March 12, 2014
Two months ago I had one of the most amazing and stressful experiences I have ever had in my 19 years of life, the opportunity to study abroad in Quito, Ecuador for a documentary filmmaking program through Ohio University. I was not exactly prepared when I walked into my first class session during fall semester – because this was my first experience ever working with film beyond the mediocre short movies I made using a digital camera and a trial version of Final Cut Pro. During the first week, we split up into the four documentary groups we would work with for the entire trip.
Over the next few months we started preparing for the trip by finding contacts, doing pre-interviews and laying out the overall concept of our film. Those class and preparation sessions taught me a lot about film, but when we landed in Quito and got to work on producing the documentary, I realized just how much I was going to learn. Here are the five basic lessons I learned about documentary filmmaking while on an amazing adventure in Ecuador.
- Always Have a Backup for EVERYTHING: This means having backup batteries for your camera and audio equipment, a backup camera, a backup microphone, a backup tripod, quite literally a backup everything. I can’t even count the number of times a camera dies during a shoot or the amount of audio problems we had with the lavalier microphones (the personal ones that hook onto the interviewees shirt), and had to use the backup audio from the RODE microphone (the one that attaches to the top of the camera). Having a backup means you at least have something to work with even if it’s lesser quality than what you were hoping for.
- You Have to Learn to Roll with the Punches: Things don’t always work out with filmmaking, especially with nonfiction documentaries, and you need to learn to adjust to the issues. Traveling to Quito we didn’t know many places to set up a shoot at, so much of the time we went to our interviewees homes. We had to do our best to control the settings, but its hard to control when a child yells or a dog barks, and it’s impossible to control when the sun goes down or a cloud changes the lighting. For all of these problems you need to learn to adjust, whether it’s reshooting that portion of the interview or entertaining a 3-year-old girl by going to watch Finding Nemo with her.
- Film is HARD: I’ve been around a lot of people who work in photography or film, and I always knew the technical aspect must have been difficult, but I never realized just how difficult. I went into Ecuador thinking it’s a camera, they’ll tell me how to set it up and I’ll press record. Definitely not the case. You have to shoot manually in film because the automatic settings will adjust to the slightest change and usually overcorrect. So every setting needs to be set manually, and that is something I still cannot do. I would try and help set up the camera, and I could set up the frame, but then I had to have Gretchen Kessler (a film major in my group) come and set focus, aperture and basically everything else you can think of.
- Audio is HARDER: Now this may not be the case for everyone, but from what I experienced dealing with, audio is on a whole new level. Recording the audio itself isn’t difficult at all, other than the cruel and unusual punishment that is holding the boom for an hour interview. The real difficulty with audio is listening. While recording audio you have to make sure there is no background noise – background noise can come from something as small as the buzzing of a light bulb. While you’re recording the audio you have to make sure there are no peaks in sound and no unwanted noises or echoes. If there is an issue the only thing you can do is ask the question again until you get the right sound.
- Editing Takes a Special Type of Patience: I enjoy playing around on Final Cut Pro just as much as the next person, but when it comes to making a documentary you don’t realize the amount of video you have until you start editing. I would estimate we had over 15 hours of video that we had to be cut down into a 12-minute documentary. Thank goodness we had our own personal editing king, Jarrett Lehman, to shift through hours upon hours of film and edit everything into our final piece, and my first documentary.
I learned a lot during my experience in Quito, from a filmmaking and a cultural perspective. This past winter break has prepared me for a lot for my future in Journalism, and has given me a new sense of respect for all the hard work that goes into documentary filmmaking.
You can watch our documentary, “Ecuador, The American Dream” here.
Becca Zook is a sophomore studying Strategic Communication with specializations in South American Studies and Sports Management. You can follow her on Twitter at @BeccaZook.