Outsider In a documentary making competition: Get team, make plan, go film

We start in a hidden room behind the back bar of the BFI Southbank.  In feeling, a gentleman’s club or small stately home study-cum-library, with book-lined shelves, leather armchairs and a compact bar.  The small group gathered swells as bodies enter the room bit by bit.

A sticker on my chest tells all present my name.  It also indicates that I have no skills.  That is, no overtly relevant skills for the particular adventure we are about to embark on.  But, I have a secret weapon!  I’ve brought along a friend whose sticker is embellished with little coloured dots denoting all the necessary technical skills – and gear – for the undertaking of the next two days: he has a camera, audio kit, editing software and, crucially, the wherewithal to use it all.

I can’t hang on to his coat-tails entirely, though; I’ve got to prove my worth.  Excitable this morning, and impassioned, I have bubbled into the room and, coloured dot-less as I am, I figure that this is what I need to sell – charm, chat, humour, story-telling, ideas… So I amp it up a notch.  It’s 10am on Saturday but what’s wrong with a little light flirting when trying to complete a team to make a documentary in just 36 hours?

When I had first learned about the Doc in a Day competition organised by the London Documentary Network, I was simply keen to learn the process of making a short factual film from start to finish.  Approaching this weekend, though, I find myself anxiously hoping to get together with a good group, have a great idea and story, and the ability to pull it off.  Basically, I want to make a bloody good documentary.  Consequently, I have slept badly and am not sure that, once I’ve charmed my way onto a team, I’ll actually be able to live up to my promises…

***

Once ‘crewed up’ by 11am, we were given an exceedingly broad theme (in compensation for our exceedingly narrow time constraints) and we started knocking around ideas.  Most crucially, we needed to see who would allow us to make a documentary involving them.  Luckily for me, a very interesting and personable friend agreed to be filmed.  Yes!  First justification for my being part of the team.

A lot of planning, planning, note-taking, mind-mapping, questioning, planning and, by 4pm, it’s looking good and we’re feeling confident.  We think we know our story, our angle, our questions, and we’ve worked out what kit, locations and shots we might need. We go our separate ways to get all the bits and bobs required, agreeing to reconvene at 7pm for filming.

Whilst everyone else is getting lenses, radio mics, extra cameras, lighting kit and more jumpers(!) my arduous task is to get my bike into Central London.  The theme for the doc competition being ‘Movement’ and our subject the founder of a late night food delivery service, we’ve determined to do an interview whilst cycling.  I’m up for doing the interview – handy, as I’m also the only one with a bike (justifications two and three for being a doc team member).

New to cycling in London, I have, however, never taken that bike north of the river from where it and I currently live south east.  I am more than a little bit nervous as I set off.  Plus tired.  Plus thinking about all the questions I have to remember to ask come interview time…

… a looong time later and I’m at Goodge Street wondering what on earth possesses someone to want to spend their night-time cycling around crazy-busy Central London trying to get food as quickly as possible to want-it-now customers!  Another question to add to the list for my interviewee.

GoPro attached to one set of handlebars, my mobile phone-turned-camera sticky-tape and hair-band affixed to another, and lapel-mics in place.  We’re ready for a jaunt around some miraculously quiet back streets making our interview look like a chat whilst on a food delivery.

Maybe it’s because I’m tired. Maybe it’s because my interviewee is somewhat of a pro interviewer (as an ex-TV presenter) and keeps telling me what (not) to do.  In any case, I’m wondering what I’m bringing to this documentary making party – apart from my bike.  I tell myself that it’s ok if all my skills are currently soft – as opposed to hard and techy – but that they can’t be squishy – flaccid.  Basically, I’ve got to be really bloody good at my soft skills – ideas, organisation, research, questions, story crafting, narrative, people, directing etc etc – if I’m going to get anywhere doing this type of stuff.  And I have decided that ‘this type of stuff’ would be a wonderful way to make a living.

… alternatively, I could go and get myself some expensive kit, then I’d be invaluable – at least in this documentary making comp.  I’ve learned that ‘all the gear and no idea’ can totally get you picked for a team!

***

It’s midnight and we’re again going our separate ways.  Despite our ambitious set-up of multi-camera filming and sound recording of two people riding bikes (and my insecurities over my own doc making credentials), it all seems to have gone smoothly.  In our surprisingly egalitarian easy-going set-up, each person took their own role and just got on with it, the odd suggestion chipped in from the other members.  No arguments or artistic spats, no director…

This being the case, whoever can and wants to edit will be taking all the footage home and starting the process tomorrow.  I want but I can’t, the mastering of a professional edit suite on my current to do list.  This stage is all a little bit of a mystery to me and, as the footage goes in one direction and I in another, I feel the documentary slipping away, out of my hands.

Nothing I can do then but to get me and the ideas, images, doubts and questions of the day all swimming round my head back home.  And my bloody bike, of course.  I set off with a slight weariness and a small knot in my stomach – although this time it’s not just about navigating London’s streets on my bike.  TBC.

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