Film Independent Tue 7.7.2015

Six Smart Tips for Documentary Filmmaking

Documentarians face a tall task: the story is unfolding right in front of you and you have to capture it. So many problems rear their heads on a documentary set. The lighting might be horrible, and you can’t change it. The crew might be in one place interviewing someone while crucial action is happening someplace else. Or maybe the subject talks too quietly… The list goes on and on.

Carmen Osterlye

Carmen Osterlye, whose credits as producer and cinematographer include the upcoming docs Supergirl and Las Chavas, as well as the Film Independent Fast Track and Documentary Lab project Soledad, sat down with Film Independent Members back in May to discuss strategy for first-time documentarians. The California-raised, Brooklyn-based Osterlye has shot and produced non-profit and independent shorts, feature length documentaries, as well as fashion pieces, commercials and music videos. She is known for her unique aesthetic and narrative approach.

Here are six of Osterlye’s keys to documentary success.

Just because you’re capturing real life, doesn’t mean you can’t prepare
Osterlye prefers the word “nonfiction narrative” to the more traditional term “documentary,” feeling that the former better expresses the artistic potential of nonfiction filmmaking. “There’s a difference [when you’re] stopping and thinking about what you’re doing before doing it. Adding a layer to that impulse, catching yourself, giving yourself that moment–it helps. When you learn cinematography, you learn it in a controlled environment. So it’s different.”

The biggest differences, says Osterlye, between nonfiction and fiction filmmaking are light, locations, support and the element of surprise.

“Light totally controls the narrative. There’s no location scouting, thus, very little support. And there’s less support [as far as] money,” says Osterlye. “There’s the benefit of having less people on set. And you have to learn how to react–so there’s the element of surprise.”

It’s up to you to dictate the tone of your set
For Osterlye, the key to a successful production  is creating the right environment. The main points to consider are agility, strength, patience and forgiveness.

“Agility [is being] strong for your crew,” says Osterlye, “As a [nonfiction] director, you have a unique role because you’re not directing in the traditional way. You’re watching what’s happening and guiding your crew moment to moment to moment.”

“Guard your loins and go into it knowing shit will get crazy,” adds Osterlye, “Have forgiveness for your situation, your process.”

And what does she recommend for a strong documentary crew? Just four people: a director, a DP, a sound recordist, and if you’re fortunate enough to have the budget, a PA. “Make it as idiot-proof as you can. You can do it alone but [the project] might suffer. Let it suffer less by covering your bases.”

The Michael Moore method has its pitfalls
As far as breaking the wall between documentarian and subject, Osterlye’s not for it. She sees it as disruptive of the observational atmosphere.

“Think about the situation and how much the subject has given up to let you into their lives,” she says. “I’m a fan of seeing as few interviews on camera as possible. I believe it’s important to use the visual medium as best as you can. Think about why this is being shown.”

Osterlye emphasizes that it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to give the audience a sense of place and character through each film’s unique tone and flavor.

“When those moments happen when you forget you’re watching a film, I think those are the best moments in documentary,” says Osterlye. “When I get too artsy people say you’re stylizing their life, that you’re invading. But I think when you step into this person’s life, you’re already invading. If I can build a story and make it noticeable, that’s great.”

And what about that perfect moment that the camera wasn’t quite ready to capture? “I’ll never ask someone to do something again,” says Osterlye. “Think about the relationship. That’s important to consider when you’re setting up. Those actions build an expectation in your subject subconsciously, of being able to correct something.”

Make your subjects comfortable, but make sure you own the room
Osterlye emphasizes that the filmmaker should own the room. This can be especially helpful when the subject is not behaving authentically.

“If [the subject is] performing, I’m shooting cutaways or shooting something else,” says Osterlye. “And when your subjects see that, they’ll be more natural. That’s when you gradually move back toward them and capture those moments.”

Don’t forget the basics: Who, what, where, when
Osterlye says these are questions that every storyteller must consider, not just at the beginning of the process, but throughout.

The who and the what: “Who’s your main character? What’s their skin tone, height? Are they quiet or loud? How do they feel being interviewed? Should they be talking to the camera, aside, offscreen? How sensitive is the subject? [All of] that influences the camera equipment used.”

The where the when: “Are you outdoors or indoors? What season is it? Are you in the Arctic or in Honduras? Does it smell likes tires? Are you going to get sick? All of that will influence how to prepare the crew and set up. Will your camera be confiscated?”

Osterlye continues: “And don’t have interviews with the same person in different locations. Try isolated, repeated, controlled interview settings. A setup like that doesn’t make the viewer think of when the shot was taken or the context. The audience knows you’re behind the camera, so you have to keep them engaged.”

Be realistic, even if it means taking a break
And, perhaps most importantly, since documentaries can linger in production for years at a time, Osterlye says you must be realistic.

“When you realize ‘Maybe I’m not making a good film,’ I’d say can it, and wait a year or two because stuff has to happen by then,” says Osterlye. “Know that it may be one year, two, maybe five… But don’t let that stop you.”

Jade Estrada / Film Independent Blogger