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Documentary Filmmaking: Tell Small Stories

Make your crew of 2 look like a crew of 10

 


 
By Julien Lasseur

“We don’t use documentaries to convince people; we use documentary filmmaking to be surprised.”
– my father

In my rural Connecticut hometown, Richard Griggs sometimes drives people to the airport. While this isn’t his full time job, he enjoys the company and the opportunity to get out of town.

On our way to the airport, Richard and I were talking about living out west and my new found obsession with bicycling, when he told me the incredible story of his hit-and-run bicycle accident that happened in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Richard had not only survived a three-day coma, but he had to relearn how to walk, talk and other basic functions. A year later and with no memory of the accident, he rode to the site with a new bicycle.

Weeks passed since my conversation with Richard and as I became increasingly immersed in LA’s bicycle culture, I kept thinking about his story. I wanted to put together a feature length documentary about the dangers and rewards of biking and I thought Richard’s story would fit right in.

It wasn’t long before another unrelated documentary project brought me back to Connecticut. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any communication with Richard so it wasn’t until the day before I had to leave again for Los Angeles that I had finally been able to get ahold of him. I had very little equipment left from the other shoot but I asked if I could meet him at his place to conduct a short interview. “Yeah, that sounds great, maybe we could go up to my studio.” Studio?

I arrived only to find a beautiful artist workshop packed full of delicate wire sculptures. The story I wanted to tell instantly changed but it wouldn’t be until halfway through the interview that I would recognize what Richard’s story was really about.

Richard’s story wasn’t about LA bike culture and it wasn’t a story about bike safety. The story is about someone narrowly escaping a horrific accident and using the process of creating art to stay alive. As Richard explained to me, for people who suffer from brain injuries, there is a lot of extra functioning that they need to do. For him, creating these sculptures from found objects is like giving them a second chance at an existence. A beautiful irony if you ask me.

The purpose of this story can best be described by the quote up top. When making documentaries, it’s absolutely essential to keep yourself open to the fact that your original story might completely change. When setting up an interview, make sure your subject is comfortable and that they are able to engage in a dialogue with you. The conversation I had with Richard not only gave me a story but it inspired the tone I set for the piece: very informal and conversational as if a friend were telling you their personal story.

The last thing I’d like to conclude with is thinking back to my time at Hurlbut Visuals. I assisted Shane with so many speaking engagements that I began to memorize his presentations. One statement that stuck with me was, “With DSLRs, you can fit your entire camera package in the overhead bin space.” As filmmakers, we have such an opportunity to tell small stories like Richard’s and it doesn’t take a lot of gear. You can see my list below but I’m sure it could have been done with less.

I’d like to give a special thanks to my brother Sebastien for helping me out on this shoot and to Garth Neustadter for his wonderful job with the music.

Camera
5DmkIII
24-70mm Canon L-Series T2.8
70-200mm Canon L-Series T2.8
4 Batteries
4 16gb CF Cards

Support
Letus Shoulder Rig
Manfrotto Tripod

G&E
Diva400 w/ stand
Lowel Pro w/ stand
Lowel Tota w/ stand

Author: Julien Lasseur

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30 Comments

  1. Julien,

    Great blog and better film, if you come back to Connecticut I would like to work with you.

    Bill

    Post a Reply
    • Hey Bill,
      Thank you for checking out my film! Shoot me an email sometime and hopefully we can connect back east.
      -J

      Post a Reply
  2. I really loved it. Very honest. Thanks for sharing.
    I just have a question about the sound. Is that the built in camera mic? What did you use?

    Post a Reply
    • Hey Luis, Thanks for the kind remarks! I completely forgot to include the sound equipment used on my list.

      I used a Sennheiser EW 122P G3-B wireless lav. The lav went into a Zoom H4N which went into my back pocket. Since I didn’t have anyone to monitor sound, I set levels and prayed it wouldn’t peak!

      Post a Reply
  3. Great film. Very personal. Good Example that you dont need much to tell a story, but you need the story.

    Greetings from Germany.

    Post a Reply
  4. Great film, really enjoyed the story.
    What did you use for sound?
    Thanks and be well.

    Post a Reply
    • Hey Stan,

      Thank you! Forgot to include a Zoom H4N and Sennheiser EW 122P G3-B on my equipment list.

      Post a Reply
  5. Julian…very nice. Thanks for sharing. What did you use to record interview? (mic)

    Post a Reply
    • Thanks Greg! Mic I used was a wireless lav Sennheiser EW 122P.

      Post a Reply
  6. Great work :) Totally agree. What did you use for sound (to make it a triple request in the comments :)

    Post a Reply
    • Hey Philip, Thanks! I used a Zoom H4N and Sennheiser EW 122P G3-B

      Post a Reply
  7. Julien,

    Great article and film. What Letus shoulder rig did you use? Also, how do you combat compression artifacts?

    Thanks!

    Ryan

    Post a Reply
    • I used a combination of the Talon and MCS… I can post a picture if you’d like.

      I exported through Premiere Pro using H.264 rendering at maximum depth, Target Bitrate [Mbps] at 20 and Maximum Bitrate [Mbps] at 20, then select Maximum Render Quality at the bottom. Hope that helps. If the movie won’t produce too large a file you could just try matching sequence settings.

      Post a Reply
  8. Well done!
    I like the way you put this hero in the center of the image.
    Greetings from the Netherlands.

    Post a Reply
  9. Julien-

    What a softly impactful document. Funny, I found It so “Californian” in it’s laid-back quality and matter-of-fact approach to the truth. In 4 minutes your film achieved a very satisfying arc. I loved the moments towards the end of Richard quietly looking up at his “resurrected” pieces. A rich five minutes.

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  10. Phenomenal documentary. It just goes to show that it doesnt take much to make great work. It made me think of dozens of people I would like to make similar videos of if I had the time. Thank you very much. Inspirational

    Post a Reply
  11. Hey …well done. lovely film. You’re right ..it’s the small stories that work so well. You’ve inspired me to do the same. Thanks

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  12. Very nice piece Julien. I enjoyed the pacing and loved the wider aspect ratio. Really worked for me. I have a hard time getting clients to go that way. A comment to help on your sound if I may… Tascam just came out with a new recorder, the DR60 I believe. I have one and it isn’t in front of me for the actual model number. A bit bigger than the Zoom but it can do 4 channels of audio. Best part is you can set channels 3 and 4 to be up to 20dB lower than channels 1 and 2. AMAZING feature! TAkes the panic and worry away on this kind of shoot. 24bit audio as well. Check it out and you won’t worry next time. Have a great 4th…

    Post a Reply
  13. Hey Shane,

    Thanks for all the information you have share.I just bumped in to your site by mistake and is just full of wonderful info. I am going to make all the ream come over and take a look. Well worth it.

    I have some staff, as well as myself that would love to join you in any of your ventures as interns, it would be an honor to learn from you and help you along the way.

    Thanks!!

    Santiago Salviche
    salviche@justpressrec.com

    Post a Reply
  14. Just wanted to chime in and give a big kudos to Julien for this fantastic article and beautiful film. Very well done. Many people ask me how to come up with a great documentary idea and your description nailed it.

    Post a Reply

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