5 Tips for Making an Adventure Documentary

Adventure filmmaker J.J. Kelley lets you in on the tricks of the trade. Join us between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET on Thursday, November 29, 2012, for a free screening of his latest film 'Go Ganges!' and a livechat.

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J.J. Kelley

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Perhaps you want to create a YouTube video of your cat riding a vacuum robot. Maybe you want to make an insightful feature-length film that will tug at the hearts of your viewers. Both are examples of documentary, and that’s the beauty of documentary films: your options are limitless. But if you want more people than your mom to watch what you make, it’s important to know the tricks of the trade.

Here are my top five tips for creating a compelling documentary film:

A documentary shouldn’t feel like medicine. Loosen up, smile a little, and give me a belly laugh. If you’re too serious for the full length of your story, you’re not reaching the full spectrum of the human experience. It’s true that it would be disrespectful to crack jokes during heavy moments, of course. Still, even a grave story has room to make you smile. Humor allows us to reset as tension builds. Nobody will ever stop watching a story that makes them laugh.

Decide which is the best before the first frame and you’ll be sure to get the best results.

I’ve had the opportunity to work on television specials that cost millions and independent features that only had a few thousand bucks. What I love about today’s cameras is that it’s easier than ever before to shoot like the pros without spending like the pros.

Right now, I’m loving two economical cameras. The Cannon 5D Mark II and the GoPro are both extremely small, bringing HD cameras to the palm of your hand. The GoPro is true 1080, extremely versatile, waterproof, and tough enough for even the heartiest adventurer. The 5D is also small and has a sensor the size of a walrus—meaning that you can shoot incredible HD video. They’re both also less intimidating than traditional sholder-mounts. It’s been my experience that when you put a big camera in someone’s face that you’re less likely to get a genuine experience. There’s something non-threatening about a little camera. The only drawback is that both cameras sacrifice sound quality. Think about a third camera that can connect professional audio attachments or record sound separately.

Learn your editing software and compose your story.

Editing is a lot of work. Even if you dread pouring over hours of your footage and dealing with the hassle of choosing the best codec thingamajig for the job—learn to edit! When you ingest footage you understand better how the camera works, how much data it captures, the frame size and aspect ratio, how many frames it’s recording in a second, and the scan type.

Begin to formulate the story you want to tell early on—how long it will be, where it will be seen, and the overall goal of the film.

Before you begin shooting all willy-nilly, define your final product. Is it a one-hour TV documentary, a feature doc, a short, a webasode? Is it a one-off or a series? These answers dictate the amount of content you should aim for and the tone of your film. And this ultimately comes down to knowing your audience.

Once you’ve got the footage loaded and begin to make edits you’ll start to look for sequences. By watching what you shot, you’ll better understand how to shoot a story. Oftentimes I’ve heard editors cursing that they need a cutaway shot or a consistent storyline to put the message into context. It’s embarrassing when you’re in the room listening to the editor complain, and you were the one running the show. Believe me, it’s a lot easier to capture a story in the field than trying to generate it in post.

Create a work that helps people understand their shared experiences by being genuine. 

Much of TV documentary is not truthful. I’m not talking about Jersey Shore, because I wouldn’t give it the time of day—people know when their being fed BS. Tell your stories without the hyperbole.

In my last film, Paddle to Seattle, we ended up shooting a scene in downtown Juneau five times to put the climate in perspective (or something like that) and the shot we chose in edit was the one in which we were interrupted by a tourist looking for the post office. At the time, it was frustrating, but our editor loved it the most. It’s honest, and all of a sudden, people care.

J.J. Kelley is a former National Geographic Television associate producer and adventure filmmaker. Watch his full-length film ‘Go Ganges’ at Outside Online on November 29.