an assertion: “A question leads to a search for answers with the outcome not necessarily known,” he writes. “An assertion, on the other hand, starts from the conclusion and then piles up facts as proof.” To take this further I’ll quote from my book Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking:  “A film that asks a question invests the viewer in the search for the answer. A film that makes an assertion is only interested in validating a point of view. The 2006 documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? seems to ask a question in its title, but the film really makes an assertion that the car is dead, we know it’s dead, we are mad about it, and we probably know who killed it (big oil, big car companies). The film spends ninety minutes making these assertions, all of which could have been perhaps more succinctly explained in a magazine article. Films that make assertions add more noise to the echo chamber. Films that ask questions invite you to be surprised, or at least exposed to a place, a people, or an idea you may know little about. Which kind of film do you think is worth spending your valuable creative energy on? Nina Davenport (Hello Photo, Parallel Lines, Operation Filmmaker) relies on a methodology that boils down to simply following her instincts. “I like filmmaking [...]

Lean Team Pro Tip #5: Evaluating Your Project’s Story-Part One

2019-05-14T15:46:33+00:00Categories: Lean Team Pro Tip|

You have eliminated the fat from your team, stripped your camera package down to its essentials, and defined your film. Now you need to evaluate whether or not you can make your movie by adhering to the lean team documentary filmmaking (or LTDF) strategy. As I suggest in Chapter Two of Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking, “Try and look at your film through the lens of a lean team documentary filmmaker, adjust your expectations, and break down the elements of your project with these limitations in mind.” The next several installments of Pro Tips will offer guidance on how to keep your lean team goals in mind while making your film. Let’s start with the story. The story is the backbone of your film. B-roll, interviews, music–everything else–forms the body that the backbone, or spine, supports. And a good story should come with strong characters, at least one, maybe with a few supporting characters. Sometimes the character will form the spine of your film, and the story they tell will be the body. Think of Errol Morris’s films on Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, and Steve Bannon. But a character doesn’t always have to be a person. As I write in my book, “the main character of your film can also be a place (your hometown, a prison, the moon), a thing (an electric car, a lava lamp), an idea (time travel), or an animal (pick one).” Frederick Wiseman observes the role institutions play in American lives in films such as Ex Libris (the library), National Gallery [...]

Lean Team Pro Tip #4: Curiosity or Passion?

2019-03-09T17:52:13+00:00Categories: Lean Team Pro Tip|

In Lean Team Pro Tip #3, I wrote that "I always keep my goals as a lean team documentary filmmaker front and center when asking" what kind of film I want to make. "If I can’t make my film as a one-person or two-person team, on a small budget, within a manageable time frame, and still earn money doing my other work, then I don’t begin the project." But there is another pre-requisite to beginning a film that is harder to define yet, in some ways, it's the most important consideration. It involves a question: Ask yourself if it is curiosity or passion that compels you. How often have we told others, when describing an artistic endeavor, that we are following our passion or that what we are doing is a labor of love? As though these handy catchphrases alone validate the time, money, and creative energy we put into it? Too often, passion is all consuming. It blinds us to reality, bleeds us dry emotionally and financially, and burns us out. Once the passion has run its course, what next? Heartbreak? Emptiness? Depression? To become a practicing filmmaker (and by practicing I mean a filmmaker who continues to find new films to make, and who with every film learns something new about their craft and about the world) takes stamina, courage, persistence, and some kind of sustainable money stream. It also takes curiosity. Not passion, curiosity. A curiosity about new places, people, ideas; a curiosity about stories and the potentially innovative ways to tell them. Curiosity–and [...]

Lean Team Pro Tip #3: Visualize Your Film

2019-03-04T17:50:12+00:00Categories: Lean Team Pro Tip|

First you'll visualize the kind of film you want to make, and then you'll be tempted to define it. Where does it fit within the myriad of sub-genres of the documentary form? There are environmental docs, investigative docs, celebrity docs, and social justice docs. There are docs about musicians, designers, and inventors. There are biographies and hagiographies. Docs about athletes and animals, money and mountain climbing. Concert docs, event docs, eco docs and hybrids.There are first-person films and films about politics. Observational ethnographies and observational anthropologies. Art films, experimental films, abstract and obtuse films. Many of these categories come with a lot of built-in contingencies that dictate the equipment you will use, the size of your crew, the amount of money you’ll need, the time it will take to raise that money, shoot your material, sift through it, and edit it. Even your film festival and distribution options will depend on the style and approach you take. In my book, Get Close: Lean Team Documentary Filmmaking, I write that “I always evaluate my idea based on the lean team documentary filmmaking, or LTDF, model. The first question I ask is, ‘Can I get close to my characters or subject matter?’ If the answer is no, then I don’t make the film." If the answer is yes, then I ask another question: ‘What kind of film do I want to make?’” I always keep my goals as a lean team documentary filmmaker front and center when asking that question. If I can’t make my film as a one-person [...]

Lean Team Pro Tip #2: Eliminate Barriers, Get Close

2019-03-04T17:51:02+00:00Categories: Lean Team Pro Tip|

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Getting close in documentary filmmaking literally means putting your body and your camera as close to what you’re filming as possible. But it also means getting emotionally close to your subject matter, not just physically close. And it also means staying close to the vision you have for your film, not allowing marketing concerns or outside validators to interfere. In my book I write, “There is a kind of meditative awareness that takes over when I’m shooting close to my subjects, much like that of the skier or climber who focuses only on the physical elements right in front of them. The subject or character guides my eye, and my eye communicates with my hands, which then manage the camera’s iris, shutter speed, zoom, and audio level. I’m always dealing with matters of exposure and composition and focus, but also with how my subject is responding to my presence. I’m deeply aware of them as a human being, and truly grateful they’ve allowed me to be this close to them so I can bring their story to a viewer, to make a connection.” To achieve this closeness, the lean team documentary filmmaker strips their gear and their crew down to its essentials. You can film without lights, tripod, or assistants; you can record sound directly into your camera with only a wireless and a camera-mounted shotgun; you can conduct an interview by asking questions from behind the viewfinder. You can follow your subject anywhere and shadow them without distraction, because you’ve [...]

Lean Team Pro Tip #1: Learn and practice, learn and practice

2018-08-25T20:25:50+00:00Categories: Lean Team Pro Tip|

I shot my first film, 30 Frames A Second, in 5 days. I then spent a few more days writing a script, and edited the doc in 7 days (I’d rented an edit suite and could only afford a week’s worth of time). The movie probably cost me about $9,000 to make, and most of that was my own in-kind contribution of time and gear to the project. I never applied for funding, hired an executive producer, attended a pitch session, or got anywhere near a post-production suite. I then sent the film out to a few film festivals without any real idea of what I was doing. It ended up winning the Best Documentary award at the Chicago Underground Film Festival and at several other fests in the months that followed. It played on Netflix for several years, and is still distributed educationally by Bullfrog Films. I decided that making independent documentaries was what I wanted to do. I was fortunate that I already had several years experience in producing, shooting, recording sound, and editing, skills I’d learned on the job as a TV news cameraman. My work was my practice field. That's the essential point of this first lean team tip: Learn and practice (and learn and practice) as many of the skills of filmmaking as you can. By becoming self-sufficient in planning, producing, writing, shooting, lighting, recording sound, and editing, you'll not only become a better and more well-rounded filmmaker–a lean team filmmaker–you'll also assume full control of your creative vision. You will [...]

Go to Top