5 Documentary Tips from a Director

director tipsFilm production is a well-oiled machine with numerous parts moving simultaneously, and the pressure of a looming schedule is always present to move you along. We are tied to call sheets and shot lists dictating our every move, and each detail is planned perfectly in orchestration. By contrast, the freedom of filming a documentary is both completely exhilarating and a little daunting, since everything can be thrown in a different direction in an instant.

When you don’t have the structure of a planned production, how do you successfully navigate the unscripted territory of a documentary? As a director of the traveling food genealogy show Family Ingredients, I’ve included some documentary tips that I have learned while shooting an unscripted production on location.

1. Trust your technical instincts.

You have to let go of the security of planned production and trust your technical instincts to capture the moment. When you’re filming in a foreign country, visiting people you’ve never met and shooting locations you’ve never seen before, anything can happen. Some of the best footage is captured when you entrust your crew and talent to follow their own natural instincts. When we shot our pilot episode in Japan, it was the proverbial organized chaos allowing our talented host Ed Kenney and special guest Alan Wong to freely to interact with various Japanese restaurant owners and farmers. We met with people, who are the salt of the earth, many of whom had either no experience in front of a camera or had never seen a film production before. In these scenarios there was no “back to one” or “Take 2”. If we missed the moment, it was gone. By trusting our instincts and remaining open to whatever came our way, we captured some truly amazing moments on camera.

2. Focus on making your subjects feel comfortable, then step back.

When you are working with people that have no on-camera experience, the most important thing you need to do as a director is make them feel relaxed and comfortable so that they forget about the cameras. When we first met the farmers we filmed, it was important to briefly talk through what we expected them to do. Usually they had things already planned to say and it helped us plan how we wanted them to stage the scenes for the cameras. After our initial conversation, I stepped back and kept them free to do whatever they wanted. It’s best not to lock talent in specific blocking because it can make them stiff and uncomfortable. You want to capture their natural selves.

Above: Director Ty Sanga on set with Camera operators Renea C. Stewart & Todd Fink, Host Ed Kenny (left), Chef Alan Wong (middle) and Tadaki Hachisu

3. Always have a backup plan.

Something will invariably go wrong when you’re shooting a documentary, because you simply can’t control every variable. The key is being prepared with a back up plan so that you don’t waste any valuable shooting time. There was one day in Japan during our pilot shoot where we had to reschedule one of our site visits because of a miscommunication. That left us with a free morning. We already had an extremely tight schedule for the trip, but luckily I had made a “wish list” of things I wanted to film just in case we had any last minute changes like this. We used the opportunity to visit the legendary Shinjuku Gyoen Park to film B-roll, which was one of the highlights of our trip. It was sakura (cherry blossom) season and we actually ended up using most of that b-roll in the final cut.

4. Aim to balance style and substance.

In some documentaries where the crew is “a fly on the wall”, this approach can sometimes leads to, dare I say it, mediocre cinematography. We really wanted to challenge ourselves visually by spending as much care on the look of the show as we did with the story. I didn’t want to sacrifice one for the other, and having the right camera crew to help you achieve this balance is critical. The beautiful look of our show was due to our talented and resilient camera team, Todd Fink and Renea Stewart. Their constant attention to detail and flexibility helped create a distinct style. We never wanted to compromise and always let any filming limitations push us creatively. From a director’s standpoint, knowing the talent’s blocking beforehand helps you design what will be in frame. Sometimes I give notes to the talent: “avoid that dark section of the room or cluttered area”, “remember to open yourself up to the camera”, but I try to keep those notes minimal because it can complicate the scene and lock them up physically. I would rather have the talent be genuinely engaged in the conversation they are having and not worried about the visual look of the scene. In those cases, I usually call out directions when there is a break in conversation so the talent can frame up for the camera and still be engaged.

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Above: Photo © Renea C. Stewart

5. Advance the story

Beautiful visuals ultimately mean nothing without a story that will engage the audience. As director and story editor it is a great feeling when the story ultimately reveals itself out of hours of raw footage and sleepless nights in the edit room. Themes and story threads that were once floating aimlessly in the beginning are incorporated into the rest of the story with ease. But it’s not always easy to find the story in a documentary. How do I find the story? By having the basic outline of the story plotted out, I am able to gauge the importance of scenes. To make it to the final cut, a scene either needs to advance the structure of the story forward, or address themes that bring depth to the story. If a scene doesn’t do one of those two things, I can’t use it. By having these criteria, it made it very easy to determine what made it into our show and what hit the cutting board.

For more information about Family Ingredients or documentary tips, visit

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One Response to “5 Documentary Tips from a Director”

  1. MICHEAL SUNDAY ADEOGUN on July 9th, 2013 1:37 am

    Always update from the above post,tips of any productions department and also notify any of your new high-definition technology in filmmaking nd media.

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