Documentary Shorts: Methods and Inspiration

February 19, 2016

A panel of experienced filmmakers came together at the Frontline Club on Monday 15 February to give an insight into their creative processes when making short documentary films.

The panel consisted of award-winning filmmakers Liam Saint-Pierre, Chloe White, Marc Silver, and Gemma Atkinson, with documentary programmer and DocHouse producer Jenny Horwell moderating the discussion. 

The discussion began with an overview of techniques and inspirations from each filmmaker – and it was soon evident that the speakers did not stick to any unchangeable formula in their work.

“There is no process for when I’m making films,” Silver said, with White adding that he views himself as “more of a spontaneous filmmaker.”

Atkinson said: “I let the character dictate what direction the film goes in, rather than going into it with a big plan, which means it can go in any direction.”

“It has been quite nice to hear the others tonight, often I thought it was just me who was so haphazard!,”commented Saint-Pierre.

Although there was a general consensus that the creative process should not be formulaic, three elements were highlighted for their significance at the start of a project: inspiration by way of specific characters, places, and issues.

“I like characters who are really passionate about something, and they are kind of on the edge of society,” said Saint-Pierre, as he explained how he found the shopkeeper around whom his first film centred.

Silver added: “for me, the place is a character. It’s not just the people, but also the essence of a place.”

Each of the panellists agreed that they aimed to spend as much time as possible with their subjects. Silver explained that on a five-day shoot, he would try and spend the first two days with his subjects without his camera. “I might take a stills camera, just for fun. But I’ve learnt from the past that I don’t need to over-shoot – and also I need to get past the first layer with that person and gain trust.”

However, the panel also reflected on how working with tight budgets and shorter timelines meant that the aim of spending significant time with their subjects was often unrealistic.

Horwell then moved the discussion onto one of the final stages of short documentary production: the editing process.

She asked the filmmakers to comment on their top tips for this stage, and how they avoid common mistakes.

“Hold the shot for longer than you plan. Whatever time you are holding it for, add an extra 5-10 seconds” Atkinson advised.

White agreed, and cemented the point with an extended clip from her film The Long Haul: “At the time I didn’t know that shot would be so useful, but trusting your shots and holding them for a long time, you’ll be thankful when it comes to the edit.”

Saint-Pierre added that for him “it was a matter of the character; you don’t want to turn the camera off. Often I’ve done it and then missed an amazing moment.”

The conversation did not run chronologically through the filmmaking process due to the non-linear nature of short documentary production – as Horwell had predicted – and the discussion touched on subjects including the use of ‘playful’ introductions, to how to best distribute your content online.