I am a Ph.D. student in Rhetoric and Composition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. When I told my professors that I wanted to work with film, they said that it was a great idea but with one condition. Rhetoric is a production field. If I want to study movies, I have to make movies, they explained. Make movies? Me?
I’d actually made some movies before but standing in front of the camera. I’d arrived to the set in my lovely outfits and waited as film students worked with the mysterious equipment—lights, camera, microphones—and the director trying to choreograph everything so the technology and the people on the set would come together to create something wonderful.
I had also worked on screenplays, editing the ones my filmmaker friends wrote and even co-writing a couple short films. I could write and I could act, but the mechanics of the set never interested me. I’m not sure why. I guess I figured that film sets and editing rooms were for people who had studied the craft like my film school friends. It took me a few minutes after I was told that in order to study film from a rhetorical perspective I needed to make films to realize it this was a fantastic—if indeed very scary—idea.
I had some money from a doctoral fellowship I’d received so I started asking around the university and talking to my mentor Pat Sullivan’s husband, instructional technology professor Peter Fadde about the equipment I needed to purchase. Peter was extremely helpful and patient with my utter ignorance about what I needed to do.
I felt that for my first film I should deal with something I felt strongly about and was familiar with. It also had to be something simple that my very limited skills could manage. I settled on going home to Caracas, and sitting down with over a dozen Venezuelan women and men to discuss the prevalence of breast implants in my country. I guess breasts and plastic surgery are a fairly personal thing, so it doesn’t seem like the easiest of tasks to get people to talk about them, but I have always felt comfortable talking about my body, so I wasn’t going to be embarrassed about asking the questions. I also knew from my five years of interviewing relatives and strangers for a family memoir that I could make people feel relaxed enough to discuss this as long as they were willing to sit in front of the camera in the first place.
I relied on the tried and true method of burgeoning artists and asked my family and friends to both be my subjects and help me find other subjects. They acquiesced, some with cheeky amusement and some with the conviction that the project was a worthy one. Since as I said before I had been interviewing people for years at this point, I don’t believe I made too many mistakes on that front, but I certainly could have used some improvement on the actual filming. Here’s a list of some of my rookie mistakes and suggestions for how to avoid them:
• I had an idea of what I wanted the B-roll to look like. I envisioned crowds of Venezuelans walking in our streets, the subway, our malls. I also wanted footage of our ads around the city in which women prominently display their breasts. I did a decent job at gathering that footage. However, although I had seen and loved many documentaries, I didn’t sit down and look at the ways in which they framed their interviews before I set off to Venezuela and thus had no idea what I wanted the interviews to look like. Before you set out to make a documentary, make sure that you look at work you admire and pay attention to the way they frame their shots so you can imitate it. Practice interviewing willing relatives and friends before you embark on the real thing, so you can become familiar with the style you’d like your film to have.
• Not only did I not know how I wanted my subjects framed, I didn’t dare make them wait while I got the camera set up because it felt rude to do so. As a result I ended up reframing the subjects in the middle of their interviews. I also ended up having to do a lot of reframing during editing, which always weakens the quality of the image. When you make your films, remember that the people who agreed to be interviewed will be glad to wait for you to set up properly if only because it will make them look better on camera!
• I relied on the camera mic as opposed to a wireless, shotgun or lavalier mic. Camera mics are ambient, which means that they pick up everything around them, while the other mics pick up what they’re pointed toward. As a result of my choice, the voices of my interviewers are joined by passing cars, crying babies and other domestic sounds that detract from the interviews. If at all possible, make sure that you can get a mic besides the one that comes built into your camera. It will make a huge difference.
I don’t mean to disparage my first film. It was an incredible, thrilling and nourishing experience and it got me hooked for life. I would simply like to recommend that we take our time when planning and shooting a film. If it doesn’t work out, you can always use what you learned when making the next one!
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