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5 Documentary Filmmaking Tips from "American Teen"

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Aspiring filmmakers and event videographers can learn several useful lessons from this movie, both in terms of production skills and storycrafting. Ron Dawson, the co-author of Refocus: Cutting-Edge Strategies to Evolve Your Video Business points out techniques used in Nanette Burstein’s award-winning film that you can apply to your own video creation.
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Nanette Burstein's 2008 Sundance phenomena, American Teen, was one of the most enjoyable movies I watched last year. It inspired me as a filmmaker, and it took me back emotionally to that socially awkward time in life when zits were the equivalent of leprosy and crushes came and went like the passing of the seasons. Anyone interested in the art of documentary filmmaking can learn valuable lessons from this movie.

The best way I can describe the film is it’s what you get when you cross a gripping Errol Morris documentary with a whimsical John Hughes teen dramedy. American Teen follows five high school seniors as their lives evolve and intertwine. Like a real life Breakfast Club, there's a Jock, a Geek, a Princess, a Heart Throb, and a Rebel. It doesn’t matter what decade you went to high school (I’m a child of the Hughes decade, the 1980s); you will relate to these students’ struggles, drama, and all their ups and downs. And you will forget at times that you're watching a documentary. This is documentary filmmaking at its finest.

If you intend to improve your own skills at “real life” filmmaking, it’s worth watching American Teen for style and technique. Here’s several lessons that you can apply to your own documentaries and event films (such as videographers who shoot weddings and bar mitzvahs – those are documentaries, too!).

Find the Story

Real life is often as interesting than what you make up – if not more so. Every person whose life you want to encapsulate on screen has some story that can keep an audience engaged. In American Teen, the main "character" is the Rebel, Hannah. You become emotionally invested in her struggles and triumphs. When she makes decisions to stay true to her dreams, you root for her and cheer her on; and your heart goes out to her when she's heart broken.

Find the story in your project. If it's a wedding, perhaps it's the special relationship between the bride and her dad. Focus a lot of attention on that and organize your edit in such a way to emphasize it. For example, maybe you open the video with the father's toast. We're about to embark on the production of a client's history and our "story" will be the importance of family in the success of this client's business. Find your story and make it shine.

Choose the Right Camera Gear

Many aspiring filmmakers and photographers are excited about the new HD DSLRs (such as Canon's EOS 5DMark II, Panasonic's Lumix GH1, or Nikon's D90). The imagery they create is amazing. But, depending on the kind of documentary you're creating, an HD DSLR may not be the best camera choice.

That’s especially true if your film is more like a reality TV style documentary, where you follow subjects around and record a lot of dialog and conversations. In such cases, you'll be better off using a video camera that can roll for long periods of time, compared to. the 12 minute clip maximum of the HD DSLRs.

If you're craving that "film" look with a shallow depth of field, consider using a 35mm adapter like the Letus Extreme or Cinevate's Brevis. These devices affix to the front of your fixed camcorder lens and allow you to use 35mm DSLR lenses. If you're on a budget, then seriously consider the Jag35. They make three main adapters, the smallest of which is less than $100.

If the documentary you're making is comprised primarily of sit down interviews and b-roll, then filming with an HD DSLR is a viable option. But pay attention to audio. Video DSLRs don't allow you to monitor audio, and currently the gain on them is auto -- which means the audio will dip and peak depending of the volume of what you record.

Audio is Key

From time to time in American Teen you'll notice the students wearing wireless microphone transmitters clipped to their backs. In a documentary, what is said is in many ways more important than what you see. If you've ever listened to a This American Life episode on NPR, you know how powerful audio is in a documentary. I cannot stress how crucial it is you capture good audio. 

If you're doing sit-down interviews, it's easy enough to put a wireless mic on the subject and have that go into your camcorder. But for reality TV style shooting, you may need to add a field mixer to the mix (pun intended).

If you film multiple people, put wireless mic transmitters on all of them, then have their corresponding receivers connected to a field mixer. Have a line from the mixer to your camera. You need a dedicated audio guy to carry the mixer for you and to monitor sound. Field mixers can be bulky and cumbersome. Trying to manage multiple audio inputs on a portable mixer while you’re filming the visuals is not as easy as walking a chewing gum at the same time. Not to mention you may tire yourself out sooner than necessary.

As an alternative to the mixer, you could use a shotgun microphone on a boom pole. Then have your audio guy hold the boom and point it to the person talking. To give the audio guy more breathing room (so that he or she is not tethered to the camera by a wire), use a wireless transmitter like the Sennheiser SKP100G2 plug-in attached to the shotgun mic.

However, I know that many videographers (particularly those shooting events) don't have the budget, the help, or the time to deal with all this extra gear. Can you imagine running around a wedding with a boom pole? So, put a good omni-directional mic on the main subject. Omni-directional mics are great at picking up conversations within a close vicinity to the microphone. (The aforementioned Sennheiser system is the one we use, and it's a favorite among event filmmakers.) Have the mic transmit to one channel of your camera, then slap a good shotgun mic on the camera and have it go into the other channel. You'll find this a great combination for getting good audio.

If you're shooting with an HD DSLR, use another device to capture your main audio, I recommend either a back-up camcorder or a digital recorder like the Zoom H4N. You will then need to synchronize the audio to your video in post production. Here's a great video on Zacuto's website about using the H4N with the video DSLR.

It's Okay to Add Narrative Elements

It is not uncommon for documentary filmmakers to add some aspect to their films that may be more common in a narrative fictional piece. These could include re-enactments using actors. One of the most creative aspects of American Teen was the use of animation to illustrate some of the five students’ thoughts and feelings. The Geek's daydreams were designed to look like the computer game, "Legend of Zelda." Hannah, the Rebel, had daydreams with a very "Coraline" feel to it, which matched the dark and brooding feelings she was having. Be creative; think of ways in which you could make your documentary feel more like a traditional narrative.

The Perfect Ending

A bad ending can make an otherwise great movie terrible. Likewise, a brilliant ending can significantly uplift a mediocre film. Despite the fact that it's real life, you should be able to find an ending to your documentary that will be as exciting or uplifting as if it were written that way.

Look for that angle, sound bite, or visual that brings everything to a close, something emotional and visceral. Using the father of the bride wedding movie example, maybe you end the video with the father-daughter dance, or a photo of the bride as a newborn being held by her dad, that then fades into a beautiful photo of the two on the wedding day. 

As you shoot your film, look and listen for cues that inform your decision. As you're editing, whenever you come across a clip that seems like a good ending, set it aside somewhere. I use Final Cut Pro and create a sequence just for the purpose of placing potential ending clips. Then, when I'm creating the final edit, I go to that sequence and look through my candidates.

By the time your finish watching American Teen, I am confident you'll feel inspired. Inspired by the direction and conviction of one of the main characters, and inspired as an event filmmaker to take your work to a whole new level.

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