The Basics of Creating a Documentary
Many people have asked me why does it take a long time to edit a documentary. Well, documentary's are like plants. As you work on them, they grow and start to take shape. At a certain point, you have to pruin what you have and form it into something that gives a really good reaction to the viewer. This year we have been working on a short documentary, entitled "Stewards of Cheet Mountain" This work follows the history of the mountain in the far reaches of West Virginia and it's various caretakers over the last century. It's a lot of information to convey in a 45 minute documentary, however the pacing and emotional impact of the story is what will give the story it's place in the world.
Over the years we have won several festivals for our documentary work, and the reason we are able to do this is by understanding we're not just conveying information, or telling people what to think. We are laying out a story that the average person can relate too. There is nothing more important that telling the right story, in the right way, with good editing, and a conclusion that gives the viewers a sense of closure. In Stewards, we are talking about ecology and the impacts of long term abuse of the land.
As a film maker, the last thing I want to do is alienate the folks who think of the land as something to be used for the comon good. Also I don't want to alienate the folks who are extreemly passionate about protecting the land. So the stratagy has been to tell a story that convinces a person who would not normally care about conservation, and make a reasoned argument why it's in their best interest to care. Once you have a story strategy, then you can carefully prepare for the interview process, and make a list for your b-roll.
One very important thing is that during the interview process, folks will give you all sorts of awesome stuff that you didn't expect to hear. The trick is figuring out which information fits your structure, and which has to be paired down. This takes time. It should be done very carefully, and having test audiences is critical. A test audience is a good guide to confirm where you think your piece works, and gives you insites to areas in which you may be to emotionally attached too, and may not work. Make sure though that your test audience is very separated from you as a film makers. I often don't even know the people who are watching the film. They should have no emotional excuse not to tell me what they think. And if they know you, well then it's always difficult to tell a person that they didn't like it.