By Don R. Lewis | June 22, 2010

In the last entry , I talked a bit about how I decided documentary filmmaking was for me. I also touched on some of the personal restraints I have in terms of money and time. I think it’s extremely important to know your limitations so you can decide whether or not you can dedicate the time to make a documentary and what some of the trouble spots may be as you get going. Everyone likes to say “I knew my limitations were “blank” but I didn’t let that stop me! I kept going! I pushed through, figured it out and now, I have my film!” Hey, good for them. That’s not me though and chances are, it’s not you either. It’s always nice to be able to coalesce your work into a cliché, but I’d rather tell my story well and worry about shooting it well than become some kind of folk hero to myself by doing things two or three times till I get it right.

I entered filmmaking a*s backward. I began volunteering at the Sundance film festival before ever having studied film, taking a class or picking up a camera. I was inspired by my experiences there to become more involved but had no idea what the next step was. DV hadn’t really hit yet and as I mentioned previously, shooting on film scared the hell out of me. So I puttered around, learned about film through books and started taking screenwriting classes. The reason was simple: there’s really no overhead in writing a screenplay, unless you can put a price on emotional anguish. I also took production classes and began to figure out how to actually make a movie.

I did my classes at College of Marin which is an amazing community college just outside of San Francisco. The thing about community colleges is they’re inexpensive and you can cheaply learn the nuts and bolts of filmmaking which is exactly what I did. I learned basic cinematography, editing, lighting and sound all within a school year. Do you need film school or formal training? Nope. But it sure as hell doesn’t hurt because you learn things you’ll probably only learn by screwing them up in the heat of battle (which will happen anyway, but still), you get educated, technical feedback and you meet people who can help you. Plus, you can use their equipment which is a huge bonus. In most cases you get to make a tangible, watchable film that you can show to your classmates before relegating it to youtube or the floor of your closet. But it’s a start and getting started is often the hardest thing.

During College of Marin I managed a band and through them, met a journalist named John Beck who was getting into shooting documentary type stuff for the local paper. He showed me a short doc he had made that focused on a local Elvis impersonator and while the story was simply amazing, the construction of the video was, well, a mess. The sound was atrocious and you could barely make out what the Elvis guy was saying in the main, seated part of the interview. The lighting was brutal as at one point, there was a lamp that cast a glaring reflection on a picture on the wall and blew out the whole shot. The live Elvis performance was barely audible. What could have and should have been a really cool and successful doc that would have really made waves was tough to sit through. But, John and I became friends and discovered a kinship in odd people and strange but true stories.

I told John I had the equipment and filmmaking knowledge to make some cool docs and he had experience in interviewing people and a finger on the pulse of compelling stories due to his work at the paper. As I keep mentioning, I didn’t (and, don’t) have the time or energy to do every single thing required of a filmmaker so I wasn’t afraid to know what my limits were and seek help. He was down and a partnership was formed. We set out to make our first documentary based on a group of “Stringers” in San Francisco.

While I had a good grasp on what we needed to do, neither one of us was completely prepared for the actual shooting of the doc. What happened next was some of my biggest lessons in filmmaking.

Got questions? The floor is open and  I’d love to also do some question and answer entries so if you have anything you want to know, feel free to email me at UglyDogDoc[at]

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