Video brings new opportunities for documentary filmmakers

As the recession ambles along and my ability to do sustained video storytelling slows, I think it is time for me to start broadening my visual horizons.  A couple of weeks ago I was asked to sit on a panel discussion with local Spokane filmmakers. It is a newly formed organization that plans to gather monthly to share ideas and  work of people invested in the art of documentary filmmaking.

Talk about a domestic duck trapped in a sea of wild mallards. Here I sat with folks whose medium is film– the 16 mm kind.  We had an interesting conversation and I really enjoyed the evening. The filmmakers discussed the challenges of finding funding and distribution for their documentary work. I learned many spend years writing grants to raise the money to buy film stock, processing and to fund post-production costs.

Ok, I admit I am totally out of my league here. Documentary filmmakers are a passionate, diverse group.  Anyone who can stay invested in telling a story, which can take years to see a final project projected at a film festival or ultimately broadcast to a wide audience on PBS, is all right by me.

Still I had to wonder why so many filmmakers stick to using film when high def video is available for next to nothing.  When I asked: “Why not chuck expensive film stock and just go video?” The response was almost universally: “Its the look we like, its the tradition.” Funny, that’s the same thing I heard when still photographers were transitioning to digital.  I can honestly say now that my images look way better than anything I shot in my early years shooting Tri-X  black and white film or, God forbid, Kodak  high-speed 400 iso negative film.

A good many filmmakers have already made the transition from film to video. High definition video is opening up new opportunities for documentary filmmakers that would otherwise be missed if someone were waiting years to get grant funding to produce it on film. I understand there are still costs, but wow, what one person with decent video camera skills, a laptop and Final Cut Pro can do now.  When I look at all the credits on a documentary film, I have to wonder if three fourths of the names are really needed. Who needs a colorist when Final Cut Pro’s  “Color” program will give you the look you want with just few mouse clicks.”  And what about having to hire an editor and cameraperson to shoot and stitch your story together?  I would rather be in control of all the elements of my story.  I realize the big projects are best made with a dedicated team of editors, producers and camera people. But what if the team was smaller and everyone had more than one skill?

As newspapers shed their talented visual staffs, one must wonder what all the folks with video storytelling training are going to do with their new skills? These are creative people trained to shoot, edit, and produce quality storytelling on a deadline. One must wonder if a new wave of documentary filmmakers, freed from the legacy of film and film schools, will focus their small video cameras on stories deemed too risky financially for traditional documentary producers to bother with. I think the film festival circuit is about to get a fresh shot of creativity from a growing legion of former newspapers video journalists.

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