Cinematic Counsel

Want to make a documentary without a studio, professional help and on a laptop? Its not as difficult as it sounds. All it requires is some monetary investment and a bit of study. Here’s what I learnt when I started on the typical shoe-string budget documentary.

  • Spend some time thinking about the film. Why do you want to make the film? Who is your audience? What are the key themes? Do you have enough footage? If not, will you be able to get enough footage? I wrote down my answers. You can try using this Film Template.
  • Watch other documentaries, small films and read anything you can on the subject of your film. Download all the documentary manuals and editing guides you can find and read those as well. I spent over a month just reading before I actually got down to editing.
  • The toughest thing is to get right is audio:
    • Do not compromise on external mikes, especially if you are making a documentary. Foley artists are generally not an option in a documentary.
    • Sound is also the least correctable. Audio editing suites including SoundForge and Adobe Audition 2 only amplify sound or reduce it- that includes background noise. Try and minimize on the background sounds, you’ll thank yourself later- it’ll save you edits and possibly sub-titling as well.
    • Download and install the free and excellent Audacity. Audacity might not do as much as the professional suites do; however its a great tool to learn the basics with. Once you know how to manipulate the sound envelope, you can graduate to more complex sound editing packages.
    • I played around with tracks from the 25th anniversary edition of Cafe Del Mar. Stick to instrumental- helps you tune your ear into sound better.
    • Use VLCC media player, plays any format including several raw data formats. That means it can play media directly from your cam without any encoding or conversion.
    • Install the K-Lite Codec Pack, to make sure you have all the possible audio and video codecs.
    • Get an audio/video conversion application. Google for some of these, to start with: Any Video Converter Professional, Media Coder, Moyea, MuvAudio2, Proletary and SUPER. Between these tools you’ll manage to convert from all commonly known media formats including IPod movie, flac, aac, ogg vorbis, .mov, .avi and so on.
  • If you use a camcorder:
    • Use one that has a one-touch DVD burn and a HDD with at least 30 GB space. Video occupies a lot of space.
    • Get an external HDD with a casing and a fire wire port cum cable. Dump all your video on it and keep it carefully for edits later. 120 GB should do nicely. Do this even if you have DVD backup. NLE platforms work better with external HDD than DVDs.
  • Carry DVD-R with you:
    • As many boxes as you need. Its a small investment, around 720 rupees for a pack of 25. This is especially important if you’re shooting in way-out locations, small towns and such.
    • Make sure you use branded DVD with at least the standard 4.7 GB capacity. It is not nice to have a cam full of footage and nowhere to dump it.
  • Use a tripod and a monopod if you can.:
    • Don’t attempt to film long speeches, community meetings and such with your shoulder and hand. Its tiring and very probably the video will turn out poorly thanks to all the movement.
  • Avoid panning and zooming too much:
    • Its hard to resist but too much of zooming can ruin a perfectly nice video sequence.
    • Concentrate instead on the composition of the shot, focus on the object and move the camera only when you need a change in your story.
    • It helps to write out a rough sequence of shots before a shoot. Think about how many CUs and ECUs and mid-shots you need. Its worth the effort.
  • Create a script/story board/edit log:
    • The story board is the most powerful tool to aid in the making of a good film.
    • Choose any method you are comfortable with: draw, use a template or use OmniCodex. OmniCodex is freeware and is meant to be a notes-taking application. If you use text-only storyboards try it- the only limitation being its inability to use graphics. I merely add a reference to a graphic/clip on my HDD.
    • Write a script, learn the symbols and the verticals. The level of detail doesn’t matter. It helps to put ideas on paper.
    • Keep an edit log, make a text file and put down what you worked on today. Make it complete with the sequence and clip details. Makes you feel accomplished and gives you a good starting point for tomorrow.
  • Invest in a good video editor:
    • No freeware application has really great NLE capabilities.
    • If you’re new to film making get hold of a copy of Adobe Premier Pro, else stick with one of the Avid distributions, Avid Express Pro is my favorite.
    • NLE suites are expensive, but its a one time investment. If you’re a student you can get discounts.
    • The advantages of using a professional NLE are many. There are many options, lots of templates, complete manuals, online tutorials and simply so much more you can do with them.
    • Buy keyboard stickers for NLE keyboard short-cuts. Or print a cheat-sheet. Editing with the keyboard saves more time than you’d imagine.
  • Scout around the web for plug-in SFX. There are some excellent freeware ones available.
  • Video:
  • Key Shots:
    • Spend some time defining your opening shot.
    • Pay attention to the title and the credits. Remember to credit most people who helped you with your work, unless you have a credit line limit. Roll/Crawl are good title and credit effects- stick with those unless your film has flashy effects too.
  • Cuts:
    • Begin with rough cuts and refine and refine and refine.
    • If you have several clips: Re-name your clips. Arrange them.
    • Edit the clips first before you attempt to put them in a sequence.
    • Remember the best editing is invisible editing. Your cuts should appear in the final product as no cuts at all!
  • Use bins:
    • Most NLE suites including Avid distributions use bins. The word bin comes from older film-holding bins that were used before everything went digital.
    • Think of a bin as a place to hold and categorize various shots/clips/footage. Once you understand bins- create as many as you think will be useful.
    • There is no limitation to how you use a bin. My bin list usually includes:
      • Archive Bin: Here is where I dump all the original footage I have not used/will not use.
      • Current Cuts Bin: The current edits.
      • Final Cuts Bin: The final edits.
      • Format Cuts Bin: Any edits that have been formatted with special effects/purpose etc.
      • Selects/Storyboard Bin: The edits/clips that are key to the story/script and storyboard
      • Generic Bin: This is usually titled this way: Title of project-Generic Bin. It holds all those clips that don’t go anywhere else. Like a temporary workspace.
      • Title, SFX & Transitions Bin: Edits that are titles/special effects or dissolves/cross-fades and other transitions between clips/scenes.
      • Trash Bin: Trash. Why keep a bin, then? One important lesson with editing is never to completely trash your source footage. No mater how awful, you might need it for a filler/fade-out/black space and so on. The same goes for a script or a storyboard. Use cross-outs for text you don’t want. Don’t delete.
      • Video Bin: This is where all your raw footage goes. Its from where you pick out clips. Like a video clip repository for your film.
  • Make sure your system has the following:
    • A complete Java distribution: To run effects
    • A mouse: An optical/wireless one if possible. If you’re editing from a laptop the touchpad is lousy to lasso and make fine edits.
    • A flash-drive USB 2.0: With at least 4 GB of space, to move large video files when all the cables refuse to work.
    • Good external speakers, a mic and headset: So that editing music is easier. Voice overs also work better this way.
    • A fire wire cable: To capture video from your camera. Cheaper than a video capture card.
    • At least 2 GB of Ram: With 256 Mb or more dedicated to video memory. You can set this up in the BIOS.
    • Get a reasonable graphics card. Try Nvidia and make sure both OpenGL and DirectX (the latest versions) run on your system.

Happy filming!

PS: The pictures from top to bottom feature the following: 1) The Adobe Audition 2.0 waveform edit view 2) A Sony Camcorder with a HDD 3) A Non-Linear Video Editing Suite 4) An Avid Editors Keyboard 5) A four-pin fire wire cable.

PPS: Those of you who haven’t heard of Give Away Of The Day, visit the site. They feature some great paid software given away for free everyday. In the past they’ve featured flash converters, video converters, slide show builders and other audio and video editing tools.

9 thoughts on “Cinematic Counsel

  1. @Nishu: I don’t remember saying making a documentary is easy- merely that it is possible in the manner I described within the constraints this post hints at. 😐


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