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How to Find and Choose a Documentary Subject

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Read Time: 11 mins
This post is part of a series called Video Jumpstart Guide.
5 Essential Projects To Get You Started as a Weekend Filmmaker
The DSLR Revolution: No Longer Just About the Camera
Man walking with a paper bag on his headMan walking with a paper bag on his headMan walking with a paper bag on his head

So you've read "5 Essential Projects To Get You Started as a Weekend Filmmaker," and now you're ready to go and make a documentary video about someone interesting.

Great! As the saying goes, everyone has a story to tell. Or alternatively, everyone has a novel in them. But who has a video in them?

1. Choose the Doable, Rather Than the Desirable

If you were in a documentary film class right now, your first assignment would be to write down what you're passionate about. Topics that are deeply important to you personally, as well as social justice issues that have the power to change the world. 

"That's it, that's what you should make your films about," the teacher would say. 

Global warming, education reform, health care, food politics. All important, broad sweeping topics. For now, kindly throw those ideas in the trash bin.

What about the story of a farm family, and how the old-timers are facing new hurdles in their everyday battle to stay afloat, while the kids have to decide whether to pursue their own passions or pass on the family legacy?

Sounds fascinating, but not today.

As a weekend filmmaker, your job is to tell one person's - or one organization's - story. You have maybe a half day to shoot all your visuals, plus interviews. And if you pick a subject that can actually be shot in that half day, you can unquestionably make a video this very weekend. And maybe another one the following weekend. 

Eventually you'll have the opportunity to follow your subjects through their journey, and maybe you'll even film an important change for them that signifies their story arch. Maybe their individual story will reflect on a much bigger global issue. 

By then, you'll have made so many short documentaries about people and their stories, that you'll actually be fairly confident about how to approach that sweeping documentary about farm politics.

2. Choose the Do-er, Not the Has-Done

In the past couple years of filmmaking in Alaska, I've interviewed over 100 subjects for short documentary videos about real Alaskans, and not one of them was a gritty Alaskan pioneer with astonishing stories from the last frontier's tough early days.

And yet, 9 times out of 10, whenever a kind viewer suggests a person who would make a great documentary subject, it's a grandparent who has an amazing story to tell.

The problem is visuals. Your subject may certainly have a great story to tell, but it's not a video unless there are visuals. And unless you intend to patch together a video made entirely out of photos, you'll need something to capture on video. Macro shots of symbols, like tools and books, slide shots of a rocking chair, rack focus to and from an old radio - those can fill some of the time, but you still need some action. 

The good news is, your action doesn't have to be incredible, it just has to feature your subject, doing something. Sometimes the action will be entirely related to what they're talking about, other times it'll be shots of a writer doing the dishes, for example. Below is an example of a video that features mostly representational action, and just barely gets away with it. If it was to go past 4 minutes, we would need a lot more action.

Here are some ideas for great, active subjects for weekend filmmakers:

  • Artists, artisans, musicians, crafts people
  • Coffee makers/roasters, cooks, bartenders, hobbyists
  • People who are involved in transportation
  • People who make things
  • People who can perform their action in a short period of time
Musicians jamming in a living roomMusicians jamming in a living roomMusicians jamming in a living room

3. Choose the Doable Action

The last bullet is not only important to narrowing your choices of subjects, but also to planning your shoot. Can you film your subject performing their action in a couple hours or less? Or a portion of the action?

After I settle on a subject I am convinced will make a great video, I brainstorm the kinds of shots I could realistically expect to get in a short amount of time. If I can't film the entire action, I might pick only a small piece of the process that I could film. Perhaps the beginning of a journey, the preparation. Or the end of a long project.

Still, if I can't shoot the primary action that the whole video is about, or when there aren't tangible, physical actions, it might be a good idea to move on. (Or ask them directly for ideas - more on that later). Symbolic - or representational - visuals can work, but sometimes can only get you so far. 

Here are some examples of subjects where the primary action will need to be filmed partially or representationally:

  • Beer, wine, or spirits makers, food growers, builders, long projects
  • Computer-based makers, writers, concept-based activity
  • People whose activity is in the public
  • People whose activity depends on other people
Welder weldingWelder weldingWelder welding
Filming only a portion of a long welding project.

For me, when I edit or watch a video, an average shot feels pretty much "done" after 4-5 seconds, and each sequence gets old after 4-5 shots, so for each minute in a short documentary video, you'll need at least 10 different "really good" shots. And when shooting for a 3-5 minute video, you'll want to frame and film at least twice what you'll actually use in the edit. So, that's at least 60-100 different shots, such as different angles, actions, objects in motion, focal distances, and camera movements. When choosing your subject, will you be able to move around and get that kind of variety of shots with your subject?

Then there is the opposite: the problem of choosing a person whose action is too quick, and only happens once. You might film the action and only get one decent shot, or worse, you may hurry a variety of shots so much that you end up with nothing usable. Multiple cameras can help add variety to the one-time action (like a musical performance), but sometimes even 3-4 camera angles capturing a quick action won't fill a 3 minute documentary video. Your best option is to stick with actions that are repeatable.

Some examples of subjects where the primary action happens fast and might not be repeatable, so it will be more difficult to capture a variety of shots:

  • Fishermen, hunters, hair cutters, tree cutters, ski jumpers
  • Live performances, conversations, pouring a drink
  • People meeting people, in-store purchases, unravelings, transportation in places that where you can't do a re-do
Man holding a dogMan holding a dogMan holding a dog
You only get one chance to film a wolverine kiss.

4. Who Wants to Do the Film?

Once you decide on a subject, and you're fairly confident the shoot is doable - say, a person who dresses up in Anime characters for fun (but also kind of seriously) - now all you need is the right person. Preferably someone who is also a great communicator, has the potential for great visuals, and is available to shoot this Saturday. And also is willing to allow you into their life for a day, and then share their life in 3-minute video on Youtube.

Wow, doesn't that seem like a lot to ask? You would think you'd start with an interesting real-life person first, rather than an idea of a person, maybe someone who you already know. And it's true, many filmmakers do not branch out of their circle of friends and family for subjects, partly because you're asking a lot of people, but also because it can feel daunting to find a complete stranger that fits an idea of something you're looking for, whether in your area or thousands of miles away.

Getting to meet wildly different people outside of your comfort zone, where you get to learn about their lives and passions, and then share their stories with the world - isn't that why we're doing this? And if you remind yourself that, one, people love attention and, two, a short, cinematic documentary video about them can be an incredible gift for them to share with their friends and family even years later, then you can get past the fear of asking too much of strangers.

What happens when you contact a random stranger about making a doc? You may get subjects who are unwilling, weirded out, or will ask, "Why make a video about me?" Or, "You know who you should really make a video about? My neighbor who has these great stories." Sigh.  

Older woman bowlingOlder woman bowlingOlder woman bowling
Convincing strangers that they'd make a great doc subject is worth the effort.

Sometimes the people who don't think of themselves as being doc-worthy can be the most inspiring and authentic on video. But you have to convince them to participate, which usually involves explaining how long it will take, what your goal is, who you are, and offering some examples of similar videos. But still, some people might be weirded out with your request, especially if you have a weird name and are calling across the US from Alaska. 

That said, you can make life easier by looking for people who are actually interested in a video about themselves, or could use one to benefit them in some way, such as:

  • Small business owners
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Crowd-funding projects
  • Artists, musicians, people who make a living from their craft

Also keep in mind there are some subjects who can be too eager for a free video, and they'll dominate your video with their pitch points and suggestions. It's understandable - a video can be really important to someone's business - but you probably want to avoid these subjects until you start charging for your services. Additionally, if you do make a video about a company or organization, try to choose a subject who works on the ground level, anyone but the CEO, president, or marketing director. It's hard to make your inspirational documentary about a company feel anything but stale when the message comes from high up.

5. Contact and Go Do

Now that you have your subject sort of picked out - remember the Anime cosplay person? - it's time to look for actual people to contact, home in on a person, and get in touch. This part can be wild and lead you in all sorts of directions, so when your final subject asks you, "How did you hear of me?" All you can do is maniacally laugh and say "Google."

Because that's where it all happens. You google, you find Facebook groups, read old news stories, scan through hobbyist forums, watch Youtube videos. You keep searching, learning, weeding out, until you think you have a name.

Finding the contact info for that one person can be easy or difficult, depending on if they're active on the web. If they have a Facebook account, send them a message, and definitely pay Facebook the $1.00 to reach their inbox, or else your message will disappear. 

Pay the dollar, or your message will likely not be seen by the person you're contacting.

If they're old school, you'll have to find a phone number. White Pages sometimes works, but more often than not, you'll have to reluctantly pay Spokeo for an account, to unveil the phone numbers that White Pages hides.

By now you're ready to call and make your introduction. 

What if after all that, the subject ends up unwilling, weirded out, or not exactly the right fit? That can happen, and you don't want to commit too early. Here's an easy way how:

"Hi, I'm looking to make a short video documentary about Anime cosplayers in our area, and I heard about you and wondered if you could help me pinpoint a few people who could be a good fit."

After they suggest someone else with "lots of stories," you turn the conversation to them. "Well, what about you, what's your story? How did you get involved?" Now you're conducting a pre-interview discussion, and if it goes well, you tell them they sound perfect and ask if they want to participate. If it doesn't seem like it's going to work out, you can kindly thank them for the leads and move on to other contacts.

Once you discover a solid subject, you'll want to find a day and time to film that works for them, but also is ideal for filming. "When is a time when you're normally doing something?" Or "when would I have the most opportunities to film you in action?" This is when you begin to lay down your activity you'll be filming - even just broadly - and look for variety in action and place. "So, maybe we can shoot you at home trying on various costumes from 1-3pm, then walk over to the comic store and get some shots of you browsing, and then do an interview and be done by 6pm?"

It's all worth it in the end, and you'll be making documentaries about random strangers you never would have met, people you can learn from and be inspired by. During my last trip for PBS "Indie America," we went to Champaign-Urbana, and my partner in crime Travis Gilmour and I wanted a story about a rising student or graduate of University of Illinois. We wanted someone who was doing something non-traditionally. We found the story of Miss Possible, a team of young women who are working on manufacturing dolls to inspire young girls to pursue their dreams. Pay attention to the activity - we barely got any shots of a doll, or manufacturing - but we did get variety of shots and places. And I think it works, even with eating pizza for an activity.

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