90 Making a Documentary Film

By Suhaib Syed, December 2013.

Overview. As part of a small crew, I was in pursuit of making a documentary film shedding light on the problems in the higher education system in India. We had traveled far and wide, capturing many thought-provoking stories, illuminating interviews, and shocking truths. Due to the relatively small crew and a tight schedule, we ended up with our raw footage being labeled in a generic format (MVI_1234 etc.). I, being the director, had the task of assisting the editor in renaming and reorganizing the files to make our lives easier, do justice to all the efforts that were put into capturing all the clips, and incorporate them in an impactful manner.

What is being organized? The primary resources being organized were the video clips (digital, shot on DSLRs) acquired during the shoot. In this context, they could be classified as passive resources having no real capability to produce any significant value on their own, and which had to be acted upon or interacted with to produce any effect. But the key problem here was to formulate usable resource descriptions based on the following resource properties:

Intrinsic static

Date and time of creation, duration of the clip, type of external lighting used, camera used, lens used, exposure, ISO, white balance, frame rate, compression type

Extrinsic static

Shot sequence number (assigned to each story element during story-boarding), shot movement type (dolly, follow focus, zoom, macro, etc.)

During this particular stage, the intrinsic and extrinsic dynamic properties did not play a large role in the resource descriptions.

We had done a lot of work on story-boarding and identified the right level of granularity so that we could capture each shot sequence separately, so we directly used the shot sequence number as an important part of the resource description. This helped us keeping our descriptions short and meaningful.

Additionally, we realized that the corresponding audio clips captured along with the video also had to be organized, but since the two were intricately linked to each other we decided to use the same name as the corresponding video clip, the only difference being the extension. We relied on the editing software to capture the intrinsic static properties of the audio files (e.g., bit rate and compression type).

Why is it being organized? Essentially, we were organizing these digital resources to find, identify, and select them so as to weave a powerful narrative enabling us to convey the truth in an impactful manner.

Hence, the interactions were directly with the primary resource.

The interactions that had to be supported by our organization scheme involved:

  • Finding the clips related to a particular story-board section

  • Selecting the best set of clips to be included in the film based on relevance to story, progression, continuation and several other inter-connected factors

  • Manipulating the clip (i.e., color-correcting, white balancing, and stabilizing) to create an aesthetic effect

  • Matching the video of a clip to corresponding audio recording

  • Adding the right background score based on sentiment being portrayed in the clips and the progression of the story

  • Providing subtitles in case of a foreign language or incoherent speech

How much is it being organized? Since the scope and size of our organizing system was relatively limited and all the resources were already available, we were able to make some bold decisions without causing a lot of problems. We formed a controlled, vertical vocabulary for resource description by deliberately choosing certain resource properties over others. Our main objective was to keep the description as short as possible and at the same time convey the most valuable information that would help us interact with the resources (i.e., the video clips).

We could have easily opted for a date- and time-stamp based id and every resource in a collection (i.e., clips specific to one camera) would have a unique identifier, but we realized that our cameras already attached this information to the file along with the technical details like frame rate, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance, which our operating system and editing software could easily capture, display, and search through, hence, we decided not to use these details.

We also decided not to include important lighting condition properties (kino-flo, LeikoLite, etc.) and location, because the first frame in most of our clips consisted of the clap-board which contained all of this information, and our editing software showed all the video files as thumbnails using first frame of the video.

Thus we leveraged all of these to form a controlled vocabulary that placed the shot sequence number first, followed by the take number followed by camera identifier (e.g., camA, camB, etc.). For instance: 2A_1_camB.

However, we did realize that these decisions were specific to our OS and video editing software and hence lacked interoperability.

When is it being organized? In our case, although we intended to organize the resources as soon as they were acquired, we failed and then came up with an organizing system after all the resources were acquired. We leveraged this fact to our benefit and formed a more specific description system.

How or by whom is it being organized? Ideally it is the role of the first assistant cinematographer (AC), even 2nd or 3rd AC (depending on the budget), to make sure all the file names are stored properly and all the cards properly backed up. But due to our limitations we (i.e., the director and cinematographer) collaborated to organize the set of raw footage.

Other considerations. One important consideration that we left out in the discussion was the need for certain people appearing in the documentary to have their identity hidden by means of facial blurring and voice modulation. Although we could not accommodate this interaction of identifying which clips had footage of people who did not want to reveal themselves, we could easily add the special effects over an entire sequence once all the clips were brought together.


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