I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know professionals in the film industry and attend workshops as far away as LA. Through a combination of family and friends, I’ve made acquaintances with film industry professionals in New York, LA, Toronto, and Vancouver. From these people I’ve learned a lot about the process and developed a great deal of admiration and respect for all those involved. I’ve also volunteered on a number of film projects and learned a lot about the different roles and responsibilities. However, when it comes to creating the short documentaries such as the ones I’ve linked to this site, the process is much simpler. In this post, I’m going to discuss the process I use to create my short documentary projects. At a later time, I’ll follow up with another post about how the process differs with narrative projects.
One of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve learned when making a film is: ‘keep it simple!’ Now this might not appear to be the case when it comes to watching an action film in the theater… But behind all the CGI, explosions, car chases, fight scenes, and elaborate sets, are a group of professionals who are all individually doing just that. Film becomes complicated all by itself! In my experience, I’ve also learned that work spent up front planning and organizing pays huge dividends when it comes time to capturing the content and editing. In other words, the old adage ‘measure twice, cut once’, is highly applicable here.
So to start with, I focus on the subject which usually comes from research and curiosity. For instance, I’ve been fascinated with biological immortality and spent many hours reading and researching the subject on the Internet.
The next phase is a treatment, which is really just an outline of the project. From the treatment I can easily break the project into scenes or modules or episodes. Each of these can then be developed into a script. For my documentary series of short Vimeo films on biological immortality, I broke the concept into fifteen short modules. These modules include things like Apoptosis, Hayflick’s limit, Planarian flat worms, Tardigrades, etc., Each of the subject areas will become a separate episode.
Then comes more research and an outline for what the episode will cover. I try to keep it as simple as possible and give a short overview with relevant facts. Usually, I wind up writing a couple of short paragraphs and then editing and re-editing until I feel they are ready.
Next comes the production phase. This might include recording audio, or filming myself presenting. If it’s recording then the first task is to create a sound dampened space to eliminate background noise. It’s hard to believe how badly a truck or bus in the background can spoil a recorded voice. Since I lack a sound studio, my solution is to simply hang blankets in front of windows and cover as many surfaces as possible. Sound tends to bounce off hard surfaces so it’s important to provide sound absorption wherever it would normally bounce.
The next step is placement of the microphone. I have a variety of microphones, but for recording audio I tend to use a Rode NT3 coupled with a Tascam recorder. Both are professional level instruments and the Rode microphone captures a good range of frequency that can be manipulated easily in post.
I use a mic stand to position the mic about a quarter meter from my mouth. I’m careful to position the mic so that it won’t pic up bounced sound off a hard surface behind. The best position is to have the mic pointing down at a carpeted floor. The Tascam recorder uses an SD card, which makes it easy to transfer to a computer for editing and post production.
I then record and re-record the paragraphs I have written until I’m satisfied with my performance.
Once I’ve captured the audio I can copy it to Final Cut Pro X and lay it down as an audio track. FCP X makes it easy to lay down multiple overlapping tracks much like Garage Band. I can split the audio into pieces and where necessary edit the track to remove words or cut to a different audio take. I’ve recently discovered the Compressor effect, which limits the highs in a track while boosting the low to mid-range. It can take what seems to be over-modulated dialogue and clean it up completely. From time-to-time, I record too close to the microphone and it produces sibilance. This is a type of distortion that would normally render the track unusable. With the Compressor effect and the built in equalizer, I can generally save the track and use the best take available.
Once the audio track is laid down and I have assembled the best pieces from the tracks I have recorded, the next step is to add music. I use stock footage libraries for music, stills, and movie footage. There are even Adobe After Effect sequences available (which can be modified), and computer animation sequences. Once I decide on an appropriate music track, I download it and add it to my audio tracks in FCP X.
I’ve got in the habit of creating and using a starting sequence that is pre-built so I can now insert that at the beginning of the piece. So, I now have the starting sequence, the audio track, and the music I want to use for the episode. It’s time to move on to the visuals…
Editing video is very much about rhythm, so having a good soundtrack is essential. The rhythm of the music and the rhythm of the dialog become instrumental to deciding where to cut and edit visual elements. Most of the time, I work sequentially through the piece from beginning to end. I search for shots online based on the what the audio track is describing, then download the sequence and insert it. I don’t need to finesse it at this stage, just have a rough assembly.
Sometimes, I get stuck and can’t find appropriate visuals to complement the audio portion. When this occurs, I simply skip to the next section and return later to fill in the blanks. The creative part of this process is coming up with a solution to these blanks. Sometimes the best approach is to use humor. People have a remarkable ability to make connections when you extrapolate visuals. For instance, talking about intra-cellular and extra-cellular components in living cells can be represented visually by footage of the interior and exterior of the Colosseum (in Rome). People watching often don’t even notice that a visual metaphor is being used in place of an animation or footage from a microscope… They simply accept it. Similarly, using the image of a dog catching a ball to represent the trajectory of a particle in physics becomes a fun and effective way of visually representing the concept.
It really comes down to finding a way to express the concept in the best way possible with the time and materials available.
Once the piece is assembled, it is time to tidy up the edits and add effects such as dissolves, slow motion, titles, fades, and other effects to make the content as seamless and approachable as possible. It’s important not to rush the process and it helps to give some space and leave the project alone so it can be viewed freshly.
I often mix and re-mix the audio to try and make it sound as good as possible. Where necessary, I’ll search for and add audio effects to enhance what’s going on with the visuals. In some cases there may be as many as ten audio and video layers at any one time.
It’s hard to believe that one short three-minute episode can take weeks to produce. I’ve found the best way to make it efficient is to write as many episodes at one time as possible and then record as many together as possible. When editing, it is often good to work on two or three at a time so you can switch gears and focus on different content to take a break.
In the end it’s all part of the creative process: The creative process of making a short film.