Guest Post By: Walt Laineenkare
Published: January 12, 2017
At times you may find yourself feeling so overwhelmed by choosing the subject of your film, it paralyzes your progress.
In case you’re stuck looking for a great documentary idea, I’ll let you in on a little secret: the easiest documentary you’ll ever make is a TRAVEL documentary.
Traveling has been dear to me for quite some time.
Like many filmmakers and journalists, I observe the world with childlike awe. I want to see and experience as much as I can, while I still can! I believe that childlike wonderment is a tool with which we can change the world.
I am of Finnish origin, but reside in Utah, USA. Last year I got to spend a month in India and I’ve visited Egypt four times for diving in the Red Sea. Before Utah I lived in Kansas for a student exchange to enrich my college experience. And travels within Europe are sort of a given when you grow up there.
My list is not nearly as impressive as some travel bloggers of the web, who visit 200+ countries before their 30’s. But not once as an adult have I traveled for the sake of travel. I’ve always had an agenda. Lately that agenda has been clear: gathering video footage for all kinds of projects, making mini-documentaries for YouTube, to practice my documentary skills!
Here’s my tip for generating documentary ideas.
GO. TRAVEL. Amazing stories can be found literally anywhere!
Michelangelo said: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”. The same applies to a documentary filmmaker.
New cultures, places and experiences are interesting to almost all of us. But no-one can see everything, for our time on this earth is limited.
Though I personally want to see, hear, smell and touch as many adventures as possible, I’m at peace with experiencing some things through other people’s stories. And that’s where a documentary filmmaker can help an individual by taking them on a journey to the depths of a new culture or adventure, through the eyes of a traveling filmmaker.
First, if you’re like most of my American friends, you may think that international travel is expensive. It doesn’t have to be!
Here’s a documentary idea for you: pick a friend who is terrified of the sea, convince them to overcome their fear and get certified for scuba diving. Hold on to the aspect of fears and phobias in general and use your friend’s adventure as a gateway in explaining how our fears are structured, how they develop, why we are so irrational with some things. You’d have many chances to capture some raw, true emotion. Just make sure your friend doesn’t drown when you throw them in to get that cool shot of a person fighting against the ocean current!
And who says you need to travel internationally? Nobody! Just take your dad’s old truck, grab your iPhone or camera, and get on the road!
The beauty of travel documentaries is that, to be blunt, your technical filming proficiency doesn’t matter. The most important thing is the story and that you can bring out the beauty of the exotic.
A great example of such travel documentaries is Madventures, a TV–show from ten years ago, following two of my fellow Finns as they do some extreme backpacking around the world. These guys won several awards for their show which was produced with the tiniest of budgets. Take a look at the video below, it’s all in English:
Some ideas to make it easier for you to find the story is to follow a brainstorming technique I call LOOK THE F**K AROUND. I’d personally start looking at the things I do on a trip anyway.
For example eating new foods is a huge part of experiencing a new culture. Pick your favorite local dish and dig deeper into the making of it. I’d be delighted to see a documentary about what goes on in the minds of the Japanese who prepare and eat the highly toxic puffer fish, or fugu. And above all, I’d love to know how many people die from poorly prepared “fugu” every year. Sure, I could google these facts, but I’d much rather live them through an interesting piece of filmography.
You could also pick a local nonprofit organization, show their work and tell their history. Nonprofits are usually willing to get all the exposure they can, therefore they are pleasant to work with. Most of the time, nonprofits are founded with great passion, so you’ll likely get to capture some sincere emotion and a great story. And by giving them a free marketing tool in the form of a film, you are helping them out and making a difference!
This is what I did with my zero-budget practice mini documentaries I filmed in India last year. During my visit of one month, I stayed with the Madras Crocodile Bank for a week, learning about crocodilians and Indian reptiles. Wildlife and animal protection is very close to my heart. Here’s an example:
Some other ideas would include introducing a local sport or joining the locals for their holiday festivities and showing their traditions. Maybe you could have the same friend from your scuba diving documentary try a form of blood sport for your next masterpiece. Oh, what a crappy friend you are!
To make it even easier, you could start with an inspiring reel of your material from around the world, even if your only point is to remind your peers of being kind to each other. This is what I did:
The most important thing here is that you have fun while filming your travel documentary! You don’t even have to show it to anyone if you don’t want to, but at least you’ll get moving and inspired! After all, the most important person to impress with your film is yourself. And if said film provokes thought in just one person, it has already changed the world.
Thanks, good luck with your travels!
Walt Laineenkare is a 25-year-old amateur documentary filmmaker, and a travel/environmental blogger for the largest media in Finland, Iltalehti.fi. At the moment (2017) he is working on his first feature film, highlighting the problems of the outdated animal rights laws in the USA. Walt has a bachelor's degree in marketing and he's about to start his master's studies after the film is finished. Learn more about Walt on his video channel: A Finn and Fauna
Share below in the comment section if you have any questions for Walt about his filmmaking travels or finding inspiration for your next documentary idea! And if you'd like to share YOUR documentary story or lessons learned with the filmmaking community, submit your article here.