That’s really helpful- thank you!!
James Boo - AMA about documentary filmmaking, social impact, work-work balance, how to start anything
I think that the way you compose a shot has a lot to do with your own taste, so this is where watching other people’s visual work is really important, and you want to set aside a few hours a week to really take in other films and photojournalism works and ask yourself what’s working for you and what’s not.
The thing that’s perhaps not so obvious, though, is knowing how a shot might matter for the story you’re after. You’ll have a really hard time getting the “right” shot if you don’t have some idea of what the story might end up being. For example, I did a story about the oldest restaurant on Staten Island, and during our pre-interview (which you should always, always, always do), we identified that the most interesting thing about this guy was that he never wanted to run this restaurant and he was just riding out a really ancient promise he made to his dying father.
So on that same day and two weeks later during a pick-up shoot, I knew that I needed to capture images of a person who was living this kind of lonely life in an outdated context, protecting a legacy that really wasn’t his own, but at the same depending on his role in taking care of his customers and keeping this promise alive. I hope that comes across in the final product (https://oneminutemealfilms.com/basilio-inn-maurizio-asperti-oldest-restaurant-on-staten-island/).
Definitely gonna start tracking my “time budget” more closely. This has been such an informative AMA, thanks James!! Hope to see you around more often!
This is a tough challenge! I think it’s fair to think about representation with the question, “Whose story is not being told?” One answer that no media brand wants to hear is, “Local stories about regular people.” So given your geographic position and more importantly the population you have access to, I think you should get together with your collaborators and be really brutal about asking what local stories are not going to get picked up by mainstream media, and what kind of emotional truth or power they could have that appeals to people who don’t live near you. The genuine nature of your characters and your story will always come through, and fabrications of types of people will always fall flat.
On the back end, what you can do as a professional is just continue being mindful of this greater problem, and start with a minority workforce that you definitely have access to: women. Help women in your community, elevate their voices, take their skills seriously, and succeed with them as your leaders or as your teammates.
Alright folks, that about does it! I know we have some leftover questions, so I’ll leave that to James whether he’ll answer those now or later. In any case, HUGE big thanks to @spectatorspork for being here and answering our questions so thoroughly! I, too, hope we see him around these here parts more
Be sure to check out James’s work and thank you again, James, hanging out!
Yes, thank you James!
1 Minute Meal depends heavily on distribution partnerships with local Edible Magazines, which are independently owned. Their independence makes them a LOT easier to collaborate with, since they answer to no one but themselves, and have small teams that (while overworked) can move quickly in comparison to a mag like Bon Appetit or Food & Wine. More importantly, they have audiences that share interest in my stories but don’t literally follow me. What we ended up with on 1 Minute Meal is sharing publication duties on Facebook, with all the videos being licensed to each publication and a fee coming back to me.
So if you’re looking for ways to expand your reach, think about other organizations or businesses doing great work that might be lacking in video/story content, and reach out to them to understand what their needs are. Then figure out how you can work together. It really all comes back to building relationships and putting yourselves in the shoes of other businesses who are trying to solve similar problems and reach more audiences.
Hey y’all, I’ll definitely hang out here a bit longer and answer as many questions as I can. Thanks so much for taking an interest, asking important questions, and for being you
Thank you very much for the reply! It has been a great help!
Always conduct a pre-interview, which is just a phone call where you do the following active work:
- Listen to the subject attempt to tell me what they’re about
- Sketch out what kind of character I think this person is, and how they’d fit into a narrative
- Try to prove that sketch right or wrong by asking questions, and bring yourself closer to what that person is actually capable of articulating, and who they actually are
Sometimes you’ll pre-interview a subject and decide that you just can’t put them on camera because they’re not good enough at telling their own stories. In my experience, more often you’ll get a sharper idea for what they’re great at talking about and then plan your on-camera work with more precision and care. If you’re going in as a director or host, this often can be done by the producer, which means it’s essential to review the notes and take your producer’s advice seriously.
You’ll still always have to do some quick thinking and maneuvering during the filming itself, so one thing I’d recommend is to be very comfortable with asking someone to just try answering the question again, but:
- In a single sentence
- With more focus on X, where X is what you’re trying to make sure you have great tape for
- From the perspective of Y, where Y is the audience trying to understand what the hell they’re saying
There’s more “takes” in documentary than the average viewer might expect, but also way more preparation and active thinking as you’re doing the work. It’s never only following someone with a camera or people literally telling their own story.
I personally think that doing freelance video work is a very negative approach, because my eyes are already bad enough and it’s a terrible feeling to have your creative labor sapped by someone else’s corporate bullshit. So I’m really fortunate to have other hard skills (teaching, consulting on product development, and building teams) that I built up before making this transition, but it remains to be seen how sustainable it will really be.
All that said, speaking for myself, here’s how I’m trying to stay on course:
- Never do creative work alone again
- Only commit to doing projects that can be pitched with an eventual salary and ownership for myself (which coincidentally means only committing to very ambitious projects, which has given my life a really welcome sense of purpose)
- Really think about any possible opportunity for passive revenue, and go after them (e.g. 1 Minute Meal is about to hit the Youtube ad threshold, so I’ve sat down and built a plan to transition all of my embeds to Youtube and begin promoting with that channel in mind, rather than what I’ve historically done on Vimeo and Facebook…and in my freelance life, I’m trying to develop a GMAT video product that could be resold by literally clicking a button, as opposed to having to spend another 6 hours tutoring new students)
Definitely worth your time!
- Researching grants is essential because it shows you truly how much money is out there for people like yourself, making films that you want to make.
- Applying for grants is essential because it forces you to really, really, articulate why you need the money, where it’s going to go, and why the story will be a success on its own terms.
I recommend that any producer and/or director do these things not even to go after the money, but to understand the ecosystem and force yourself to understand what you’re bringing to that ecosystem.
If you’re new to grant applications, I’d also recommend taking a workshop from someone who has successfully won major grants, because you can learn a ton of skills and best practices in a very small amount of time. This is the one thing I wish someone had told me to do in 2015, because I didn’t do this until summer of 2017, when I had already basically started and failed at producing a feature film.
I’ve won a micro grant and some in-kind-compensation fellowships, have been rejected by 3-5 large grants, and am now starting a new wave of applications for both my feature film and podcast. So I’m still pretty new to this myself, but am amazed at how much better I feel about spending 1-2 days a week during development just writing grant applications and feeling like I’m getting better at telling and pitching the story I want to produce.
I would love for other community members who have a similar view on prototyping as mine, but work on scripted shows, to answer here if possible!
That said, I do think that you can always present a vision, and the trick here is that everything I do with documentary actually mimics what people do for fiction. There’s a great podcast called “Out on the Wire” which is a step-by-step exploration on how to get your idea made, so I recommend you subscribe to that and listen to it (it’s 6 episodes, I think).
Taking the example of a narrative comedy (and at the risk of terrible misunderstanding how comedy production works), I think you can focus heavily on dialogue, timing, and acting. If you set your goal as being “Let’s write an amazing sketch and then just get our actors to do the sketch in front of a dozen people who are hardcore fans of this genre,” then you’ve basically spent no cash and are doing the first version of what your show will be. You get to gauge:
- Script quality (and what could be improved)
- Actor chemistry (and what could be improved)
- How jokes land in front of real people (and what could be improved)
- How easy the team is to work with (and what could be improved)
- What you haven’t had the chance to test yet (e.g. lighting, cinematography, location, set management)
I hope this is a reasonable take!
So, the $15K target is what I need to complete a 10-15 minute sample, which is what I’ll need to pitch non-profit grants of $50-$150K a piece. This is pretty common practice in the documentary world, since people need prove that you can actually pull off your vision in terms of access, field production, editing, and look and feel of the film.
This also actually isn’t a crowdfunding effort, though people can easily donate For development, I’ve been focused entirely on friends+family+professional network, asking for donations of $200-$2,000 to get through this critical first stage of production. I’ve also gotten a fiscal sponsor because that helps people understand immediately that this is about social impact, and if they give a lot, they can write that off their taxes (but ugh, thanks for nothing, Republicans). Most importantly, having a fiscal sponsor opens up matching donations from corporations like Google, which effectively doubles the donations I’ve gotten from several people who work in tech.
I will definitely crowdfund closer to the release of the film, but I think of that more as community building, pre-sales, and marketing for a film that DEFINITELY is being completed and will be delivered to people who pitch in $10+ because they want to see it. I hope this all makes sense!
Thanks for being here, Emily! Also, everyone give Emily a hand – she was the asst. editor on the most recent (and clearly best) season of 1 Minute Meal. She’s based in NYC and I assume is available as an editor for your web series.
Re. your question… relying on previous relationships is a big deal. I found you because I asked a PA from a previous shoot, and I found that PA because I asked a producer from a previous shoot, and I found that producer because I asked one of my most trusted friends if she knew any great producers. There is no shortage of wonderful and aspiring talent for making cool shit, so I would double down on just making calls, writing e-mails, posting on social, and coming to STAREABLE to see who’s looking for cool shit to work on.
But I’d also say that it’s important that if you’re a one-person band, you need to take a step away and make sure you can reach out with a vision that makes sense to people who are not you. Ultimately, in any individual conversation, you need someone to believe in your vision first, then feel like they can work with you to figure out whether it’s practical for them to fit this vision into their lives as your teammate.
Thanks so much for the detailed answer James!
1 Minute Meal has earned revenue through:
- Licensing fees paid to the show from the magazines/brands that distribute it
- Grant funding
- Donations from viewers
- My savings account
This series is actually not a financial success story, which I wrote about at length in this essay. But it’s gotten way more cash than I would have thought when I started 3 years ago, and certainly more than I ever, ever, ever made as a writer.
More importantly, before I committed four months of my life to working on the show’s 3rd season nonstop, I had a real conversation with myself about the numbers, and decided that losing money was acceptable because it would help me make a long-term transition into documentary filmmaking (more so than anything else I was in a position to do). This ended up being totally true; taking that loss put me on a lot of people’s radars, taught me really valuable lessons about how to be effective, set me up with connections to do great work in the future, and is way more than just a clip in a reel.
But I have to say that I wouldn’t have been able to do this if (a) I hadn’t been in a prior position to save money over the course of a year, which is a real privilege that most people, I think, don’t have, and (b) I hadn’t learned the management/strategy skills to think about how the series should be executed.
In both types of films, you absolutely have to think through and plan your plot and your characters. What you don’t have in documentary production is complete control. I basically am always sitting on a Google Doc that outlines who my characters are, and how they find their way through a narrative arc that I intend to film. Then I am constantly researching and observing with the assumption that my outline is totally wrong, and needs to be adapted week by week to get closer to reality (whether that means literal events happening or the emotional truth of what’s going on with these people).
Oh, and here’s an answer to a question that nobody asked!
This is my favorite Steamed Hams video: