Notes from an Education: Part the First

I don’t have an awful lot of free time these days to write, but thought I should put down a few thoughts concerning what is turning out to be quite a concentrated education in festival programming, documentary filmmaking, and the endurance of the human attention span (at least for this specific human).

I’m approaching my fiftieth film in just over two weeks of this assignment, and a number of things have annoyed and surprised me. Though I’m far from an expert, I think I can confidently speak for some of the poor folks I’m working with who have screened north of 300 films already.

  • I’m amazed how “rough” some of the rough cuts we’re getting are. I can understand that the film may not be completely finished, but long stretches of sound with a title card reading “missing footage” are not going to leave a good impression.
  • On a related note, if your film is somehow unfinished, it’s incredibly helpful if you let me know exactly what is going to change and what isn’t. Writing something like “Picture and sound locked, scratch title sequence and end credits.” on the screener disc is always more helpful than writing, say, nothing.
  • Narration isn’t always necessary in a documentary, but when it is, hire a professional. At least one gorgeously-shot film has been spoiled for me by a nasal narrator speaking too quickly. Though you may be tempted as a director to “do it yourself,” this is rarely a good idea unless you have a voice like Liam Neeson.
  • It’s surprisingly easy to ignore timecodes and the watermarks on stock footage.

I hope I don’t sound too cranky. This has been an absolute blast so far, and the 2009 Hot Docs programme is shaping up to be the best in years. The only thing that kind of stinks right now is that I’m not really able to put too much time into planning my annual SXSW pilgrimage, which is, yikes, only two weeks away. Luckily, my offer to SXSW filmmakers has gone largely unnoticed, so at least I’m not going to disappoint anyone by not reviewing their film early. I’m just hoping that I’ll have any stamina left at all by the time I get to Austin.

P.S. For a real inside insider’s look at the programming process, check out Hot Docs’ Director of Programming Sean Farnel’s blog.

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2 Responses to Notes from an Education: Part the First

  1. Wow, I had no idea the films could come in such rough cuts, especially considering the festival is only 2 months away.

    Sounds like you have gone through oodles and oodles of films so far – no wonder you need the Red Bull!

  2. M. Derbecker says:

    I wonder how far ‘rough cut’ goes in some people’s estimation. 5 minutes of ‘missing footage’ might look cool in that bootleg print of Apocalypse Now, but I’m sure it lacks something on the 5th disc for the day to a Red Bull saturated programmer. At what point is ‘rough cut’ code for ‘we’re gonna finish it really we are honest and for true…?’

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