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
As with most historical documentary films, a story often follows a linear plot, but a good film should be more than a sequence of events; it should begin with characters. As an example, Johns explains that his film revolved around the event of the USS Kirk, a Knox-class destroyer that was chosen for the special mission to evacuate Vietnamese families to the Philippines during the fall of Saigon. The film couldn’t just be a chronicling of facts, says John; it had to convey the people’s stories. “We had to find the characters,” Johns says. “What we wanted to do had to be pieced together by the individual stories, which were mind-blowing.”


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
Though Duran and Johns are using interviews to tell a story that occurred decades before, they both understand that these personal narratives create immediate, intimate reactions from the audience. The story of how and why the couple came together helps express the importance of the wedding. Duran and Johns use these interviews as the means of finding the story and searching for imagery, which will propel that narrative.


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.”

Mind-Mapping
Pre-planning is at the core of each film, but it’s more than merely planning the logistics of a shoot. In the case of Duran, he often “mind-maps” his short and feature-length videos. He finds the structure of the overall video by defining the beginning, middle and end, but he is also breaking up the film into individual segments and chapters. “It’s easier for people to consume and understand segments,” Duran says. “By breaking it up into chapters, I am literally creating mini movies within the movie.”


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 first edit is called a rough cut for good reason. Though it may contain good content, the pacing and emotional impact of the piece may fall short. Much like a novel, the first draft is largely functional and won’t resemble the effectiveness of the final version. For Johns, that rough draft exists on paper in the form of a treatment. It serves not only as the guidebook for the production, but also helps to discern the rhythm and pace for combined footage, stills and interviews.

“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
When continually working on a piece, it’s easy to lose perspective on what is and is not working. Repeated viewing can cloud objective judgment of the film’s success. Johns avoided watching the first three edits of the film so that he could see it more objectively than its director, Rory Kennedy, and the film’s primary editor, Don Kleszy. “We really wanted to have some fresh eyes on it,” Johns says. “You can totally burn out on a project, and it can lead to big problems, including trying to micromanage everything.”

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
Music is a critical component, but it is easy to use it heavy-handedly, especially in a wedding video. Johns and Duran see music as an integral part, but they emphasize that its use has to move beyond sentimentality.

“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.

See this story in the Digital Edition.

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