Read Hank and Jilann’s Sundance Film Festival blog,

written as they went through the rollercoaster experience of premiering a film at this world-renown documentary film competition for the first time.





Stretching Our Spirits

I was working with one of the people I’m mentoring today, Katie, and she had a really interesting observation about the documentary process, which I felt was so right on. We were watching footage that she had shot of teenagers attending a class on gender stereotypes and social pressures. There were about twenty teens in a gym, listening to a young woman give the lesson. When the teacher asked the kids questions, generally, they were very reticent. In other words, they were a tough crowd.

Sometimes the teacher had the teenagers up on their feet, and at other times, they were sitting in a large circle. When in the circle, she had them listing the derogatory labels that were put on people displaying certain behaviors and how there is a double standard for women vs. men.

Katie shot an hour of footage, and for the first 40 minutes, she seemed to have a great deal of trouble choosing her shooting angles and frame sizes. There were mostly wide shots and it was really hard to see anyone’s face, or get a sense of what was really going on. Generally, when shooting, you want to get a variety of close-ups, medium shots and wide shots, so that in the editing room, you will have lots of different shots to choose from. You want to hold each shot for at least 10 seconds if possible. You also have to be really listening to what’s going on in the scene to know when to move in close on a subject, or when you can pull back and get a more general wide shot to give an overall view of the action. Close ups and medium shots usually make up most of the footage. As viewers, we want to be intimately involved in the action or dialogue.

As we looked at the footage, I tried to help Katie see where she could have zoomed in for a close up, or changed angles to get a better look at a participant’s face. For the majority of the footage, since the shots were mostly wide shots, there was a real generic feel to the people in the scene. I, as a viewer, couldn’t get a feel for who anyone was, or what they were feeling about the presentation.

During the last 20 minutes of footage, Katie seemed to find a flow that was better.  She began moving in for medium shots and a few close-ups. We began to see the teen’s faces, and suddenly the footage came alive. I was suddenly engaged in the process and cared about what the teens were thinking and feeling. I could see the effort that the presenter was putting forth. I could see body language of the kids, and therefore, the subtext. Things were getting compelling – I could see the kids felt awkward and sometimes embarrassed. I wanted to understand why, and I wanted to see what happened.

Drama is often created by a question and answer pattern in editing. The footage raises questions, that as viewers, we strive to answer as we watch. The drama comes from the anticipation and the tension of wanting to find answers. As I watched the last part of her footage, questions began surfacing for me as Katie had begun moving in and getting more intimate with her filming.

It was hard for her to watch the first 2/3 of her footage, because she could see where it was not working. But she was heartened by the end, as the shooting improved. As we discussed why she had had so much trouble settling into the scene at the beginning, she made a really interesting connection. She said, “This process of documentary filmmaking is so self-revealing”. I couldn’t agree more! She could see how her own shyness and feelings of not wanting to intrude had kept her back from getting good footage. She could see that her own discomfort with the material that the presenter was covering was making her actually censor the footage in the process of shooting it.

Katie made the connection that her own sense of boundaries, and not wanting to get in anyone’s way was truly affecting the impact of the footage. Not wanting to get in anyone’s way ultimately translated into unsatisfying angles and too much distance from the subject. As she became more comfortable with the situation, she was able to get a bit closer and get those better shots. There is a fine line-you don’t want to be rude or too intrusive with the camera. But generally, if you are respectful of your subject, you will find you can move fluidly around and even within the action when you need to.

I think Katie’s observation is right on target. As we make films, we are given a mirror into our own feelings, beliefs, patterns, and sometimes shortcomings. If we can try to step back and look at these objectively, there is a real opportunity for growth. Documentary filmmaking not only stretches the minds of our viewers, but it truly stretches our own spirit if we allow it. -- Jilann

P.S. If you need mentoring on your project, contact us.  If you'd like an overview of the documentary filmmaking process, check out our Documentary How To audio course, "Documentary Producing 101".