James Boo - AMA about documentary filmmaking, social impact, work-work balance, how to start anything


(James Boo) #1

I’m a Brooklyn-based documentary filmmaker dedicated to non-fiction media that make a social impact. I spent my first 8 years in NYC working a more-than-full-time job in tech (management, business operations, product development) while also being a freelance food writer, then transitioned to documentary shorts and ultimately found my web series calling with 1 Minute Meal. After saving cash and making strategic plans for about a year, I quit my day job in March 2017 and will be working on documentary as long as I can keep it going.

I’m now working on two major projects:

  • Mass Romantic,” a feature documentary about an eccentric math scholar building the world’s most unlikely film archive in India
  • “This Asian American Life” (working title), a podcast-to-be that will help Asian American storytellers usher out the mainstream media’s lingering image of Asian Americans as a perpetually foreign monolith

Here’s what I can help with:

  • Documentary production, direction, cinematography, and editing
  • How to prove out your idea and make it real in a short amount of time
  • How to continue becoming a better storyteller while working a demanding day job
  • What it’s like to be a one-person band, when that’s a good idea and when it’s a bad idea (spoiler: almost always a bad idea)
  • What it’s like to work on social impact and attempt to improve media representation

We've got an AMA for that!
(Bri Castellini) #2

Hey James! Thanks so much for doing this! Why did you first decide to transition into filmmaking, and into web series in particular?


(Meg Carroway) #3

Hi James! I feel like I recognize your profile image from around these here parts… :slight_smile: Can you explain what you mean by “How to prove out your idea and make your it real in a short amount of time”?


(Blair Hunter) #4

Would def-o love advice on work-work balance! What are your, say, top 3 tips for balancing without losing your mind?


(James Boo) #5

Thanks for having me!

The transition from writing to documentary was essentially a move away from what I considered a negative profession. I was a food writer, and there was no financial or social future in writing about food that I wanted to be a part of – the biggest downside was that I wanted to write lot of stories about people’s lives and their place in society, and nobody wanted to buy those stories from me. Documentary is a better medium for these stories, and more importantly comes with an audience expectation that you’ll get to the emotional or human truth about a person, as opposed to just shoving pictures of food in people’s social feeds.

The decision to start a web series was almost immediate, and was entirely due to lack of resources. I had to be able to produce a show on a time budget of 1.5 days a week and an initial investment of less than $500, so I spent that money on sound equipment and begin shooting with my Rebel T3i. A month later, 1 Minute Meal existed.


(Anna Bateman) #6

Hi James! Big fan of 1 Minute Meal, even though I’m not from NYC! Very cool, bite-sized series! As someone who can be… awkward… how would you suggest I start out in documentaries? If I hate being on the phone/talking to strangers.


(Bri Castellini) #7

That’s so cool! Can you talk about how your experience/connections as a food blogger helped when you set about promoting 1 Minute Meal? Any advice you can lend based on that to everyone here?


(James Boo) #8

I think an unfair advantage I’ve had as a filmmaker is that I spent close to a decade building teams and releasing products in tech and publishing, so I have a lot less stress and uncertainty about going from nothing to something, then showing that something to people. I feel like I’ve helped some of my peers in the arts take an idea or curiosity that’s bottled up in their minds and go through a process of what people in tech call “minimum viable product” – the smallest version of a product, or film, or story, that you can show someone else to get some quality feedback on how you’re doing, and how you can do better.


(sam lockie-waring) #9

did you have any filmmaking experience before 1 minute meal? your camera work/editing is so smooth and i’m curious when you developed those skills


(Meg Carroway) #10

Gotcha! I would like advice on that, please :slight_smile: I always feel this, like, pressure to have everything prepared before telling anyone else about a project, otherwise they’ll think I’m not serious.


(sam lockie-waring) #11

same.


(Jaime Lancaster) #12

Hi James! I’m an aspiring producer and I’m very very deep into pre-production for a (fiction) project right now and I was curious… What is your process when approaching pre-production for a documentary project if you can’t plan what people are going to say?


(James Boo) #13

In the interest of time, and because I’m verbose, how about one?

Take a day off (maybe two) to sit down with a spreadsheet and a notepad to estimate how much time you spend doing anything in a given week. If you can see what one week of your life looks like, broken down into how many hours go towards which things, then you can start to think about why that is, and start to get a handle on where you can make more time, change your priorities, etc. It helps you ask important questions and see what your creative goals will really cost you, in terms of the parts of your life you’ll never get back.

Going into 2016, I did this exercise, realized that if I wanted to keep doing 1 Minute Meal I would have to create 1-2 days a week that simply didn’t exist. So I just decided, “I’m not doing season 3 this year,” and it was the best decision of my career :slight_smile:


(Jaime Lancaster) #14

Do you still have a day job, or do you support yourself with filmmaking?


(James Boo) #15

One thing you can do is review all of the documentaries you’ve really loved and wished you could make. If those films seem to require getting deep access to people, or lots of interviews with complete strangers, then unfortunately you’re not going to have an easy time getting over this hurdle. One reason I was able to transition into documentary quickly is because I already had experience and comfort as a reporter making cold calls over and over again and trying to win over strangers’ trust in a short amount of time.

However, the documentary world is very diverse! If you find yourself gravitating towards research-based documentaries that are about history and mostly present photos, images, found footage, etc., then you can begin pursuing your own archive-based project that’s more about digging up the past than trying to wrangle the present. This comes with a million other challenges, but my main point here is that it helps to identify what kinds of stories you want to tell.


(Blair Hunter) #16

Interesting! So like making a budget, but for time instead of money? Are there things you’ve figured out to cut away fat/eliminate unnecessary expenses, if we use the money budget metaphor? I know it prolly depends on the person, but I bet there are general things too! Otherwise why are there a billion financial blogs??


(Anna Bateman) #17

Any cold call advice, then?


(James Boo) #18

I had DSLR photography experience, and before that I had Canon point-and-shoot experience – but nothing else!

When it comes to cinematography, I think I was helped a lot by the fact that I had been shooting stills as a hobby (focused on food, dogs, cats, and friends) and always used manual focus with a fixed prime lens (usually a 35mm). So I had to develop this mindfulness of space and composition and reflexes around the focus, which I think is harder to develop if you’re used to shooting on auto. So that’s one great way to build up cinema skills without paying all the costs of shooting in motion.

When it comes to editing, I think the secret to video editing is that it’s just an extension of any other kind of narrative edit. So if you have experience with scripted film edits, written script edits, editing your own blog posts, editing a friend’s grad school application personal essay, editing policy documents and company e-mails at work… you are still building your skills as an editor. Anytime you take a story and apply decisions reg. the format and the audience it’s for, you are an editor. It’s easy to miss that, and consequently miss a chance to become better at what you really want to do.


(Anna Bateman) #19

Can you talk more about being mindful of composition? Is that just doing a rule of thirds thing, or is there a deeper secret you can tell us about? :grimacing:


(sam lockie-waring) #20

dope. i saw you’re doing a narrative feature now- what do you think is the biggest difference between prepping docs and scripted on the independent level?