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Updated: Aug 22, 2018

Whether you watch a documentary on television or curl up in bed with a book, what keeps you glued to the screen or the page? What draws you in and won’t let you go, whether it’s a movie or a book, and how do we achieve that in a documentary about a loved one?

The first step in planning is to consider the purpose of the documentary. Think about why you want to make this program and what you’re hoping it will memorialize about your subject. Then think about scope – how much you want to cover. If you’re telling the story of your parents, do you want to start at the point they met or do you want to explore their early life? If the story is about your grandmother, does it begin when she was a little girl or when she met your grandfather? If the story is about the founder of the family business, is the story about the life of the founder, the growth of the business or both? Deciding on scope will inform the next question you’ll want to ponder – who will tell the story.

Nothing beats filming a subject telling the stories of their life first hand

If the person is able, nothing beats filming a subject telling stories first hand. That’s why it’s so valuable to be able to capture these stories as early as possible, while memories are still vivid and our loved ones are well and articulate. But there are many other ways to tell or enhance the stories of a life, even when the person is not able to be part of the process. Think of all the other people who have interacted with the subject during his or her life such as siblings, children, grandchildren, friends, clergy, professional colleagues, employees, and business associates. Multiple perspectives add depth, perspective and color to any story.

Stories are usually the most compelling part of any documentary, so spend as much time digging as deep as you can to recall and uncover stories. Speak to siblings, friends and others who know your subject well. Investigate old photographs and video and ask about that moment. Stories beget other stories and trigger old memories, just as playing a song or thinking of a historical event brings back stories hidden deep inside. Then cull through the stories you discover to pick the ones for the interview that best define the person.

Once you know who will tell the story, the next question is how? There are many ways to get multiple points of view into your documentary. On camera interviews are the best – particularly for the people closest to your subject or those who have compelling stories to tell about your subject. Others can be recorded by telephone and inserted as a voice over or narration while the video shows images related to what the person is discussing. Group interviews are also effective, where family members get together in a group discussion to share stories about the subject.

Whether you are able to invest $3,500, $5,000 or more in the production of your documentary will impact the scope, number of interviews and other options available. A documentary with ten interviews at different locations will be more costly than a single interview at one location. Similarly, an interview shot with a single camera view is much less involved than one with multiple cameras covering a wide view, close ups and reactions. Multiple interviews and cameras add a great deal to a production, but you can also create a very nice program with one interview and a single camera view. Discuss budget in the early stages to establish reasonable expectations.

On Location or In Studio?

A related question is, where will the documentary will be shot? The first choice for interviews is “on location,” at the interviewee’s home or place of business – particularly for the interview of the person the documentary is about. The theme of the story will often inform the location. If the story is about a person who founded a restaurant, then the restaurant might be a good place to film the interviews. If the story is about a musician, then a studio or concert hall might be the best setting. For many people, their own living room or office is best, surrounded by the pictures and other mementos of their life that they cherish. For secondary or supporting interviews, they can be conducted on location, in a studio and even over video conference if they are located remotely.

Stories, Stories, Stories

A key part of pre-planning is researching and remembering stories from your subject’s life that you will want the person to tell in the documentary, or that you’ll want to tell. For some families, these may be well known stories you’ve heard retold for your whole life. Or they could be stories you discover by looking through old photographs and asking your loved one, “Where was this photo taken? Tell me about that.” Making a list of these stories should be done in advance of the taping, so you will be prepared with questions that will prompt the stories you want to include. Your subject is full of stories if you can find the events that trigger the person to remember the story. Also, everyone who knows your subject likely has stories about the person as well. Stories are usually the most compelling part of any documentary, so spend as much time as you can in planning for this.

Some of the most memorable stories happen in matter of fact ways. Think of the movie Steel Magnolias about the scenes in the beauty shop, or Terms of Endearment in the conversations between Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in the bedroom. For you, maybe it was making Challah with your Bubby, or a fishing trip with your dad. Dig deep. Stories make a documentary memorable. Is there a storyteller in your family?

Enhance Your Documentary with "B-Roll"

Lastly, you’ll want to gather all the old photographs, videos, films, documents and other material that will help tell the story. If the person is discussing Aunt Beatrice, it would be nice to have a picture of Aunt Beatrice to show. Cinematographers refer to this kind of material as “B-roll” – material that will be inserted into the program to illustrate whatever is being discussed. B-roll material can also be shot as part of the production, by visiting places discussed in the interviews and capturing new footage.

What Will it Cost?

And finally, a word about budget. Producing a compelling family documentary can be a significant investment to many families, depending on the number of interviews, camera views, shooting days, locations, scene changes and editing days. The flexibility of your budget – whether you are able to invest $5,000, $10,000 or something much more - will have an impact of the choices available to you. The more interviews, the more locations, the more shooting days, the more B roll, the more editing, the more you may need to budget, since all the professionals involved in the production are paid by the hour. But whatever your budget, if you plan a program that is within your means and provides you with a lasting legacy you can pass on to future generations, it will be an investment wisely made.

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