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7 Run-and-Gun Production Tips for Documentary Filmmakers

Jourdan Aldredge

Documentary productions are always vulnerable to Murphy’s Law. Follow these quick tips to keep your project running smoothly.

Cover image via guruXOX.

Whether you’re flying solo or just filmmaking on the fly, running a productions smoothly is a skill. Documentary filmmaking in general requires both planning and improvisation because so many elements are uncontrollable.

So, when you find yourself shooting run-and-gun, here are seven quick production tips to help you get the best footage possible.

1. Organize from the Get-Go

7 Run-and-Gun Production Tips for Documentary Filmmakers — Organize
Image via SFIO CRACHO.

The best way to stay organized on a shoot is to start out organized. While you can always adjust your schedule on the run, setting aside specific time for interviews, B-roll shots, and setup ensures you don’t miss things you hoped to capture. This is also true for pre- and post-production, including revision and distribution.

Here are some great resources for pre-production organization.

2. Schedule Time for Problem-solving

7 Run-and-Gun Production Tips for Documentary Filmmakers — Problem-solving
Image via Kzenon.

That being said, a good tip for producing documentary projects is to give yourself time for problem-solving. During production, it’s important to have buffers of time here and there to explore new discoveries and try different creative approaches. Whether that means some more in-depth interview questions or challenging B-roll shots, scheduling time for creativity and innovation can give your story a thematic and cinematic boost.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Cold Call

7 Run-and-Gun Production Tips for Documentary Filmmakers — Cold Call
Image via GaudiLab.

One of the most uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary, aspects of documentary production is first contacts and cold calls. When filming documentary content, you’ll need to find interesting subjects, and, most likely, you’ll never have met or interacted with them before. That first phone call or online message goes a long way toward establishing a relationship that will see you through your entire production.

When first reaching out to a possible subject, try to state the following:

  • Who you are.
  • Why you’re reaching out.
  • What the project will be about.
  • How it will be received/distributed.
  • What’s in it for them (if anything).

4. Get Interview Subjects to Say/Spell Names While Recording

7 Run-and-Gun Production Tips for Documentary Filmmakers — Spelling Names
Image via sippakorn.

During production, a documentary producer is responsible for documenting and charting sources, names, titles, and consent forms. However, if you’re running and gunning an interview, a good tip is to get the subject to pronounce their name and spell it at the beginning of your recording. You can also get them to state their preferred title(s) for lower thirds and get their consent to appear in your project.

Documenting everything with forms is still essential, however. Here are some free ones to keep handy.

5. Practice Runs For Every Shot

7 Run-and-Gun Production Tips for Documentary Filmmakers — Practice Runs
Image via fizkes.

Another quick production trick is to do practice runs before every shot (excluding interviews). If your subject is performing a task you want to film, have them do a walkthrough, that way you’ll know which movements to anticipate and any adjustments you might need to make, like changing focus, ISO, and white balance. To maximize your time, you can tell your subject you’re doing a walkthrough, but feel free to actually film it. You never know what might happen and when you might capture something raw and organic to work with later.

6. Assume Everything Can Go Wrong

7 Run-and-Gun Production Tips for Documentary Filmmakers — Be Prepared
Image via gnepphoto.

When producing your own documentaries, always assume anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Weather won’t corporate, people will arrive late, lighting will change for no apparent reason, etc. Prepare for the unexpected, but be flexible and keep an open mind about how to find creative solutions in the face of any setbacks.

Stay in Touch with Subjects

7 Run-and-Gun Production Tips for Documentary Filmmakers — Communication
Image via everything possible.

7. Finally, once you’ve filmed your documentary and are moving into post-production, try to keep an open line of communication with your documentary subjects. During production, be sure to grab things like business cards or contact info. You never know if you’ll discover something in the edit that needs clarification, or if you’ll have questions about spelling, dates, or other details.

Here are some more documentary production and filmmaking tips to keep handy.

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