In this video, explore the very first stages of the filmmaking process: ideation, which is the creative process of generating and developing new ideas. Learn about different ways to explore ideation—from searching within your own life, to using the incredible power of networking, to leveraging the multitudes of stories available within current events.
- Making a documentary is an incredible and an honorable task. It's telling honest, engaging stories about real people. It's taking actual events and fitting them within a compelling narrative structure. It's finding the right balance of being a filmmaker outside of the structure of the film and connecting to subjects within the film. In this course, we'll explore how to begin with an idea and nurture it, flesh it out, research it, and develop it to set the production up for success.
Before we get to all of that planning, however, let's talk for a bit about the first part, which is the single, solitary birth of an idea. Sometimes, this comes easy. Sometimes, you're so deeply entrenched in a topic that the desire to tell the story leaps out of the pages of reality and demands that you take on the project. Sometimes, most of the time, it's not quite so clear as that. Indeed, many times you must seek ideas that deserve to be shaped into a story.
And so now, I just want to talk about some different ways that you can seek ideas to transform into film. Let's begin by discussing a very important word, which is ideation. Ideation is the creative process of generating and developing new ideas. And in terms of documentary filmmaking, it's essential not only to identify good ideas but to determine which ones can translate to a successful film. But let's first talk about this first part, getting good ideas.
And later, we'll take it a step further in exploring effective idea development. So, first of all, so many good ideas come from right within your own life. What are your own interests and passions? What people do you know or what groups are you a part of that you're always telling stories about? In short, what stories can you tell that you already know about. Sometimes, the best topics are the ones that everyone's already talking about but haven't officially been documented.
Not to mention, starting with what you know can often help you hit the ground running with credibility and momentum. It can also give you a head start with those personal connections and relationships that otherwise take considerable time to cultivate, but which are so necessary when telling stories about other people. Maybe your grandfather has amazing stories about escaping his war torn country. If you want to make a film about war refugees like him, you might consider using your grandfather's intensely personal and accessible story as the narrative thread that holds everything together.
You'll also have the luxury of being able to ask him questions over time, letting those stories flow out naturally. Not to mention, you'll have great access to his photo albums and original documents and other valuable primary sources. And finally, because of your strong connection to your grandfather, you'll be able to ask him for recommendations for other people to talk to. And because of those personal referrals, you'll often be able to more quickly gain those other peoples' trust and cooperation.
Now, of course, even if you do choose to tell stories about people, ideas, and events within your own life, you'll still have to do plenty of research. Including exploring some of the tougher and potentially controversial parts of the story. So, just be sure that if you choose something close to your heart, you're not so close to it that you can't separate yourself enough from your subjects in order to capture and shape reality in the context of a compelling film structure.
Let's now talk about telling stories about people and issues to which you are not connected. First, you may still be able to use your own interests and passions to help you out. What I mean is, look for areas in your life that intersect with possible story ideas. Think of it like the six degrees of separation. That is, everyone is connected to everyone else by way of personal networks. You just have to look. So, whatever topics you want to make a film about, find out the main people that you'd need to connect with in order to make that happen.
And then, determine if anyone you know might have a direct connection to those people, organizations, or events. Now if you really can't find a connection through your close friends and associates, you may consider adjusting your own life so that you are put into contact with people and issues that are connected with the topic that you're interested in. Now, I wanted to make a film about the homeless artist community in Boston. So, I began volunteering for a nonprofit organization that provided homeless artists the resources and the space to create art.
After a few months of getting to know the artists and creating art with them, I then approached some of them about the idea of making a film about their life's journey. Because we were already connected, the transition to filming them went smoothly and trustfully. Now, this certainly won't always be the case. So, you should be sensitive to other's points of view so that you won't be seen as taking advantage of anyone. When in doubt, be compassionate and use your better judgment on how to best approach the situation.
If finding the actual topic for your film is the problem and you just can't figure out what story you want to tell, then I recommend reading, listening to, and watching everything you can to learn more about the world around you. Listen to the radio and to podcasts. Read newspapers and magazines and blogs. Watch TV news. Each of these can contain shorter stories that could potentially be developed into something bigger. There have been many films that evolved from another, smaller news source from a different medium.
As you look for ideas, try looking for issues that can be explored more deeply, on a more personal level, or for stories with unresolved endings that you could potentially explore.
- Developing a documentary idea
- Pitching an idea
- Writing a documentary proposal
- Planning and executing the research
- Conducting research and pre-interviews
- Developing pre-production materials
- Gathering non-production assets