6 Things I Learned Whilst Making My First (Crowdfunded) Documentary

It was around 3:40am and I was lying in my pitch black room doing an awful job at falling to sleep, this was probably not helped by my chain-drinking of tea earlier in the night. I wasn’t even close to falling to sleep, my mind was actually itching to make something. I was craving creativity. So I jumped out of bed, blindly searched for my laptop in the darkness consumed man-pit that is my bedroom and then set up my base of operations in the living room. I was going to make a Kickstarter project.

Kickstarter is a website where you can bring your creative ideas to the table, pitch them to the world and hope that they have enough faith in you to support your quest with financial backing and bring your idea to fruition. I had never attempted a Kickstarter project before so I was going in blind. On top of this, the idea for my project was to create a documentary – another endeavour I hadn’t yet attempted before.

My younger brother has a neurological condition called autism, so I decided to kill three birds with one stone (I’m an ambitious stone thrower). Let me create my first documentary AND learn more about my brother’s condition in the process AND use the documentation of my journey to introduce and educate society on the condition – raising awareness and understanding. The film – “Autism: A Curious Case of the Human Mind” (you can watch the trailer here) is currently in its final sound mix in post-production, but I’m going to use the last 12 months that I’ve experienced to let you know of 6 things I learned whilst creating my first documentary and I advise you take note on them to hopefully help you out in your own crowdfunding and filmmaking endeavours.

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My first documentary “Autism: A Curious Case of the Human Mind” will be released later this year.

 

1. Make Sure You Are Pursuing A Subject Matter That You’re Passionate About Or Want To Learn More About

It’s taken me just over a year for my film to be completed, and that can be considered a reasonably short amount of time (that is including the Kickstarter campaigns and 3 stages of production). Although this is considered a fairly short amount of time to create a film, I could see the mental effect that it was having on myself and my crew members. Was there times where I just wished that we could finish the film already? Yes. Am I glad that it’s over? Yes. Would I change the topic? No. I can safely say that I chose a topic that is personal to me and meant a lot – however I would change some of my approaches, which I’ll go into later.

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Me with Owen (left), my autistic brother who was the main motivation and inspiration behind my first documentary.

Making any film can take a long time – making a documentary is no different. When selecting a topic to document make sure it is something you’re genuinely eager to learn about and explore because the process takes time. If you’re no longer interested in the subject before you’ve finished your film – then the final product is going to suffer dramatically and you’ll feel the film is now a burden rather than an opportunity. Once you begin to delve into a subject matter for a documentary, it becomes almost all you think about and certain terms, people, events etc will run through your head constantly until your film is complete. I’m afraid to say that this happens regardless of if you’re enjoying it or not – so at least make sure that you’re constantly thinking about things that make you interested in how you can deliver them creatively to your audience and what you can learn from it. Your passionate can prove to serve as a vital motivator to get you and your crew through the most testing times of production – so make sure it’s there.

2. Get Your Contributors And Your Crew Together BEFORE You Get Funded

When my Kickstarter project got funded – I was literally like “Shit. Now I’ve actually got to make a documentary”. It’s a daunting task, especially when you’ve got a budget there but no crew and contributors to actually make your film with. Don’t just get out of bed and spontaneously create a Kickstarter project like I did, that’s a bad idea. If you’re considering pursuing a subject for a documentary, ask around first. Seek out people who are interesting to talk to and willing to be filmed, gather a collection of possible contributors ready so if you are lucky enough to receive funding you can go into production much, much quicker and organise your interviews closer together. Allowing you to finish production much quicker too.

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Meeting one of my contributors with her autistic son, Jake.

Simply, can you imagine successfully getting your project funded and then realising you cannot access the contributors you want to? So your film doesn’t reach or explore what you want it too? It’s a horrible and embarrassing thought. I had to endure them thoughts myself for a while after funding. As my brother is autistic, I idiotically assumed that I could film him at my leisure, speak to my parents about it on camera and also use their contacts with other autistic families to speak to me – that just didn’t happen. I didn’t get a crew together for a month after I received funding, then I couldn’t get any access to the contributors I wanted too for 2 months after that, and then another 2 months after my first interview. The waiting between interviews, trying to find contributors, can seriously harm your crew’s mentality. If your project loses pace, your team loses faith. If your movie loses steam, your crew loses esteem. Okay, okay, I’ll stop now but you get what I’m saying. If I had gathered my contributors before I got funded, I could have fit the entire filming process inside one month but hey, live life and learn.

 

3. Budget Properly Before Crowdfunding

On the back of gathering a plethora of possible contributors and your film crew, this allows you to work out an efficient budget for your project. Take into account wages, travel, catering. Not to mention your filming equipment, editing software and soundtrack!

You can work out how much it will be to pay wages, travel and possibly even accommodate your crew members when going to meet contributors. Your budget can also coincide with your “success” goals. Also, if you’re using crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, remember that they charge tax on your raised money so you may have to set your target slightly higher.

As I created my Kickstarter campaign, I had no contributors and no crew members attached to this project. I went with the mindset of: Borrow my filming equipment from my college, utilise college film students to build a film crew, use my parent’s (imaginary) contacts to get contributors. Now although I was able to borrow various pieces of equipment from my college and my film crew worked UNPAID, this was incredibly stupid and if this had been a bigger production, it would have easily crashed and burned.

I had a team of 6 film students aged between 17 – 20 years old, only one of that team could drive. So if that one team member was ill, working or simply not available, our transport would have to come out of our budget – one interview costing £60 in taxi’s alone, which broke my heart as that alone was almost 20% of our £330 production budget.

So work out what you want before you desperately need it.

4. Footage Attracts Interest!

I found this out during my second Kickstarter campaign, one that aimed to raise money for the film’s post-production process, soundtrack and film festival submission fees. By this time, we had already released the trailer for the film and this proved extremely useful in putting together our video for the campaign. Footage, behind the scenes clips, on set photography – it all serves a purpose and can also bring in interest on your social media pages, slowly generating an audience to showcase your work for!

 

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Me (top) looking rather rough in the second Kickstarter video and Owen (bottom) in the trailer.

When people see footage, they know you mean business – you’re not just some dreamer with a million different ideas but no actual ideas on how to make them into a reality. You can see the difference in support by comparing the two projects, the first one made £368 (before tax), whereas the follow-up campaign managed to bring us £678!

 

If you want to persuade others to invest time and money into your idea, my best advice would be to shoot a taster for them. Just a short 2 minute clip of the type of style or content you want to create can really open their eyes to see that you are serious in the pursuit of creativity. You can take examples of this working from films such as Saw, Napoleon Dynamite and even Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – all these films were developed and funded because of concept short films shown to potential producers.

5. Define “Success” For Your Film

To make a social impact? To go viral on YouTube? To get into film festivals? To win at film festivals? To win an Oscar? You have to decide what you want your film to achieve, and you have to do it early. My definition of success for Autism: A Curious Case of the Human Mind is if it gets accepted into film festivals, as it’s my first ever independent project and my first go at the festival circuit. So we’ll have to wait and see how that one goes.

Deciding what is considered as a “success” for your film is really important because it dictates your mindset throughout the project, it gives yourself and your fellow crew members what you’re aiming for and it allows you to set the correct budget for what you want to achieve. When your project is going through its ups and downs, you’ll want to change your goal for the project and you run the risk of doing yourself either an injustice, because it could be so much more than you’ve let it develop into or you’ll be setting yourself up for “failure” because you’ve taken too much on and you just don’t have the resources to reach your desired target. However, I will say that I do admire people who are not afraid to fail.

6. Audio Is Priority

Film is an audio/visual medium and although many would argue that the visuals are what make a film, it’s the audio that keeps your audience watching. An audience can watch a film with grainy and underexposed footage as long as it has good audio. However if the film has poor audio, no matter how beautiful your film is, your audience will stop watching.

When looking back on my production process, I wish I had prioritised my audio quality over my visuals. I was lucky to an extent, I had access to professional quality zoom kits for some of my interviews however I had to settle for a less than professional attached microphone for others. Even professional zoom kits can be rendered almost useless if placed in the wrong hands and with a team of film students behind me, the equipment was definitely in not-very-experienced hands (but that’s okay, because it’s a learning curve).

So when you are budgeting your equipment, prioritise your sound quality first because a film with good sound can take it from “here” *holds out hand towards you at a certain height* to “here” *raises hand about 2 ft higher*.

There, that was 6 things I learned whilst creating my first documentary! I hope you enjoyed the read and hopefully avoid the mistakes that I made on my first creative endeavour.

by Thomas Elliott Griffiths

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