Producing a Micro-Budget Documentary
How a Micro-Budget Documentary is Produced
The glamorous world of film-making gets somewhat less glamorous.
When people think of the film-making process, most think of the way dramatic feature films are made, with a big crew and a celebrity cast and a splashy cinema release. But films, especially documentary films, are often far more humble in scope and use a leaner film-making process. This article outlines common elements in the production process for documentary films made on a small budget. (We’re not talking David Attenborough here.)
The Classic Three Stages of Production
Film production is traditionally divided into three main stages. They are:
- Development and Pre-Production: where a film concept is outlined, financing is found, a script is written, a budget produced, the crew and cast are hired, and everything is prepared for filming.
- Production: where the primary filming takes place: this is the ‘lights, camera, action!’ phase.
- Post-Production: where the footage collected is edited and compiled into a completed film.
Hollywood and Dramatic Film
The classic three-stage version of film production outlined above springs from the processes developed when making movies in the Hollywood studio era, when development, filming and editing took place on huge specialised sprawling studio complexes. Driven in part by the limitations of the film making technology of the time, the classic approach holds that each production stage is distinct and separate and each occurs one after the other in order. And although digital film-making is having an impact on the way dramatic films do things, the clear separation of production stages still largely holds true for dramatic productions where a bunch of actors are brought together and filmed on location over a discrete production period, and the recorded footage is then compiled into a film.
How Documentary is Different
For documentary films, while we broadly follow the three stages model, in reality the stages overlap and interrelate.
Development & Pre-Production
Every film starts with a concept and a plan. Sometimes the plans are detailed and fully articulated, at other times they are just sketchy ideas. ‘Development’ is the phase where film-makers explore, research and define the story they are about to produce. ‘Pre-production’ is the planning and budgeting process that takes place before filming begins.
There are different approaches to development and pre-production in documentary production. Some film-makers dispense with a formal planning or development phase before production. They dive straight into filming and let the story and logistics emerge as they happen. With an ‘observational documentary’, where you capture a slice of reality through following it in a purely observational way, you may have little choice but to follow this route. Other film-makers do as we do at Wind & Sky Productions, which is create a production budget which has a set amount of development, planning, shooting, editing and revision hours. The documentary story that we develop and which emerges then is crafted within that limiting budget. From our perspective, a low-budget documentary film, even an observational film, should be carefully planned so as to make best use of the small funds available.
In dramatic films, an important part of development is writing the dramatic script. Documentaries, by their nature, are not always scripted. Some are constructed from the beginning around a central narrator telling a story, in which case you start with a well defined script. Other documentaries seek to answer a question or record an activity. These are not usually scripted. Even when you cannot produce a script, for those who adopt the planned approach, a working outline or treatment (a little like a script) is usually produced in the preliminary stages to help guide the planning and point to the sort of content needed and the questions we need to ask of our subjects during filming. All good films, documentary or fiction, have a narrative structure which is engaging for the audience. In a good documentary film a lot of thought is put into the narrative structure. However unlike most dramatic films, the narrative structure of a documentary is often a work in progress and can have several iterations, as each bit of filming you make informs you more about the truth you are attempting to reveal, which then prompts a revision of the story. This means that ‘development’, in the sense of refining the concept and creating a narrative structure, can for documentaries continue through production and well into post-production.
Production is the filming stage of making a film. It’s the part where you get the camera out and record things. Many people wrongly presume this stage to be the biggest part of film making. It is most often the shortest stage.
The building blocks of documentary films are interviews with subjects, images and actions. We gather content such as this during the production phase, but ‘production’ itself may have many sub-phases because new subjects or activities come to light the more you explore the story. Documentary film crews are often quite small and mobile, meaning filming can take place in many locations over time, making documentary often more like newsgathering than dramatic film production. And also, frequently documentarians are not so much producing new content, as in filming material, but are sifting through and finding existing archival material that documents the story. So ‘production’ is often a sourcing exercise as much as it is about filming.
In documentary film-making production usually overlaps development and sometimes can extend into post-production, the next phase, as well – that is, you can be editing a story and still gathering content for it.
Once the footage is produced or sourced, it needs to be compiled into a cohesive story. This compilation process, which involves lots of editing and finessing and outputting sub-stages, is collectively known as ‘post-production’, or just ‘post’.
Post-production for documentary films happens, as with all films, in a post-production studio. For lower-budget documentary films, such as the ones we produce at Wind & Sky, you will find that the person who edits the footage together into a final film is often the same person who filmed the material, or directed the crew. Many documentary film-makers are all-rounders by necessity.
With the digital revolution in film technology, post-production work is now often done at a computer workstation using digital editing software. Actually, with digital productions, although we still say we are ‘film-makers’ many of us no longer use film – we work mostly in digital file formats transferred straight from the camera to the computer. So for post-production you need computers with grunt, but apart from some specialist pieces of equipment like big viewing monitors and speakers, the actual studio space looks much like any standard office.
Post-production is usually the longest and most time-intensive part of the entire film-making process. In this stage the content is edited together to form the final product and the film is output into a suitable version for distribution. At Wind & Sky Productions post-production is broken down into sub stages related to where we are with the film edit, and these are governed by a structured method of review. After each review the production is locked off to change. Each stage is a refinement to the last until the final production is complete. The final product is then prepared (mastered) for various outputs such as online for a channel such as YouTube, on DVD, for projectors, plasma screens or kiosk installations.
What Happens Next?
What happens after post-production is complete? Well, traditionally film-makers would send their product off to a distributor to distribute to cinemas or TV or DVD. And that process still exists in the worlds of cinema and TV and DVD. But now, increasingly in the digital environment, the documentary maker’s role extends into distribution and delivery well after the classic three stages are complete.
Documentary film producers now are often the ones to arrange screenings of their films, to publicise their films (particularly if they are online) and produce supplementary content and resources around their films.
But distribution will have to wait for a future article, as that is a whole other story in itself.
Want to know more?
If you would like to learn more about low-budget documentary production processes, these books are a good starting point:
Anthony Q Artis, 2008, The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide, Focal Press.
Sheila Curren Bernard, 2007, Documentary Storytelling, Second Edition, Focal Press.
Michael Rabiger, 2009, Directing the Documentary, Fifth Edition, Focal Press.