Visual Storytelling Tips From Pros to Start Filmmaking Like a Documentarian
by Ibarionex Perello
April 22, 2014 —
Today’s wedding videos are often full-fledged productions, complete with high-resolution footage and originally composed scores. In many ways, Hollywood has found its way into the personal world of weddings. Videographers are using the same equipment and software as Hollywood filmmakers, but they are also embracing the same principles and techniques of visual storytelling.
In recent conversations with two accomplished independent documentary filmmakers, Miguel Duran (director and producer of UNREST: Founding of the Cal State Northridge Chicana/o Studies Department) and Taylor Johns (associate producer of Last Days in Vietnam), they explained their approach and tips to filmmaking that can easily take a cookie-cutter video to new heights.
Finding the Story
Aboard the USS Kirk, the crewmembers signal the Chinook to hover over their deck and drop its passengers out in Last Days in Vietnam. Photo © Strike While It's Hot Productions
It’s this same approach that can make a wedding video that much more personal. A wedding is more than just a ceremony and reception; how and why two people found one another can provide the heart of a story.
Interviewing the Subjects
Lighting and camera setup for the first interview of Last Days in Vietnam. Photo © Moxie Firecracker Films
“Once I have the story, then it comes down to finding the visuals to help tell it,” Duran says. “Those visuals help shape the planning and what I have available to me and what I will need.”
A campus demonstration in UNREST during 1968 with students voicing their desire for a Chicana/o studies program. Photo © Hugh Doyle
The action of defining the core and ancillary stories on paper, whiteboard or mind-mapping software provides clarity of vision. This is especially important when working with raw materials. Johns and Duran had to contend with archival stills and footage that needed to be combined with their own interviews. Most importantly, it helped them think about the imagery they would need in order to illustrate those individual moments. Even before they began editing in Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, they were visualizing how each chapter could be told. Videos are a visual medium, and both filmmakers stress that it’s important not to forget that. “It’s always better to show people rather than to tell people,” says Johns.
Working the Rough Draft
“The treatment defined the story for us. We knew the direction we wanted to head in,” Johns says. “Our primary structure changed a number of times during the editing process, but we always came back to the story.”
Screen capture of the timeline of the film UNREST on Final Cut Pro. Photo © Strike While It's Hot Productions
If the story doesn’t flow quite right, Duran suggests taking a break for a couple of days after making the rough cut. With multiple versions of a chapter or segment in Final Cut Pro, it allowed him a point of comparison for both minor and major changes.
Seeing with Fresh Eyes
Duran solicits feedback from filmmakers and non-filmmakers alike. “I would show it to multiple people to find out what was working and what wasn’t,” he says, explaining a critical step to assess the effectiveness of the editing with respect to flow and pacing.
The Role of Music
“The film is building up to this emotional moment when we see the Vietnamese flag being taken down,” says Johns, explaining that the moment captures the loss of families and homes for the characters in the film. “We use the music carefully, beginning with the playing of a single instrument. We slowly build up from there, and at the end it’s like a knife to the heart. I cry every time I see it.”
Duran, who also composed the music for his film, took a thoughtful approach, too. “Music can make or break your film,” he says. “I would often listen to a segment without music and determine whether I felt it needed it or not.”
Videos are about people and their intimate stories. It is up to the filmmaker to use the tools available to create something that honors those people, their memories and their stories.
You Might Also Like