Lessons Learned By the Pros

It was standing room only at the LEF/DocYard sponsored panel “When Does A
Story Become a Film?: From Idea to Documentary” at IFFB on Sunday.
Filmmaker Chico Colvard (FAMILY AFFAIR) teased out stories from his non-fiction colleagues
Annie Sundberg (JOAN RIVERS, BURMA SOLDIER), Ian Cheney (KING CORN, THE CITY DARK), Jeanne Jordan and Steve Ascher (TROUBLESOME CREEK, RAISING RENEE) to hear their
many lessons learned in the field.

Here are just a couple of tidbits I gleaned from the panel:
– When deciding to pursue a film project, ask yourself why is this a film and not a magazine article? What are the visual opportunities, story complexities, points of access, etc., that will make this piece more effective as a film than as another kind of research piece?
– Make sure that when you are taking a project on that you are deeply passionate about the topic. Each film is a 1 – 4 year commitment. If you’re going to follow a story for 4 years, you need to want to visit it every day!
– Two key ingredients for a successful film are unique access to the subject and a close, personal connection to subject matter. Have an answer to the question – Why are YOU the best person to make this film?

Jeanne and Steve spoke a bit about access to the subject helping them to determine whether or not there really is a “film” in their ideas. For them, the key is knowing the subject will give them honest and revealing moments. If that’s a yes, then they jump in. And they admitted, that when approaching a subject for a new project they are very explicit when talking about what this film will mean to their subject’s life. “We are asking to become your best friends,” said Jeanne. Life-changing, indeed!

Annie spoke about how documentary film is the perfect avenue for the curious mind. For her, every film is like a graduate thesis. She also mentioned the challenges of making a living as a doc filmmaker, even for someone with her successes. Her advice was to hone your skill sets. Finding work as an editor or producer or cinematographer can often help you along as you work on your own project.

A nice portion of the panel was focused on discussing not just the qualities for successful projects, but when to know when to let an idea go. Ian noted that though he has many back-burner projects, he doesn’t consider any of his projects abandoned projects truly abandoned. So save that footage and those notebooks, because if now is not the time, the right time might be just down the road.

Thank you to Annie, Ian, Jeanne, Steve and Chico. It was wonderful to hear your stories and learn from your experiences! And thanks to all who turned out for a great discussion.


– Sara

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