Documentary Directing | Avoid These Top Five Amateur Mistakes

Documentary directing often involves a lot more than setting up a scene or following the action.  

As the documentary director, you're probably wearing a lot of different hats handling everything from shooting to editing to fundraising.  With so many things to think about at once, it's easy to make some common mistakes.

Top Mistakes of An Amateur Documentary Director

  1. Skimping on production quality -- Making a documentary is one of the most challenging endeavors you can be involved in.  One of the biggest challenges is funding.  The amateur documentary director will often skimp on production quality because of a lack of funds (bad lighting, bad audio, etc).  This is a big mistake that you'll regret later.  Whatever it takes, make a high quality film you'll be proud of.  Make cuts everywhere you can, but not on production quality. 

  2. Making a big show -- Often the best kinds of documentary crews remain as inconspicuous as possible.  In fact, to get the most "natural" shots, the people being filmed need to almost get bored with the crew.  To get that, it often means being very low key and just "hanging out" for a while.  Sometimes it can take weeks or months of coming back again and again for the subjects of your documentary to get comfortable with you.  The last thing you want is to race in with all your big equipment and make a big show.  Often, the less noticeable you are, the better.

  3. Interviewing too many people -- There are only so many people you will be able to fit into your documentary.  People watching a typical 1-hour documentary can only handle getting to know maybe 5-7 "characters".  So go ahead and interview 100 people, just realize many of those people won't make it into the final documentary.  Of course, you can always use the extra interviews for your blog or social media accounts.  

  4. Being the Lone Ranger -- A big mistake first-time filmmakers make is trying to do everything themselves.  A lot of filmmakers don't realize that the actual making of the documentary is only maybe 50% of the process.  Much of the time and energy of making a documentary involves a lot of "office" and business-type activities such as writing proposals, fundraising, building a website, figuring out distribution, building a fan base through social media, etc.   As much as possible, delegate out tasks that you don't enjoy or that bog down the filmmaking process.  People love to be involved in a filmmaking project.  Don't deny them!  Find volunteers, interns and partners to help you. In fact, having multiple people on your team is a great fundraising strategy.

  5. Losing focus -- It's very common when making a documentary that you'll suddenly forget why you started making the film in the first place!  It's at this point that a lot of filmmakers give up.  Know in advance that you will probably hit this wall and be ready for it.  When in doubt, close your eyes and think back to your original excitement and inspiration for making the documentary.  Feeeeel your excitement and why you knew in your heart and soul this was a story that must be told. 

What lessons have you learned while making your documentary?  Leave comments and feedback below.

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