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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8 thoughts on “Video brings new opportunities for documentary filmmakers

  1. Really interesting thoughts.
    There’s already a trend of newspaper VJs offering their skills to non profits etc.
    And in that field – as well as documentaries – they can offer their multiskills for a fraction of the price of an old school filmmaker.
    What’s required though is that skill most hacks who’ve worked in the same place for ages don’t have: entreprenurialism (sp?!)

  2. I’m looking into grad degrees in journalism, but with a documentary film emphasis. I work overseas, but on a recent trip back to the U.S. I went to a university to investigate their programs and talk with the profs, and was getting excited when I found out the J-school and Film/Doc school were in the same building. I started asking asking profs of both departments (separately) how much they work together to develop curriculum/programs/projects, etc. Nada. Nothing. Maybe I’m ignorant, but I was shocked. The PJ courses and multimedia courses had classes in video, but had no overlap with the Doc Center or film dept. I’m left to wonder if there’s any schools out there that have recognized the void in the doc video storytelling side of journalism and are moving towards cooperation and integration of coursework. T Kennedy and others continue to point out interesting weaknesses in J-schools. Your questions at the forum are obvious ones, but it seems the questions are coming faster than answers can be given.
    ~Chris.

    • Did you check out UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism? And what about Columbia? Both of them are doing some cutting-edge multimedia.

      I agree that there’s very little in the way of university programming that integrates them.

      Kurt Lancaster, PhD
      Northern Arizona University

  3. I found this post very odd. Mainly because of two reasons:

    Documentarians have wholeheartedly embraced HD. You will be pressed to find a recent documentary that was shot on film outside of “Earth” or high-budget national geographic projects. This is true across the board.

    Your reasons, however, are correct–it is the film cost that really pushed the conversion.

    Second, I disagree that Final Cut’s Color can replace a colorist. Years and years of experience and training make a colorist so good at what he/she does. While someone can probably teach themselves how to attain acceptable results, you will be blown away when you sit down next to a colorist. The reason films and big-budget documentaries have so many crew behind them is because each person is performing a highly specialized skill that they have honed over many years. By focusing on just one aspect of filmmaking, the quality they output is of the highest caliber.

    A one man band never sounds as good as an orchestra.

  4. “A one man band never sounds as good as an orchestra.” – is certainly true. But ultimately, what solution satisfies the customer?

    If the individual or small team can achieve 80% to 90% of the traditional big team (who really does do fantastic work) – and that meets the customer’s expectations in terms of sufficient quality at the right price, which is really better?

    There is (still) a market for the big budget, big team with gorgeous results. There may be a bigger market for the small budget, small team with darned good results (not perfect, but darned good).

    Until recently, we didn’t have the 2nd option – small budget, small team, darned good results. Today the “customer” has that option and the market will decide which approach is best for given situation.

    I think that was the point of Colin’s commentary – we don’t need to still spend a fortune on 16mm film and editing and colorists to achieve really good results (mind you, not perfect but really good).

  5. Yes Ed— that is pretty much what I was trying to say. A great story is a great story. I don’t think 99 percent of the viewing crowd in going to know or care whether the doc was shot on film or video.

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