Documentary Film Production: My First Movie
Production journal, documentation, sample of movie and lessons learned
Full Length My Hippies On Blip.tv in Flash and Quicktime.
First 14 Minutes Locally in Quicktime
Script Draft 1
Script Draft 2
This article is about my experience making my first short documentary movie entitled "My Hippies" for film festival submission. The photo to the left is of my mother and I in the early 1970s. The film documented what four old hippies who'd met in San Francisco, CA. in 1969, think about their experience as they face retirement. It started out as a 25-minute 2-month documentary short, but morphed into an 8 month 47-minute project. I had studied journalism & broadcasting in undergrad, made a couple of shorts, and worked as a Production Assistant on feature films. But I had never made my own movie.
I ended up making a different sort of hippie documentary, one that did not use stock footage of dancing hippie chicks, drugged out concert goers, famous people, famous bands, or famous communes. It focused on real hippies and their experience, and more on dropping back in to society more than dropping out.
Of course things didn't start out that way!
I was staying with my family in Santa Fe, NM during Thanksgiving so that I could volunteer at the Santa Fe Film Festival and get free tickets and party passes. One evening I was looking at a new coffee table book my mother had bought on hippies. I asked my mom if she liked the book and she said they missed the point and didn't capture what it was like for her or her friends. Having grown up as a hippie kid by her side (see top photo), I was curious so I kept asking questions and wrote this essay about our conversation. My stepfather, aunt and uncle were all in town and all had met in 1969 on Haight Street, so I started talking to them and discovered that they had a lot of unique photos, 8mm movies, music, and original art I didn't know about.
The feeling behind the essay became a deep need to document their experiences. Since I was between consulting contracts and looking for a new challenge, I moved to Santa Fe and dusted off my 3-chip prosumer miniDV camera.
Thus the journey began. I figured maybe two months, a hundred stills, less than a thousand dollars for supplies. I could edit it on my laptop, buy some cheap lights, no problem.
Eight months, seven thousand dollars, 462 stills, and two editors later I had a 47-minute documentary and was ready to submit to film festivals. Sure, I was broke, but it was worth it.
Project Specifications and Rough Costs
- Production Time: 8 months. About 10-20 hours a week of my time as producer, director, interviewer, cinematographer, and co-writer.
- Two editors who totaled about 120 hours of editing time ($3,100).
- Remastering 1965 reel-to-reel studio recording ($500)
- DVD/CD Duplication, labeling, cases ($300)
- Theater rental for screening ($300)
- 4 Film festival submissions ($200)
- Panasonic 3-chip PVDV 953 ($1200 with extra batteries, car charger, etc.)
- G4 Mac Laptop with Final Cut Pro HD 4.5 and 1.5GB RAM ($2100)
- Use of G5 professional editing bay with FCP 4.5 (donated)
- One external 200GB drive with 800 speed Firewire port ($200)
- 4MP Canon Elph still camera ($350)
- Halogen 1000w mechanic light stand and
- Two clip-on lights with Phillips Natural Light 150w bulbs and
- Extension cords, duct tape, etc. ($150)
- Wired Radio Shack lapel mic. ($30)
- Fold out car window shade as bounce card ($15)
- Thin 4'X2' white board as bounce card ($7)
- MiniDV tapes, DVDs and CDs ($200)
- 5 hours of interviews.
- 3 hours of 8mm films from the 60s and 70s telecined to MiniDV via an old portable telecine from the 80s.
- 462 stills owned by subjects digitized with a 4MP still camera using sunlight and minimally processed in iPhoto.
- 11 songs from a 1965 Reel-to-Reel of a unreleased audition session of band NGC 4594. Re-mastered professionally at local studio to .aiff format.
- January: Seed
My mother commenting on the coffee table book "hippies" sparks me to write an essay. Slowly the motivation grows to make a documentary film.
- February: Shooting
Interviews shot with a loose list of questions. Common mistakes are made such as not always white balancing, putting bounce cards in places that light wouldn't come from, having changing light from the sun/clouds that makes editing hard, etc. 200 stills are shot using a still camera on macro setting, mostly with sunlight at a 45 degree angle to keep from getting glare. Each photo is cropped, adjusted and named using the subject and description (maya_van_1961), then exported as full resolution JPGs. 5 hours of home 8mm movies are converted to MiniDV on a portable telecine from a garage sale. My uncle and I remaster 1965 reel-to-reel tapes of a psychedelic band he managed.
- March: Editing
I hit a wall after finishing a two hour draft with 250 sub clips. I just can't cut it down and I'm burned out on editing alone in a room. I feel lost amid the subject matter and I'm tired of watching it. An experienced editor in the place I rented a desk reassures me that I'm not being lazy; it's just that I've made a common mistake of first time documentary film makers - I've started without a script to guide me. He also says I'm not that good a natural editor, which I've been feeling. Rather then delete the project and pretend it never happened, which was my initial feeling, I decide to I hire him for $600 for four days to help me start writing.
- April: Treatment
I'm reinvigorated and glad to be writing instead of editing. The editor works on the script with me for much longer then 4 days. We start in cafes talking about what this story is really about. This results in a treatment after a few weeks of writing. I digitize another 100 or so stills and take some video and stills of the subjects current lives.
- May: Script
Painful transcription of the source interviews into Word (17,000 words), color coded for each subject, with time-coded paragraphs. Transcriptions are printed, and cut and paste color print outs of the interviews on a big table into a rough script. This results in a 30-page first draft in Final Draft AV, with each paragraph color and time coded. My editor reads it and says it lacks drama and conflict. The funny stuff should be at the end, the beginning needs to follow the treatment summary and explain that he subjects were born and raised in at atmosphere of fear and war. It hurts my feelings, but he's right. My editor rewrites a 50-page draft. I read it three times and provide comments. A couple of revisions are done. It's much better and becomes our final draft. From this point on we make notes on the draft, but don't rewrite it even when we started cutting lots of scenes. I decide to pay the editor to edit the movie, realizing my skills are more in the producer/director/writer area. First I write a contract formalizing the editing money - half paid, half on completion. Deliverables are three miniDVs, and all project files on an external hard drive. The contract turns out to be a great move. I digitize more stills. The editor starts editing on his home system.
- June: Editing
My editor shows me act 1 and 1.5 hours of video with no stills. It's better, but there are some things I don't like. My girlfriend is also with me and agrees. Conflict ensues and it becomes obvious there's a problem with clashing working styles. Using the contract I give him half the money, and take half a project back on an external hard drive. I struggle to not take our falling out personally. I'm demoralized and don't want to work on the project at all. A friend and I watch the draft anyway and add he helps me add the vital concept of starting and ending the film with shots of all four as a sort of continuity loop. I digitize 161 more stills resulting in 462 total.
- July: Editing
My friend Paul Vachier had some time free and the use of a Mac G5 editing bay. He offers to take over the project and share co-editing credit for the other half of the money the first editor didn't get. He's been interested in the project as I've gone along, loves the music, and his motivation is great for me to be around. I come in every day or so for a few hours, while he cuts 1.5 hours of down to 47 minutes in about a 2 weeks. It really looks good! I'm excited about watching it now and reinvigorated in the project. I travel back east on a summer break and show the draft to eight people of all ages, taking notes and emailing them to Paul. He shows the draft to several more people. The draft is not perfect at all, but showing it to people is a huge help because we see patterns emerge in their feedback. It becomes clear what changes should be made (stuff they all agree on), and what feedback should be ignored (personality dependent feelings or stuff we just don't want to do!). Paul makes the changes and a "final" DVD. We view the DVD and come up with just one more series of changes to be made. Film festival deadlines are approaching and I'd rather have it submitted then perfect.
- August: Screening
Paul and I continue to show drafts to people, including our first industry professional, a retired documentary director. He brings up excellent points about the grammar of film and the effect of jump cuts on subjects speech patterns. This helps us smooth the movie's sound and edits and it flows better and seems go to by fast. We have a friend sneak us into a local indie theater to watch a draft on the big screen. It's amazing! Huge heads, lots of sound drops revealed, etc. I book the same theater for a free "Friends and Family" screening in late August. This is for the subjects to see the film, and for a sort of "under sell, over deliver" and compressed the time the movie feels like it takes to watch PR move to see what people think after watching it. We are careful not to invite press or make it a "Premiere" because of film festivals not wanting to show films that have been shown. We continue to "Smooth" the film's edits. This is when we first see the "Magic" of film. It happens on one particular version when we watch it for what is about the 30th time. Suddenly on this version the film seems 30 minutes long and fun to watch. This is a wonderful feeling. 100 DVDs are duplicated for .75 each, plus cases and labels we do ourselves. We learn that you don't put ANY labels on DVDs for film festivals and have to use "Amaray" DVD cases. We also make 25 CDs of the NGC 4594 music. We have the screening at a real theater. What a scary event! The four subjects of the film arrive, well three since Maya broke her leg. And I wait tensely out front to see how many of my friends will come. Slowly the people come, and come. Eventually about 80 people basically fill the theater. Paul, my editor and I, sit next to the subjects and get very tense. I am not worried about the crowd's reaction as much as a natural disaster, like a flood or locusts. Or the projector breaking, or the DVD being scratched, etc. We hold our breaths, and roll it. All is well 48 minutes later. The crowd claps, it's a rush, like the times I glanced back and saw them in the light of the screening laughing. We do a traditional Q&A with my family up there and it's great. What a rush!
- August: Submitting
I write the following synopsis for submission to Sundance, Slamdance, the Santa Fe Film Festival, etc. and send out the packets.
What four unknown hippies who met on San Francisco's Haight Street in 1969 have to say (and show with stills, 8mm film and unreleased music) about their trip as face old age together.
My Hippies explores the hippie revolution from the personal perspective of a hippie kid who's mother, step father, aunt and uncle all met on San Francisco's Haight Street in 1969. Now, living in the same city and facing old age together, they share their art, films, unreleased music, and thoughts about their wild trip.
The hippies grew up during WWII and the Cold War. As young adults they experienced the Korean war, the civil rights fight and Vietnam. Their America was war torn, conservative and in a lot of ways, rife with fear.
Then in the late 1960s thousands of them spontaneously dropped out of that America and somehow found each other in places like San Francisco. Fear became fun, nuclear mushroom clouds became mushroom trips, work became welfare, and repression became revolution. But by the mid-1970s the energy was fading and they started to drop back in. Or did they? Who were the hippies? Was it all peace and love? Did their ideology survive? What was it like on Haight Street in 1969? Or on a commune deep in the redwoods? Did they change anything? Did they learn anything? My Hippies explores the hippie revolution from the personal perspective of a hippie kid whose mother, step father, aunt and uncle all met on San Francisco's Haight Street in 1969. Still close friends and living in the same town, they share their experiences, pictures, 8mm films, unreleased psychedelic rock music, and thoughts about their wild trip as they face retirement and old age.
I submitted to Slamdance, Sundance, the Documentary channel, and the Documentary Film Festival in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Being broke, I took a job back in computers in New Hampshire, at a university library as a lead instructional technologist. Making the movie got my creative energy flowing and I apply to NYU's ITP program in the Tisch School of the Arts. I'm not surprised when Sundance and Slamdance reject my film, but I am when Santa Fe says it will only be in a "prescreening" for local film makers because it was shown in town during my screening. Ouch. I realize the 48 minute length is a problem for programming festivals as well, and it's a little rough still. It feels like a good first attempt, and a great family history film, but that it needs one more good edit to be film festival worthy. I plan to edit My Hippies down to under 20 minutes within the next year and submit it to film festivals. I got accepted into the ITP program by the way! I'm writing this from a cafe in NYC in June of 2006. New York City and ITP are great!
- I needed a script and a treatment: Painful to do for sure, but not as painful as I found it was to not have them. They show you where to go, when you're lost, and what to cut.
- You can keep the budget low by limiting travel, using no archival or stock footage, and shooting on cheap 3-chip cameras. But don't skimp on things like editing and master production. See the UC Berkeley Journalism School's "DV Cookbook" for more on low budget documentary production.
- The project was about two stories: One story was the about old hippies. And one was about the making of the film, which had its own naturally occurring drama and conflict. Be prepared to experience these two adventures.
- Keep your butt in the seat: I had to watch a lot of TV. And not always good TV. If you can't stand to watch your work over and over again, don't bother making a movie.
- Your taste counts: Sometimes I didn't like what I saw and I thought it meant I was burned out and had lost my objectivity. But I learned to trust my instincts and just wait until I liked what I saw with no justification.
- Get help: There's a reason making movies has naturally evolved into a collaborative medium. I found that I liked being the producer, director, writer, and cinematographer more than I liked editing, so I decided to put my energy around editing and writing into find money to hire people to help.
- Lamb for the slaughter: Show rough drafts to lots of people. Listen carefully, do not defend or make excuses other then being clear that it is a rough draft. We found this incredibly helpful, and it built interest in the project by people in the local film community because we were willing to listen to them.
- Smooth it out: Even if you have some edits or parts of the film you're not happy with, but deadlines are approaching, save time to smooth out the sound and flow of the film down to the pixel.
- Get It Done: I found it vital that someone play the role of the producer. Producers produce - they get it done, keep control of costs, and then move on to the next project. Remember, it may not be perfect, but it's not the only thing you are going to do. For a film to get done, you need this force to battle with the forces of the director and others who sometimes risk the entire project by wanting things to be too perfect. In other words, filmmakers make films.
- Film Festivals: If you really want to get it into film festivals, submit to as many as possible and keep it under 25 mintues, or over 50 minutes. Shorts are easier. The shorter it is, the easier it is to program into film festival schedules.
© 1999-2006 Caleb John Clark