Are you caught up with the technology at the expense of emotion?

Docs In Progress welcomes guest bloggers from time to time who  provide perspectives on different aspects of documentary filmmaking.  Today we are pleased to feature Andrew Zinnes, co-author of the The Documentary Film Makers Handbook and producer of The Documentary Summit, a traveling two day professional conference for documentary filmmakers which will be coming to Washington DC on March 10-11.  Since one of the topics which will be discussed at the summit will be the balance between technical values and storytelling, we asked Andrew to offer his two cents on the matter.


If there’s one form of media that’s benefited from technology, it’s documentary filmmaking. I remember back in about 1999, about when I started working in documentary, that the first real prosumer cameras came out like the VX-1000; all of a sudden, filmmakers could get decent images and sound without having to fork out tons of cash on Super 16mm cameras and Nagra decks.

And pretty much at the same time, Final Cut Pro came out and now filmmakers didn’t have to lean over Steenbecks or burn their fingers on hot splicers. You didn’t have to worry about making a wrong decision in either shooting or editing because you could just keep rolling as tape stock was cheap and with a simple click of the mouse, a botched cut disappeared.

Since then things have only gotten smaller, faster, cheaper and to some sense – more complicated. DSLR cameras look fantastic, but what codec are you shooting? What frame rate? Does the audio not quite match up because of poor slating or a slight error in what setting you chose?

And then there’s post. Do we have to transcode and compress this footage? If so, using what? Apple Prores? To H.264? To MPEG? Do we deliver in SD or HD? What about Final Cut X? I love it. I hate it. I’m going to Premiere. I’m going to Avid! Do I need a Twitter feed? Don’t even get me started on the aspect ratios.

Now of course, some of these things have always been around in one form or another – delivery format issues never seem to go away. But the problem is that so many times filmmakers get bogged down in the technical, that they forget that these are merely tools.

Yes, a good carpenter knows how to use his hammer properly, but a craftsman knows how to give a house character. The story, the characters, the plot, the theme and the drama must never be sublimated by the technical for losing the human emotion of a project is the difference between machine and man. Or more precisely the difference between a film from which audiences feel emotionally detached and one in which they are engaged.

This isn’t to say that knowing the technical isn’t important. You could find yourself in a world of hurt if you don’t know what your post workflow is going to be before you start. But that’s why you hire editors, DPs or post supervisors so you can ask these questions. Or just call a post house and ask for a quick bit of advice and stick to what will work best for your situation and budget.

The technical side is mechanical. What isn’t involves getting the right lead character for your doc. If they can’t be open and honest with you, if they are uncomfortable in front of the camera, if they’re just plain boring – then your whole movie will tank.

Likewise, when you do find that right person or people to follow, there had better be some obstacles for them to overcome that challenge their beliefs or impede their progress to the point where they want to give up. It’s in those moments where you will see their true character. As Cameron Crowe wrote in Absolutely Famous, “The only true currency in this world is what people share with each other when they feel uncool.”

When you are at those moments, it’s unimportant that you are shooting on a Red Epic or a Canon 7D. No one will care if you edit on Premiere or Final Cut X or Avid. All that matters is that you tell your DP to linger on people’s faces in close up when they are getting emotional. All that matters is to get the details of the space so we know what kind of art, cars, toys and whatever they like.

All we will care about is how your editor decided to stay on someone’s face a little longer in order to see into the soul of your characters and could do so because your DP and sound person were thinking ahead. When you place these moments within scenes strung together with a good three-act structure, your story will have drama, tension and pure unbridled emotion.

What do you think?  Weigh in in the comments. 

And if you are interested in attending the Documentary Summit when it comes to The Documentary Center at the George Washington University in Washington DC March 10-11, you can take advantage of their earlybird rate of $99 through this Saturday, February 11.  After then, the price jumps to $149.  The Summit will feature industry professionals speaking about the creative side of storytelling as well as the state of the industry from a distribution, marketing and funding perspective.  More information at

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