Film Industry Tips

Documentary Filmmaking Rules and Observations.

Documentary Rules and Observations

Documentary Rules and Observations.

We at Lift-Off absolutely love documentary films – when executed correctly and the documentary rules are observed they can open up the most amazing insights into the human condition and beyond!

Every-time I think I’ve found the perfect documentary another one comes around the corner and literally has me thinking about it for days and days afterwards. Personally, I’m sure I’m not alone, I love my mind to be expanded by an idea. It’s a study of missed opportunities, human error, sacrificing the norm for something greater, real life success/failures and sometimes overwhelmingly inspiring narratives, these are the documentary foundations which really get me excited.
Like most creative passions which rely on audience draw/likability in order to make money, there are many rules to observe. Rules which I think all of my favourite docs fall along with, in some way. Few go against breaking them – which can be great for the creative endeavour – but this is provided that they were observed by the filmmaker in the first instance.
I’ll start by listing my five absolutely favourite mainstream documentaries at the time of writing. Then in the next few paragraphs try to highlight what I felt worked so well with them, drawing parallels, as a festival programmer of documentary film, to that of  what Lift-Off Film Festivals receive as submissions from ambitious Documentary filmmakers from all around the world.
— Film points of reference – my top five documentaries…
  1.  Into Eternity – Directed by Michael Madsen. 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
  2. Jodorowsky’s Dune – Directed by Frank Pavich. 98% on Rotten Tomatoes.
  3. Man with a Movie Camera – Directed by Dziga Vertov. 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.
  4. Cave of Forgotten Dreams – Directed by Werner Herzog. 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.
  5. The Cove – Directed by Louie Psihoyos 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Documentary Rules. No1. Content that’s news worthy?

If you haven’t seen all of the above films yet, I suggest you do. Especially if you haven’t seen Michael Madsen’s brilliant ‘Into Eternity’ a modern classic that gets horrendously overlooked in my opinion. What strikes hard with these films is the uncovering of something which most audience members would normally have been utterly unknown to. A documentary is a great way to unearth and dig deep into a subject matter not widely reported at the time of its headlining. Many people live very busy lives and old news dies fast – which is why a well made, throughly researched and expertly directed documentary has a power to bring the subject matter back into the light of the mainstream media – making it relevant and serving a power.
For example… 
When Chauvet Cave was discovered (the cave from Herzogs, Cave of Forgotten Dreams) it held the news headlines for only a couple of days worldwide back in 1994. After that it only really held its brightest spark among the scientific community. An average Jo Citizen whom hadn’t caught the news on those particular days would have found it quite impossible to know that one of the oldest and most unique discoveries in human culture had just been discovered.
High interest subject matter works great when delving into your subject. A great documentary that builds audeince buzz is something that carries with it a brilliant subject digest. If you want your documentary to stand a chance of being purchased and distributed, create a film with subject matter that the whole planet will give a shit about. Your research will need to be extensive, and it might become a pretty hefty project, but as you probably already know, once that idea finds you it’ll get harder and harder to ignore.

Documentary Rules. No2. Let your characters tell the story… Not your ego.

Good interview technique will solve the problem of poor character – and good interview technique removes the “you” from your film. This is a really important point: nobody cares about you the filmmaker, we only care about the subject of the story, how it was played out, who was effected and the characters involved…
Unfortunately, but fortunate for this article, the only thing wrong with Into Eternity was that every now and then we would be presented with Michael Madsen’s face. A selfie of the filmmaker with a dramatically lit match in his hand telling us something equally quite dramatic, and kinda melancholic – it was a good device, sorta, but in retrospect all one really sees is the filmmaker masturbating over the subject matter – it felt quite egotistical – almost patronising. It’s a pretty weird moment in a somewhat near perfect documentary about the end of life itself.
A not to be named feature documentary that we screened at one of our festivals not too recently, had a really courageous subject matter, excellent interviews and a wonderful style of centralisation on the character, it was lit in a way which really gave us the viewer a hidden life into the world of the eye witness….but it could have been more. At times the film would break into these small vignettes narrated by the filmmaker where they would tell us things like…
“I wanted to find out more. So, I took it upon myself to ask tougher questions…”
And stuff like…
“To understand the deepest issues here I had to dig deep into my own self conscious and tackle the demons that took me somewhere unknown…”
If you research your interviewees correctly, they will be unique, interesting and vital to the story. Your film doesn’t need you to tell the story, you guide your interviewees off camera, or you leave yourself on the cutting room floor.
A great example is in Jodorosky’s Dune, not once do you hear a question being asked of anyone in that film, the people are telling the story – driving the narrative forward. They are the centre stage because they were there, they were effected, they are the ones the audience will feel empathy for, they are the ones who your audience will trust.

Documentary Rules. No3. Easily digestible information – maintaining a human connection.

The Cove explains everything in the first ten minutes…
– We are in Japan.
– This guy loves Dolphins.
– Japan still kill Dolphins.
– This guy sees it as mass murder of technically non-human people.
– He’s going to stop them!
What you get with this introduction is almost guaranteed investment. The rule here is to be sure that you’re giving the audience the vital detail as early as possible and that your identifying the human issue. Let them know the where, why and what of the story. Follow that up with the historical backstory to create motive and lead that into a simple display of the odds, what’s at play, who is in danger, introduce the vital players and then go through a passage of no-return.
Man with a Movie Camera – the oldest documentary in the list by nearly one hundred years is a great example of displaying digestible information – in the purest of forms. The film is raw footage of the streets of a bustling city under the rule of Lenin’s Bolsheviks a’la 1929. The term “fly on the wall” was practically invented here. It’s an art piece but also serves as a visual document of a world long since gone. A modern day and certainly cruder equivalent would be the countless of time lapse city scape pieces we get sent in. Many filmmakers who create these fail to realise that in essence it is the human being the audience wants to see, not the construction crane or elevator. The people of Man with a Movie Camera is where the magic lives. Most of those human beings in the film have long since departed and unknowing to them that small moment of their life in the lens had just been immortalised for millions to see potentially long after their grandchildren’s, grandchildren.

Documentary Rules. No4. Empathy.

Sociopath’s and psychopaths rarely make good work. One of the problems in the film business is that the doors need to be smashed open, and sometimes morals can be flown out of the window in the sake for professional investment and money. This is why there are so many bad movies out there that cost over $1 million dollars to make. Somehow the sociopaths and psychopaths find a way to get the money to make their shit films.
Running a film festival has literally been a huge study of character for me. From the filmmakers, to the audience, to the press and to the people who run cinemas. One rarely finds a person without empathy.
But when we do…
  • They send us films all about themselves with a cover letter explaining how important their film is to the history of cinema.
  • They leave horrendously hurtful comments on our scorecards usually mocking the weakness of a character or stating how much they enjoyed a particularly loud and violent scene,
  • The press psychos review our screenings making no reference to a films social importance just its ascetics.
  • The sociopathic cinema owners refuse to  give us any discount even when we don’t charge for entry and make their cleaners clean up during our booked and paid for Q&A times.
  • A lack of empathy is what creates shit inside this industry from the bottom to the top, it is why you have a bad time at the movies. Documentary film is no different.
It is vital as the filmmaker to see the human struggle, understand what makes a person open and reflective. When commenting with the camera or giving an interviewee a question that may open a window into the soul try to empathise as best as you can. As you film, while you’re questioning, imagine that you are that person.
  • You’re the people looking back at us from thousands of years into the future trying to decipher the signs outside the perilous Onkalo.
  • You’re the Hollywood Producer who said no to Jodorosky.
  • You’re the elderly man selling potato’s from your horse as cars and trams fly past you on an unknown street in 1920’s Ukraine.
  • You’re the scientist who entered the cave a geologist but came out of it a human being connected to all of mankind.
  • You’re the animal trainer witnessing the suicide of the dolphin who used to play Flipper, killing itself inside your very arms.
With this sort of understanding you will be braver to go deeper with your work. From the shoot to the edit it is all about knowing why your film is important. Asking yourself the tough questions, removing your ego and allowing the story to rule over everything else…
When that film is made please send it into us, we’d love to help you show it to the world!