Rant: By Ben Boquist
Last night I saw a documentary film with a friend. I won’t tell you what film, because here at filmfunds we are kind people. We know that creative types are sensitive, and we believe Roland Emerich when he says, “No one makes movies bad on purpose.”
Emerich’s quote notwithstanding, we live in a fallen world where bad movies are a reality. The one I saw last night was nothing short of dreadful. It made the mistake that many documentaries make, and that is to neglect story telling in favor of “educating.”
For an hour and a half, I watched static shots of people talking. To break up the monotony, the filmmakers went to great lengths to animate title sequences between the interviews. But after the second or third, these became silly. There was also no story to speak of. Various “experts” voiced their opinions, but collectively these added up to little more than an infomercial. And an unfocused one at that.
I love documentaries. The great Alfred hitchcock said that in narrative films “the director is God [but that] in documentary films God is the director” meaning that documentary films should document spontaneous life. A lot of documentary filmmakers do this very well.
Morgan Spurlock is a great example. His films, “Super Size Me,” “Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden,” and “What Would Jesus Buy,” work because they tell stories. In each of these films, there is a main character on a journey to discover the truth. In each, Spurlock challanges what he percieves as a “social evil.”
And he’s not the only one! Here’s another documentary I’m excited about…
See what I mean about story? In that way, they’re not unlike the scripted films of Hollywood. Because when all is said and done, no one goes to the theater for an education!
And so, for the documentarians out there, I’ve assembled a list of DOs and DONTs, so that you can avoid the pitfalls of last night’s monstrosity.
1. Tell a story! with or without a script and actors, every story needs characters, a journey, a struggle and a resolution. Capture these and we won’t just learn. We’ll care!
2. B roll! It gets tiresome to watch people talk. Find some interesting (and topically relevant) footage to cut away to. Stock footage of flowers and clouds doesn’t count!
3. Use music sparingly! Music’s primary purpose in any film is to tell the audience what they “should” feel. Your audience feels manipulated when music underscores every interview and scene.
4. Don’t stay inside! Don’t trap yourself in interior set-ups. Show us a world, not just a talking head. A beautifully lit tripod shot of a guy in a chair is still less interesting than shaky footage from the rain forest.
Follow these and you’ll succeed where others fail.