How I Filmed My First Documentary

Lessons from my personal experience

Image Source: Marguerite Faure

I never went to film school.

That was the softener that paused my progress in the filmmaking world for many years.

I got to a point at the start of 2021 where I realized that no one is going to give me a break. From being coy for years, it hit me that I needed to take a bite from the jar of cement in the cupboard; and harden up.

If I wanted to have no regrets; bravery, grit, and an attitude of action had to become the characteristics that made up my new identity.

If you have a desire to get behind a camera and capture someone else's story- then I hope you will find these practical tips, that I will lay out for you today, as somewhat of a roadmap in how to go about setting off on this exciting adventure.

The Subject

I wanted my first documentary to be about a founder of a business.

I nervously called small-to-medium-sized companies and asked for the contact details of the owner.

I was sometimes given an email address, and a few times I was given a direct cellphone number.

I called the first three founders on my list of six.

Where I went wrong

Practical Tip: Have a script of who you are, and what you are hoping to create.

The first three people I contacted, had to deal with a stuttering version of myself. I was unable to string sentences together because I was surprised that they answered my call.

I was unaware that I had to sell myself and pitch the video in thirty seconds.

The founders did hear me out. They seemed lovely on the phone but then requested that I put everything in an email for them to look over.

I sent long, detailed emails, which, upon reflection, wasn’t a great idea.

I asked for too much of their time and overwhelmed them with the outline of what I hoped to achieve before I even had their initial buy-in.

What I did right

I noticed that a phone call was too intimidating.

I wanted the first interaction to allow the founder freedom to respond. If they responded, then the conversation could evolve naturally.

I sent the remainder three founders an email.

Two out of the three responded to this format:

Hi [Insert Name],

I hope you have had a great start to the week.

I wanted to run an idea past you.

As a female in filmmaking, I have a heart for showcasing females who are bringing their flair to the world through founding businesses.

I would love to do a 10–12 min documentary on you starting [Name of Business] for my YouTube channel.

Let me know if this is something that you are interested in and I can send through more detailed information.

Have a fantastic day!

Take care,

I linked my YouTube channel to the mail. I was mindful to link a video that aligned with their business to showcase my work.

I also ensured to keep the conversation short and to the point.

After I got responses, I continued to outline what I hoped to film in concise sentences.

And, I was able to book a two-hour window with a founder to film the Friday after I sent the mail at the premises of one of her stores.

Preparation

I was beyond excited to prepare for the filming.

I just didn’t know where to start…

I first planned what gear I was going to use. I decided on:

  • a Canon Mark ii,
  • on a gimbal,
  • using a shotgun mic.

Controversial decision- I know.

It seemed manageable. Gear setup time and/or gear malfunction were not areas that I wanted to stress about on the day.

I then went to the store to scout where the best lighting was. I also took note of different angles as well as b-roll that I may need.

This may sound ridiculous, but I asked my husband if he would take two hours off work to come with, as moral support. He literally stood there for two hours on the day, dressed as a second-shooter. Champion.

Knowing that you have someone in your corner, when you are stepping into something completely foreign, really helps maintain those butterflies.

I also printed a script that I put together from information I gathered from the About page of the companies website.

This was a great move because I had an outline for the story I wanted to tell.

I knew that time was limited and that there wouldn’t be a moment to waste. Keeping this in mind turned out to be very helpful when the founder finished speaking and looked at me for direction.

I was able to say, “Can you tell me about….”

I think she appreciated that I had done the research and we managed to tick off the story I had outlined within an hour and forty-five minutes.

I asked if I could follow her into the warehouse and to her office, which was within walking distance, and I managed to capture another 15 minutes of footage which gave me a variety of shots in the video.

Anxiety

The entire day before the shoot, even up to the minute before the shoot, I was checking my phone waiting for her to cancel.

I was sure she was going to pull the plug.

So when she arrived, never having met me, or spoken to me on a call before, I knew it was go-time.

I listened to a podcast episode once where a guest said that the worst directors are those who can’t make decisions.

Well, I took that to heart. I knew exactly what I was hoping to get, and my main goal was to make her feel comfortable. I knew I had my cheerleader in my corner, and my goal was to be there for her.

I did Shonda Rhymes Masterclass, and she spoke about walking into a room like you deserve to be there. I feel I did a good job because when we wrapped the founder told me, “You’re such a filmmaker.”

No idea what that meant.

But, after never having done anything like this before, those words felt precious.

Wrapping Things Up

In the film world, there is a term I have heard thrown around, “Kill your darlings.”

I have collaborated with other YouTubers before and I know that deadlines are the only way that you receive content and push content out.

Well, I asked the founder for more clips and pictures to add to the film that were either too difficult for her to find, or she didn’t have the capacity to get to it. And, even though I knew these would add to the story, this was stretching out the timelines of the project.

But worse, I started feeling like I was nagging her which took away from how much fun the filming was.

I decided to send her the cut, without the additional content that I wanted, and she loved it.

Even though, as an artist, I felt it could be better- this wasn’t my story. It was hers.

I made my dream come true, I told her story, and she really liked the outcome.

That’s what I like to call a good day in the office.

Some Takeaways

The whole process of diving into an unfamiliar world is both paralyzing but yet the most freeing feeling.

The nerves that built up while waiting for final approval, before I published the documentary, still haunt me to this day. Knowing the responsibility that comes with telling someone’s story can feel debilitating because if they hate it, you wasted a lot of time.

I feel I managed to tell a coherent story in my first doc, which upon reflection, is something worth celebrating.

This said I have created enough videos to know that there is always room for improvement.

I have another documentary in the pipeline and I feel a tad more confident as this world is a little more familiar to me now.

I’m excited to continue on this learning curve.

And, if this is a road you want to travel, then I hope this look inside the whirlwind that was my experience, empowered you with some practical insight to get you started.

You can do it :)

Content Creator | YouTuber

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