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Thoughts on documentary film production

Almost twenty years ago, I was confronted by a group of American university students who were reading Mass Communications, or something like that.  I was to give them a lecture on the production of documentary films.

When I stood up in front of them, they were lolling about in their chairs, some with their feet on the tables.  They looked totally disinterested.

One of them said to me “Are you going to tell us how to make documentary films ?

I said, “No, I am going to tell you how I make documentary films”.  “You can please yourself if you want to do the same”.

I would never dream of lecturing anyone on how to make films.  Oh, well ! All right then, I can’t resist it. I shall offer some advice based on my experience.

The first is that an audience should not be so confused by technique or technology that they start talking about the making of the film while they are still watching it.  While they are talking among themselves, they are totally ignoring what follows on the screen.  It is a case of the director “losing the plot”.

In terms of selecting crews, I would always select a cameraman and then allow them to choose their own assistant and soundman.  It always worked. I always had happy crews and they produced the finest work.

I also found that, even in the case of a production being required to be finished in a hurry, the film editor should not work more than six hours in a single day.  After that they become careless without knowing it.  I know, I’ve done it.

Other observations:  I would never have welcomed the prospect of being offered the money to make a documentary and then to be told to choose the subject.  It was always more fun to have the subject decided by somebody else.

There is a great deal of satisfaction in starting with a blank sheet of paper and planning the whole operation of the filming and the post-production of the film.

I was once told that it was impossible for a human being to both see and hear something at precisely the same moment.  For this reason, we adopted a scheme whereby at a scene change which coincided with a change in the sound track, we would advance the cut of the sound track to a position eight frames before the picture cut. (I do not mean that, by doing so, the track becomes out of sync) Thus the sound cut would precede the picture cut by about a third of a second, making the transition more acceptable to the eye and ear of the audience..

I always insisted that, whenever possible, the camera should be on a tripod.  Hand-holding would be reserved for specific sequences where the hand-holding would be seen to be an advantage.

I always liked to use the best possible composition of a scene, one that offered the most information and, at the same time,  pleasing to the eye.  However, all picture composition has to be to be compatible with preceding and following scenes within a sequence.  A series of independently composed pictures do not, necessarily, make a good sequence. Maybe that is why cameramen who become directors are a rarity.

English: 16mm sound film (Kodak?).

16mm sound film. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In making 16mm films it was essential that the sound was of the highest standard.  The problem was that 16mm film projectors were of varying quality and some of them had appalling sound reproduction.  Only the best sound track could be likely to allow people to hear the sound emitting from such machines.  I guess this is no longer a problem.

Whenever the budget allowed, I would always engage a composer to write music especially for the film; it gave it a touch of class.  Otherwise, we, in London, had a wonderful selection of mood music libraries from which one could choose appropriate music.

I would not like to be obliged to make documentary programmes now.  The thought of a “Presenter” occupying the screen for sixty per cent of the running time would appal me. What seems to happen is that the viewer is deprived of visual information while the presenter waffles on, sometimes adding no further information.

We now have a legion of presenters all trying to put their face into the camera at every opportunity.  I am old fashioned, I like to see the subject not a face.

Another facet of modern documentary programmes, is the habit of telling us something we have already been told in the same programme.  Not once, but several times.  I suppose it is called “dumbing down”.

I also cannot get along with the modern habit of film/video editors who insist on using scenes of one second or less.  Not occasionally, but consecutively.  I see film trailers treated this way and after seeing them, I have no idea what the film is about, only that it is seen as violent or romantic or sexy (or maybe all of the aforesaid).

The old concept of a “montage” was that a series of short scenes, seen together, were provided to give a single idea or impression.

It is probable that the editor who introduced this technique did so successfully and then, all the others, climbing on the bandwagon, thought it would work in any other case.  Not so.

Well, that’s a few of my considerations when making documentaries.  However, I do have one important bit of advice:  Do your own thing.

Main photo by Carbon Arc.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2013.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For more articles on Film Editing click here.

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