Make Your Documentaries Matter with Awe-Inspiring Material
We sat down with Joanie and Steve Wynn and Jeff Sandmann for some insight into making meaningful documentaries — and how to find motivation.
Living with a documentary usually takes years. So, being passionate about your material is key. Husband and wife Steve and Joanie Wynn (of Bayside Entertainment) have produced a broad range of broadcast and corporate work. But if necessity is the mother of invention, it was an economic downturn that kick-started their current passion for filmmaking.
Joanie: In 2009, as the financial crisis was settling in and our corporate work was drying up, we produced a self-funded documentary on a group of women who traveled to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, and then refurbish classrooms at a school for AIDS orphans. Our project aired nationally on public TV and received multiple Emmy nominations. More importantly, it was an awakening for my partner and me. We agreed: “These are the stories we are meant to tell!” The incredible transformations we saw among the participants inspired us. That, along with the stunning locations and fascinating backstories, made for great storytelling.
Steve: That first trip inspired our passion to continue to document these transformative trips. We connected with Globe Aware, a well-established, UN-endorsed voluntour operator. They shared our passion for responsible voluntourism and had great in-country NGO partners, which sourced the volunteer projects based on the needs of the locals. We traveled to Cambodia to document a group of volunteers building wheelchairs for landmine victims. Once again, the storytelling opportunities were tremendous and our half-hour documentary for public TV won several regional Emmy awards. We knew we were on to something.
Jeff Sandmann (of Jumper Productions) didn’t find his passion halfway around the world. He found it right in his home state of Texas. If an economic downturn kickstarted Joanie and Steve’s artistic journey, it was a boom in Austin that fueled Jeff’s project. An enthusiast of the vibrant music scene in the state capitol, Jeff had spent many a night at the renowned Saxon Pub, which, because of the economic growth of the city, jeopardized the existence of local musicians. Basically artists became their own worst enemy – bringing vibrancy to a city and then pricing themselves out of living there.
Jeff: In April of 2015, I became aware of the Saxon Pub’s plan to close their current location on South Lamar, which, over the years, had become a musical institution in Austin. When I heard the news, I thought it would be a good idea to document the original place — before it went away — mostly by shooting musical performances and interviewing the artists, patrons, and staff. My original title for the film was simply The Saxon.
PremiumBeat: Just like your subjects’ struggles to figure out how to survive economically — how does a filmmaker put together the elements to make a labor of love project happen?
Jeff: Very early on, I brought in a producer, Lisa Kay Pfannenstiel, to help me organize the project and reach out to artists and club owners about participating. With her help, and the unbridled cooperation from all the folks who make their living at the Saxon (and their fans), we were able to capture what we needed. Later in the project, producer Jeffrey Brown (who had much more experience with filmmaking than us) was brought in to help Lisa Kay and myself in the areas we were unfamiliar with, such as finding money for the film’s production, music licensing, promotion, etc.
Whereas Jeff’s team had a learning curve, Joanie and Steve’s adjustment came from being accustomed to an abundance of resources.
PremiumBeat: You both have vibrant résumés working with big corporations (Sony, Warner Bros, DreamWorks, Discovery Channel) where healthy budgets accompany production. I have to assume Journeys for Good was more of a shoestring budget. How did your resources make you more resourceful in producing this labor-of-love project?
Joanie: You’re right. All of these projects were self-funded and made with absolute passion and dedication to our belief in voluntourism, as a way to conquer perceived cultural divides and create new self-awareness. We are fortunate that we have the production resources and experience to do most of the producing, shooting, and editing work in-house. We also called in some favors for breaks on rates with music libraries, voice talent, and motion graphics. And, we worked trade-out deals with our voluntour partners to cover some of our travel costs. But we still went out of pocket quite a bit for each trip. We never made any money on the projects but that was never the point. We’ve loved every opportunity we’ve had and plan to continue to tell these stories, as often as we can.
PremiumBeat: What’s the logistics when shooting in a country such as Cambodia? What camera and lighting equipment did you take with you and how did you approach getting the footage you needed?
Steve: Whenever you shoot in third-world countries, you need to consider power issues, backing up all your media, having redundant equipment in case something gets damaged or fails. And you must be sensitive to the local politics and optics of a Westerner shooting sensitive subject matter in and throughout the towns, villages, and cities.
As a one-man band, I also had to consider how much equipment I could reasonably carry and wrangle. When we shot in Africa, for example, the first part of the shoot was following six women climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro on a seven-day expedition. There are no power outlets at 19,340 feet, so I carried all the batteries I would need for the entire trek — taking into account that batteries drain much faster in cold temperatures. I selected a small, lightweight JVC HD camera, a lightweight tripod, and a shotgun mic (with several cables and headphones) that all fit nicely into my pack.
To keep my batteries warm, I always kept them close to my body. I even slept with all of them in my sleeping bag — not the most comfortable thing but it did the trick. I did bring hand warmers, but they didn’t work due to the lack of oxygen at that altitude. Instead of snuggling close to my wife, Joanie, I snuggled up close to my batteries . . . Joanie understood.
In Cambodia, I wanted to keep a low profile, so I shot with a DSLR and a Sony EX3. In the more sensitive areas, I mainly used the DSLR, which made me look like just another tourist and would not attract attention.
For lighting, I used a small ARRI 125 HMI with a chimera, reflectors, bounce cards, even a white sheet hung on a stand or taped to a chair — whatever was available to add fill for the interviews. All the B-Roll was shot with available light.
In places like Cambodia, power can be problematic. Often, it’s not very clean, so you can get power spikes that can damage your equipment, or go out altogether. I always try to put batteries on charge whenever I have the chance, and not wait till the end of the day. I backed up my media cards onto two different drives that I kept in different places — one in my pack that never left my side and another in a case at the hotel. My thought was that if one got stolen or damaged, or even confiscated, I would have a backup.
As far as shooting out in public areas, I generally try to be very stealthy in places where it could possibly cause unwanted attention. Having said that, there are also times when you just must jump into the action to get the best shots. Feel the energy, use your instincts, and act accordingly.
Jeff’s challenge was not the third-world of Cambodia, but capturing live performances, archival images, and interviews.
PremiumBeat: You used a combination of interviews, live performances, and vintage footage. What was involved in compiling that mix? What camera and lighting rig did you use for the interviews and live performances? And what was the clearance process for the found footage?
Jeff: Most interviews were shot with two cameras, some with just one. DP Andrew Miller assisted me in shooting these, as well as the live performances, most of which were done with three cameras.
The archival live footage we used was provided by the Saxon Pub’s owner, Joe Ables. Archival photos were contributed by local musicians, photographers, and patrons, along with local resources such as the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and the Austin History Center.
Roughly 90 percent of the film was shot with Canon C300 cameras, including all the interview and performance footage. Other cameras used were the DJI Osmo, GoPro, and DJI Phantom 4 Pro Plus Drone.
PremiumBeat: Do you think you found the story in the editing bay? Did subjects evolve with more prominence while you were cutting than you thought might when you started? Basically, how influenced were you by what you ended up having, rather than preconceived notions before you started?
Jeff: I feel like we found the story when the story itself took a turn. In October of 2017, the owner Joe Ables told me that Gary Keller (of Keller-Williams Realty) had purchased the Saxon Pub property and approached Joe about keeping the Pub where it is, guaranteeing that he would be able to stay in that location and would never be faced with having to move, due to financial constraints.
Mr. Keller didn’t want to see Austin lose yet another historic and important music venue, and he decided to simply use his resources to keep that from happening. Joe happily agreed, and that was the point when we realized that rather than just creating a “love letter” to the Saxon Pub, we had a bigger story for the film — one that focused more on the struggles faced by music venues and working musicians to thrive and survive in a city that has become crazy expensive to live and do business in. Not to mention, now we had a great ending for Nothing Stays the Same (our new title)!
Our editor, Nancy Higgins, was the last one on our core team brought in. Since she was new to the project, she had a fresh set of eyes, which helped her look at what was there and decide what was going to work best and what wasn’t. There’s a tendency to get attached to certain scenes and characters in your film, when you’ve been on something a while. But having her objective take on the massive amount of footage we threw at her was crucial to the final product, and Nancy went far above and beyond our expectations with her choices.
We asked Jeff and Joanie and Steve what advice they would give to a filmmaker who wants to make a documentary — in terms of choosing subject matter, as well as practical suggestions for pre-production, production, and post-production.
Joanie: Since every situation is so unique, it’s tough to give blanket advice. Documentary subjects seem to be driven by either passion for, or unique access to, a subject. Finding funding can be the biggest challenge, along with finding production partners who share your passion and commitment. When you’re starting out, you may need to find either pro bono, or deferred payment arrangements, with production talent in order to get it done — hoping you may see some upside on the backend. This is why our corporate/marketing work continues to be our bread and butter, as we follow our passion project. In other words, don’t give up your day job.
Steve: I would say love what you shoot because there is a good chance you won’t make any money with it. But if you love the story you are covering, you will walk away with one of those great lifetime experiences. Which for me, is almost more important than a big paycheck.
Don’t get too hung up on whether you have all the greatest equipment — it’s the content that matters most. You could use your phone, if the content is compelling and people will still want to see it.
Be flexible. You may start your project with one subject in mind and, halfway through, something greater emerges.
Jeff: I would tell anyone starting out on a doc to find a subject that they are super passionate about. Our film took four years to produce. And frankly, without all of our team sharing a passion for music and a love and respect for Austin’s working musicians, we very well may not have had the necessary motivation to complete the project and make a film that we can look at and be proud of.
As far as productivity goes, it’s all about bringing in good people. Making a film takes a village, and one person can’t do it all. Try to find the best people and if you don’t know who they are, find someone who does. The other thing is just be organized and have a plan. Know how the project will be funded, and have a timetable when things need to happen. If deadlines don’t get met and problems arise — which they will — adapt and overcome. Just keep moving forward.
One more thing — and this is big! — show works-in-progress screenings to other filmmakers and potential audiences. Doing that was unbelievably helpful for us in determining what would make the final cut of the film. I feel it was instrumental in how well our film turned out, in the end. The main thing is keeping your head down, getting your film finished, and showing it to people. That’s what it’s all about.
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