Talking Head Avoidance: 3 tips for student and first-time documentary filmmakers
The price of HD camera equipment has dramatically dropped over the past few years as the quality has significantly risen. Consequently, there are hardly any barriers anymore to making a documentary film -- except, of course, the all-encompassing time and money.
Student filmmakers are blessed with unlimited time, but naturally lack experience. Here are a few tips for those of you about to take the plunge into your first documentary film:
1. Get out of Talking Head Land as soon as possible. Sit-down interviews are fine for background and to string together missing pieces of your narrative. BUT, if you happen to be following your subject for an extended period of time, try to get a series of shorter interviews with them commenting on events IN THE MOMENT.
2. Creatively Frame Your Interviews. Getting people sitting in a chair with a lamp or books in the background provides boring visuals, regardless of how fascinating the material is. If you have a scientist, interview him in a lab and frame the shot with beakers. If you are with a yoga instructor, have her sit on a giant rubber ball. Be creative but not goofy.
3. Start living with your subjects. There are two schools of thought on this, and some filmmakers warn about the dangers of becoming "friends" with your film's characters. We say that you can always be "friendly" without ever dropping your role as an outsider, as an observer.
If you are documenting the lives of a construction worker, a politician, a daredevil or a paramedic, what do they do when they are not on the job? Just shooting some token b-roll of them having breakfast with their family doesn't do it for us. Put an HD flip camera in your pocket and go socialize with your subjects. Soon, they'll lose the distinction from when the camera is turned on or not. And you'll capture the most precious stuff of all.
Good luck! Documentary filmmaking is all about spending countless hours waiting for stuff to happen, with the hopes of getting a few minutes of footage that viewers will never forget. Your patience will pay off in dividends.
(At Award Productions, we've made six documentaries -- one which was nominated for an Emmy, four which premiered on PBS, and one that was optioned as a reality TV pilot for Country Music Television. Check out a few of our select documentary clips.)