March 10, 2009

Back Door to Film School: A Complete Video Production Course Between the Covers of a Book

The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide
by Anthony Q. Artis
Focal Press, 2008
295 pages

"The back door to film school is now open," Anthony Q. Artis writes at the end of his preface to The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide. And it's true. He has lovingly placed a complete video production course between the covers of a book. Here are all the things a conscientious film teacher tells his students. And, new media being what it is, he's also included a DVD showing, among other things, examples of good and bad sound along with interviews with prominent documentarians. Plus, more video tutorials and other information are available at his website, www.downanddirtydv.com.

The book puts the focus on doing. The tacit assumption is that everyone makes mistakes when they begin production, so you might as well get on with making them. It starts right where most readers want to start--getting going. Chapter One is titled "Preproduction," and in 52 pages it covers everything from determining the goal of your documentary ("What story do you want to tell and why?") to care and feeding of crew members ("Don't skimp on food!").

By Chapter Two we're on location, and the book offers a lot of good advice about making a film in someone else's backyard. From then on it's all about getting it shot, getting good information, good images and good sound, planning for and conducting interviews, and the key to every successful documentary, editing and post-production.

Every chapter includes one or more sidebar articles called "Been There, Done That" featuring words of wisdom from the pros. A few examples:

  • Producer/editor Sam Pollard (4 Little Girls; Eyes on the Prize) on "Concept and Storytelling."
  • Producer Alrick Brown and producer/director Michael Schaffer (Death of Two Sons) draw on their experiences filming in Africa to discuss "Being Prepared for Remote Locations."
  • Documentary icon Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Lalee's Kin) on the topic of "Fair Subject Portrayal and Releases."
  • And producers/directors Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz (The Education of Shelby Knox; The Abortion Pill) on what you do "When Subjects Want to Walk Away."

Every chapter includes a few Hot Tips about the subject matter it covers, such as:

  • 4 common budgeting mistakes
  • 10 ways to lower your budget
  • Stealth shooting tactics
  • How to work a press conference

There's a full chapter on lighting. This is a topic every documentarian must master sooner or later. In this case, there are enough diagrams, illustrative stills and simple instructions to make the fundamentals of basic lighting set-ups clear to the most inexperienced neophyte.

Another chapter covers everything audio. In this era of on-board shotguns and prosumer sound systems, Oh, boy, is this needed!

Plus there's all the basic film school doctrine about camerawork and composition. And Artis includes subsections called "Your B-roll is your A-roll" and "Don't Just Tell 'Em, Show 'Em," about visual storytelling.

There's a good section on interview questions. Artis demonstrates the difference between open-ended questions that elicit a good response and leading questions that stop everything dead with a simple yes or no. And he shows how to sequence questions to build up to the ones you really want the subject to answer.

In the post-production chapter, Artis clearly breaks out the possible answers to the question of who should edit your film. The choices are: yourself, yourself with a technical editor, or a creative editor (working on his or her own).

He also devotes some care and attention to getting your completed film out into the world, including film festival strategies and seven ways to work a film festival.

Finally, the book includes a DVD that contains a sample talent and interview release form, a storyboard form, a documentary shoot checklist, a documentary budget form, and a number of what Artis calls "cheat sheets," which remind you how certain technical equipment goes together, or how to use certain software. These alone are worth the price of the book.

Do I love everything about it? No. In many ways, while it talks about guerilla filmmaking it embraces a rather formal approach to making a documentary, which is to record interviews and shoot B-roll. While Artis says in Chapter Six, "Your B-roll is your A-roll," there is nonetheless a bias here in favor of told evidence over visual evidence. You find it in the two chapters on the interview and even in the two chapters on cameras. In the video tutorial on the DVD, the author stands in front of a camera and tells us, "Your audio is more important than your video." He says there are ways around bad video (including using a different shot), but not much can be done for bad sound.

With this I must disagree. If the visual evidence of the scene is out of focus, too dark, badly composed, or otherwise damaged, then the audience fails to see the story you are telling with pictures. If the sound in a scene is no good, you may be able to cover with music or use a narrator. The point is, both sound and picture need to be technically acceptable. Sometimes sound may be the more important channel, sometimes picture will be, but most of the time both must play well together.

That said, there is a lot to like about The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide. This book is so rich in so many ways that it is an excellent starting point for the beginning, wannabe documentary filmmaker as well as a handy resource for the rest of us who learned on the job, or learned our fundamentals so long ago that we can occasionally use a brush-up. Just as I carried the American Cinematographer Manual in my hip pocket when I was making documentaries on film, I'd keep this book on the reference book shelf near my computer and stick it in my shoulder bag before going on a shoot.

And, if I were still teaching, this would definitely be one of the books I'd use.

Barry Hampe is the author of Making Documentary Films and Videos, Second Edition (www.makingdocumentaryfilms.com) and is researching a new book about filming behavioral documentaries. E-mail: barry@barryhampe.com.

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