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How (not) to film a low-budget documentary (case study)

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Last year I lived for four months in Medellín and I decided to film a documentary while staying there. I wanted to learn filmmaking while capitalizing on the popularity of Medellín. The only problem was that I didn’t know a thing about filmmaking, but I didn’t let that stop me. When you shot a documentary, you have to make decisions in terms of technique and style constantly. In this article, I am going to explain my decisions and how I would do things differently now.

Budget

A professional documentary costs typically at least $100.000 and that is low-budget. My documentary was a one-man show and my initial budget was $1000, one percent of a normal budget. I paid $1005 for the equipment and $226 for the post-production, which means that I overran my budget by $231 (≈25%).

If you want to understand the production process behind a professional documentary I recommend watching the series Making Minimalism. Filmmaker Matt D’Avella explains in the series how he filmed the documentary Minimalism. He also talks about the financials of the documentary.

Concept

The concept was weak at best and nonexistent at worst. I started with the idea to film my experiences in Medellín and to add interviews with entrepreneurs about Medellín. I realized soon that it doesn’t make sense to combine both storylines and I split the documentary into two film projects: One about Medellín as a creative city and one about my life in Medellín. I focused on the documentary about Medellín and the personal one was more of an afterthought.

The documentary lacks a strong narrative, which connects the interviews. The central theme is the living quality of Medellín and the relationship of the interviewees with the city, but there is no overlying storyline. It’s a bit dry to watch 80 minutes of interviews and therefore I released the interviews by themselves as well.

Maybe a podcast episode would have been a better format for several long-form interviews. The audio quality would have been much higher and it would have been easier for me to connect the interviews into a storyline. The production would have been easier and cheaper as well. I feel that I was able to film eight interesting interviews, but I wasn’t able to shoot a well-rounded documentary. I am going to invest more time in the pre-production next time.

Interviews

The documentary consists of eight interviews and my main focus was to find interesting people to interview. This is the only part of the documentary where I feel that I succeed. All interviewees were interesting and everyone had a unique perspective. Next time I am going to focus on a more balanced composition of interviewees (6 men and 2 women; 5 internationals and 3 Colombians).

Convincing people to take part in the documentary was easier than expected. I knew six of the interviewees and I reached out to the other two per e-mail. They didn’t know me at the time, but they knew people I had interviewed. The community of international entrepreneurs in Medellín is well connected.

Costs

Here is a breakdown of the production costs:

Equipment:
Sony FDRAX53/B 4K HD $850
Sony-ECMGZ1M-Zoom-Microphone $68
Transcend 128 GB Flash Memory Card $44
Rollei-Compact-Traveler-Star-DIGI $23
Sony LCSU21 Soft Carrying Case $20
Equipment cost $1005

Post production:
Stock Videos $98
Sound engineer $85
Adobe Premiere Pro (2 months) $42
Music $1
Post-production cost $226

Total cost $1231

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Gear

Sony FDRAX53/B 4K HD: The biggest advantage of this 4K camcorder is its small size and I was able to transport it my backpack. The camera is easy to use and the integrated image stabilization works well. Buying a bundle might be cheaper than buying everything separately.

Sony-ECMGZ1M-Zoom-Microphone: I bought an external mic because internal mics tend to be low-quality. The microphone isn’t suited for interviews because it’s a shotgun mic that picks up all the background noise. I am going to buy a lavalier microphone for my next project.

Sony LCSU21 Soft Carrying Case: A small case to transport the camera and accessories.

Rollei-Compact-Traveler-Star-DIGI: The biggest advantage of this tripod is its portability, but the portability comes at the expense of stability. The tripod works fine, but it takes a little longer to set up.

Learnings

Filming The Rise of Medellín as a Creative City taught me a technical understanding of the filmmaking process, but I also learned about organization and storytelling. I learned the following lessons during the production process.

Cutting

Almost all the footage I had shot ended up in the final documentary. Typically, only a fraction of the footage survives the post-production. My documentary runs 80 minutes, but 40 minutes probably would have been better. That way the storyline would have been tighter and there would be no fluff in the documentary. It’s hard to cut out footage, but next time I am going to be more rigorous.

Style

When you shoot a documentary, you have to make dozens of stylistic decisions. An important decision is how you shot the interviews. Do you include the interviewer (two-shot) or do you focus on the interviewee (one-shot)? The two-shot makes the interview look like a natural conversation and the one-shot looks more professional. I switched between both styles and shot six two-shots interviews and two one-shot interviews. It’s better to be consistent with your decisions and next time I am going to shoot only one-shot interviews.

Movement

Using a tripod is the easiest way to shoot steady video and I almost always used a tripod. I made only two exceptions when I walked around filming the b-roll and when I shot the interview with David Kadavy. The next time I am going to film every scene with a tripod to avoid shaky footage.

Jump Cuts

There are four main ways to hide jump cuts:

  1. The elegant solution is a two camera setup with two different shots. That way you can switch between the shots when you need to. Next time I am going to buy a second camera and go this route to avoid dealing with jump cuts at all.
  2. You can reframe the footage in post-production to make it seem like you have shot with two cameras. You need high-resolution footage for this reframe (4k footage for a 1080p video). You can do this reframe with Adobe Premiere Pro. I could have used reframes, but I didn’t want to spend more time editing and I decided to live with the jump cuts in the interviews.
  3. You can cut to b-roll to hide a jump cut. It’s crucial that the b-roll is relevant to what the person is saying. In the interview with Rob LaFond, I cut to a video of Café Revolución 2 when he talks about it. You can also use stock videos when you don’t have b-roll.
  4. You can use morph cut to hide small jump cuts. Adobe Premiere Pro has a morph cut feature, which morphs together two clips of the same person. I didn’t use the feature for time reasons.

audio-on-computer

Sound

Most people are willing to tolerate a low video quality when the content is great. People are less forgiving with bad audio because it makes watching a video difficult. Unfortunately, I had bought a shotgun microphone that captured all the background noise. A clip-on lavalier microphone is better suited for interviews because you can place it much closer to the interviewee and therefore the sound is better. The sound of some of the interviews was so bad that I had to hire a sound engineer to remove as much background noise as possible.

Post-production

I bought Adobe Premiere Pro and I had to learn how to use it on the fly. I watched tutorials on YouTube and searched in film forums whenever I encountered a problem. Before the next project, I am going to use the free Adobe tutorials to learn the Adobe Premiere Pro basics from the ground up. I am also going to pay for professional color correction and color grading next time.

Organization

Filming involves repeated tasks like recharging the batteries and packing all pieces of equipment before the shot. I forgot the tripod for one interview and had to improvise. The next time I am going to use a checklist for simple repetitive tasks to save time and mental energy.

Communication

I should have kept the people I have interviewed more in the loop about the progress of the project. I sent one email to thank them for being part of the documentary, another one to inform them about the delay of the release and a final one when the documentary was online. Next time I am going to be more proactive about the communication with everyone involved in the project.

Conclusion

I am still a big believer in learning by doing, but with hindsight, I should have started with shorter videos and worked my way up. Filmmaking is a complex skill set and it would have been smarter to start with short YouTube videos about specific topics. Most people prefer short content and it’s much easier to grow an audience that way as well.

My documentary has around 200 views so far, which is a bit disheartening. I also spread myself too thin and the filming came at the expense of my writing. It’s better to focus on one skill at a time. I was all over the place in 2018 and I am going all in on writing in 2019.

I am still happy that I have done the documentary despite limited success. I talked to eight inspiring people and I learned a lesson from every single one. The documentary didn’t meet my expectations, but the interviews itself turned out great. I also learned basic filmmaking skills and I am confident that my next documentary is going to be much better.

Now you know how (not) to film a low-budget documentary. The rest is up to you,

 
 
 

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