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8 Tips For Getting Started in Documentary Filmmaking

My RØDE Reel is back and bigger than ever with a monumental $1 million in cash to be won, plus heaps of RØDE mics and accessories, awesome filmmaking gear and other prizes from the world's leading filmmaking brands.

To enter, make a 3-minute short film (plus a behind-the-scenes film featuring a RØDE product) and submit it before October 7. Aside from that, the brief is totally open – use the prize categories to inspire the direction fo your film. 

If you're thinking of making a documentary for your entry, you'll want to stick around for this. Below, My RØDE Reel judge and superstar film director Selina Miles shares her eight tips for getting started in the world of doc filmmaking. Selina is an award-winning filmmaker with a passion for telling human stories. She started making documentaries in 2016, self-producing a series on Vimeo entitled Portrait of an Artist. The second of these was awarded a Staff Pick on Vimeo, and the series has gathered over 150,000 views in total. This led to the creation of The Wanderers, a six-part mini-documentary series, and her first feature, Martha: A Picture Story, a documentary on iconic photographer Martha Cooper, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in 2019, earning her widespread critical acclaim.

Don’t Wait For Funding

Everyone has to start somewhere, but don’t wait around for someone to give you an opportunity. This sounds easier said than done, especially in the difficult times we are now going through - but sometimes the only way to kickstart a project is to just pick up a camera and start shooting something you’re interested in.

Many of the best projects out there have been self-funded and self-initiated, or have been an unpaid collaboration. Often once potential collaborators or subjects find out that you're doing a “love project,” they will be happy to jump on board and do the same. These projects are really worthwhile because they help you build your reel and often lead to offers of paid work in the future. They can allow you to build your skill set without the confines of a client brief.

This is different to working for a client for free - something that I don’t recommend as it depreciates your industry and makes it harder for you and your peers to get a fair fee in the future!

Selina Miles shooting artist Myla of DabsMyla for 2017 ABC Series 'The Wanderers'

Research

As well as being informed about the topic you’re covering, the best way to spend downtime between projects is research – and that means watching films, reading books, and listening to music.

Instagram is a great tool for inspiration, but it’s really important to look further afield. Having a balanced diet of inspiration from many sources will make you a well-rounded filmmaker. When watching films for research, try to watch them actively, and consider the craft involved rather than becoming immersed in the story.

You can also research creatives in your local area and get to know them so that when the time comes to hire a crew for a project, you already have those relationships in place.

Selina Miles and artist Rone shooting his tools for 2017 ABC series 'The Wanderers'

Make It Work With What You Have

With so many new products coming out these days, it’s easy to fixate on having the best equipment. But any professional filmmaker or photographer will tell you that the equipment you use only has a small impact on your overall product.

Oscar-winning films have been made on prosumer cameras. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need a better camera. Use the right tool for the job. And often the right tool for the job is the one that’s already sitting on your shelf, or the one you can borrow or hire cheaply.

As well as being costly, higher-end gear is often bigger, more cumbersome, and requires more crew and support, meaning you’re less maneuverable. My ideal crew size for a documentary is four people - producer or fixer, DOP, director and sound recordist. You can fit everyone in one car or taxi, and the less people you have, the more easily you can blend in when you’re out in the field.

Beirut Skyline on Portra 100 35mm, Selina Miles

Sound Comes First

When it comes to sound, however, get the best gear you possibly can. Good sound does more than its fair share of the heavy lifting in telling your story and immersing a viewer in the world you’re creating. Audiences are much more forgiving of lower quality vision than they are of low-quality sound, so make sure you take the time to set your sound up properly and give your sound recordist (or yourself if you’re alone!) enough time to capture everything they need – you’ll thank yourself later.

Selina sooting artist Mike Giant in Sydney, 2015

Keep Shooting

We’ve all suffered from “get-home-itis” – that feeling of fatigue at the end of the day when you’ve had enough and want to go home. Try and push through it. You might have days where you’re totally convinced that what is going on is not relevant to your film, only to have that footage become a pivotal moment of the story later in the edit.

It’s easy to get “snow-blind” when you’re out in the field and think you’ve got heaps of material, only to find later that you didn’t shoot enough options. So just have faith and keep shooting. When I’m finding it hard to get motivated, I try to set myself a tangible goal, for example just cover off 10 to 15 shots each of a wide, mid, and close option of a scene, and make sure each shot is at least 20 seconds. That’s 15 minutes of material that might be crucial later on.

Selina flying a drone in Tasmania, 2017 

Transcripts Are Your Friend

Get used to paper edits. Paper editing is the process of transcribing your dialogue, and writing out the action, dialogue, and storyline of each scene on paper before going back to edit. It might feel uncomfortable or tedious at first because it’s out of your comfort zone, but I guarantee that eventually you will learn to love this process.

The first thing to love about working on paper is that it is way faster and more efficient than trying to figure out your story in your editing program. You can read an hour worth of dialogue in 10 minutes. It also allows you to focus on the essence of your story without being distracted by minor issues like shaky footage or holes in your visuals.

If you get the story right first, there is always a way to construct the visual around it later. There are great automatic transcription services online that are very affordable. I recommend using these, and then build a rough structure on paper before you start editing.

And Finally….. Access Is Everything!

When thinking about a story to cover, it’s important to remember that each of us is a completely unique individual with a set of life experiences and interests which we can reference in our creative lives. Find a topic that you are knowledgeable about, that you love – and most importantly that you have access to.

As well as practical access to a group of people, archival material, location or subjects, access can come in the form of common experience, heritage, language or culture.

All the best documentary films have been possible because the filmmaker had particular access to the story. Your unique voice and point of view is your greatest asset - love it and own it, and make work that is uniquely you!

Entries for My RØDE Reel are open now and close Wednesday, October 7th, so get filming! Head to myrodereel.com to find out more and download your starter pack.