Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Art of Improv and the Documentary Part I

Happy Solstice Dear Reader,

Some of you may know that I, Stephanie Hubbard, the "Documentary Insider", also actively study and perform comedy improv at one of the best schools in the country, iowest, formerly known as improv olympic.

This morning, I started thinking about the two art forms, Improv and Documentary and why I'm so involved with both.

And the most obvious thing is that they both rely fully on improvising: being able to create art on the fly, as it happens, being alert and involved, reacting in the moment - or rather the millisecond.

So, how might we apply principles of improv to documentary filmmaking?

1) Even though, in the art form of comedy improv, "Nobody knows what anyone will say," we do learn and agree on the form we will do. This typically involves structure. What is the structure? In the most successful long forms, (Here I will refer to "The Harold" a long form of improv developed at the Improv Olympic under the beloved Del Close, recognized as the father of improv by many) First, there is an OPENING, which will inspire, and in so doing actually encompass all that follows it. (A great opening in an documentary should both be at the beginning AND encompass all that is to follow.) Then there are three different SCENES. They are unrelated but inspired by the opening, and are typically two person scenes. The most important thing in these scenes is to establish RELATIONSHIP, who are these people to each other - from this comes all else. Then there is a GROUP GAME - typically inspired by the opening. Then we have second beats of each of the SCENES in the first beats - in these second beats you can have more people interacting with the characters established in the first beats. In improv we follow CHARACTER, not plot. These beats can be longer, developing aspects of the characters. Then we have one more GROUP GAME, then SCENES - or Third Beats, that have each of the story lines merge - it turns out that the woman in 2A is actually married to the mail man in 1C and so on. This is also the time that the characters TRANSFORM according to our point of view about the themes that have emerged from within the Harold.
Each scene is developed by the improvisors listening to each other and responding in the moment, but each improvisor is working according to the structure of the piece, moving towards transformation, and a conclusion.

Now how does this apply to Documentary? Well, just as we can really listen to our subjects and to the issues and themes arising from what it is we want to say in our documentary, we might benefit from having a structural road map we are following. And the road map we choose for a Documentary, might be strikingly similar - we have first act - that establishes our characters and their relationships. Our act two is longer, has more ins and outs, more characters perhaps, then we have our act three, or transformation act - also, we have a time when we know it will all come together to say more about the whole than we expected. This is because on some physiological level, the audience is satisfied by transformation and by elevating the conversation to more than they expected. And by doing this in your documentary, you will create a more powerful film.

Stay tuned, tomorrow - the importance of Not Judging, Being in the Moment, and Listening, all key elements of successful improv & successful documentary filmmaking.

To see the sort of improv shows I'm talking about, check out the schedule at

Monday, December 7, 2009

List of Documentaries to View for Filmmakers

I chose some of these docs just because I LOVED them - and all of them I think should be seen by anyone planning to make a doc. Why? Listen, whether you are spending your time and money or someone else's, there is no cheaper way to spark your imagination than to learn and see what others have done. Also, it gives you a shared language to communicate with your collaborators - your dp, your editor, your graphics person. Watching these can also open up the way you can bring to light an issue - from "Manufacturing Consent" to "Titicut Follies" or "Roger and Me", it's a clear illustration that there are many ways to bring consciousness to an issue.

But what about plain old fun? "American Movie", "Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" and "Spellbound" take us inside parts of our culture we can be glad we know about because they are fun and wonderful. As for making art, "The Gleaners and I", "Rivers and Tides" and "Visions of Light" won't disappoint. For Characters, "Gray Gardens", and "Keep the River on Your Right" are great choices. But for sheer chutzpah in filmmaking - check out "Grizzly Man", "Tarnation", and the only narrative film on the list, "Le Jetee" (easily found on YouTube)

Then there are my standards - films I use in class all the time to talk about structure and different approaches to doc story telling, "Times of Harvey Milk", "Unknown White Male", and "When We Were Kings". Now I'm about to watch "King of Kong", and I have an inkling I might be adding one more..... Enjoy! Stephanie.

Oh, and of course "Man on a Wire".

“The Farmer’s Wife” (1998) Directed by David Sutherland

“Rivers and Tides” (2004) Directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer

“Grizzly Man” (2005) Directed by Werner Herzog

“Salesman” (1968) Directed by Albert Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin

“Murderball” (2005) Directed by Dana Adam Shapiro & Henry Alex Rubin

“The Up Series” Seven Up, 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up

Director Micheal Apted

“Keep the River on Your Right – A Modern Cannibal’s Tale” (2002) Directed by David Shapiro and Laurie Gwen Shapiro.

Le Jetee Sans Soleil (Criterion Collection) (1963) Director Chris Marker

Hoop Dreams (1994) Directed by Steve James

A Question of Color (1993) Cathe Sandler

Belfast, Maine (1999 ) Titicut Follies (1967) Directed by Frederick Wiseman

Roger and Me (1989) Directed by Micheal Moore

Night and Fog (1955) Directed by Alain Resnais

Manufacturing Consent (1993) Directed by Peter Wintonick

Gray Gardens (1976) Directed by Albert Maysles and Ellen Hovde

The Gleaners and I (2002) Directed by Agnes Varda

Tarnation (2003) Directed by Jonathan Caouette

When We Were Kings (1997) Leon Gast

Thin Blue Line (1988) Directed by Errol Morris

Cheap Fast and Out of Control (1997) Errol Morris

American Movie (1999) Director Chris Smith

Iraq in Fragments (2005) Director James Longley

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005) Director Judy Irving

“Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class” (1968) William Greaves

Spell Bound (2002) Director Jeffrey Blitz

Jesus Camp (2006) Directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady

Stronger, Bigger, Faster (2008) Directed by Christopher Bell

Visions of Light (1993) Directed by Todd McCarthy and Stuart SamuelsĂ©stor-Almendros/dp/630583685X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1260171854&sr=1-1

“Pressure” (1976) directed by Horace Ove, (Seems to be only in PAL)

“Unknown White Male: A True Story” 2005

Director Rupert Murray Distributed by Imagine Entertainment

“Times of Harvey Milk” 1984

Director Rob Epstein Distributed by Cinecom International & New Yorker Films

Monday, November 30, 2009

What does a person really need to know to make a movie?

I'm preparing to teach a documentary class for students for my alma mater here in Los Angeles, and have been faced with a tough question: What is more important in learning how to make a documentary - focussing on what you want to do, and making it internally coherent and workable/fundable or looking at what experienced artists working in the realm of documentary have done?

When I was at University, I never took a documentary class, but even in my narrative classes it didn't really seem that we did either. We would be sent out in teams with very little (none) technical training. The person who already knew how to run camera would end up running camera the person who already knew how to edit would edit etc. There seemed to be very little room for either experimentation or failure. I found that the atmosphere of university, knowing my work would be presented for all to see put me in the mind set of perfection.

Of course our society tends to take this thing, Film Directing, which is one of the last great arts that requires the sort of apprenticeship and time to develop that our society doesn't seem to allow - and kind of imbues it with a sort of, "Either you are or you aren't" thing.

Thus you have a bunch of 19 year olds, who are film directors by virtue of the fact they say they are, and a lot of other people, no longer students, trying to look perfect at the beginning of their career, who once maybe pronounced their director nature, but now realize that doesn't work, and are now really learning, and making mistakes on their own dime. After they dedicated person has experimented and failed, finally, they really learn the ropes and are able to make a really remarkable film.

I believe the number one thing I can teach to a person to make them a documentary filmmaker is to do what will spare them the years of heartbreak and oodles of money. And that thing is: To actually THINK about what you are going to do, and how you are going to do it. And then make it better, and better and better.

I feel like I say this a lot, but I keep being confronted by people making films, even directing films who haven't really thought too much about what they really want to say or how they want to say it. They are drawn into the technical aspects - the shooting, the chase for the right interview, the research, the money, the travel.

It almost seems like the largest challenge to being an excellent documentary filmmaker is that there is always a distraction that will make you feel productive. And while it may actually have a positive impact on your film - there is NO replacement for sitting still, and really writing about what you want to say and how you want to say it, and ideally, working through your structure in a way that leads to a satisfying transformation.

Sitting down and working through your subject matter is necessary to find the really big ideas that give the viewer that absolute satisfaction when they realize you've taken them on a much bigger journey than they expected, and finally, really imagining your tone and your style, finding the poetry of your shots and if you use it, the poetry of your voice over, your edits, and your texture. Then you are free to experiment, because you know where you are going. If you have hiccups or failures, it's not fatal, because you actually have structure, and a plan, so you can identify your issues right away.

Other wise the whole thing becomes a chase to the goal of not having wasted all your time and money on a film that you can't sell.

Watching other people's work can serve as windows into ways to do things, but doesn't substitute for doing your work yourself.

And of course it's that work that we do in the Documentary Insider Workshop.
I must have learned something back in grad school, because it served as the benchmark between my life as a sales person and my life earning a living making film, but it was after making films for over ten years, and closely observing people spending millions of dollars on their projects that I internalized what needs to happen to make a film so good, it hurts. And what I went through in the last twelve years, is exactly what I teach, and that is how to do the work of an artist. All of which we do in class.

I'm continuing to teach privately at my office in Los Angeles, and if you are interested in working with me remotely we can do that too. If you are making a documentary, start your artistic investigation now, in my workshop, and start cutting down on the years, and mistakes you will have to make to get to where you want to be.



email me at if you'd like to sign up for the private workshop.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Conversation with Documentarian Kirby Dick

The academy award nominated film maker gives his thoughts on:

How to choose subjects for your documentary

Whether or not to make a Fundraising Trailer

And the "secret" that he thinks is indispensible advice to all documentary filmmakers, especially new ones.

I first met Kirby when his first feature film was coming out, “Sick: the Life and Death of Bob Flanagen, Supermasochist”. I was honored to go to the premiere, and even to help a little with promotional items. (Nails. If you’ve seen the film you’ll know why)

A few years later, I interviewed him for the Los Angeles Film Festival screening of “Twist of Faith” his HBO film about a firemen, Tony, who had decided to come out about being sexually molested by his priest as a teenager.

Every time I meet Kirby, he is forthcoming and friendly. Even after being nominated for an academy award he continues to be a luminous light in the world of contemporary documentary.

Here’s what he had to say when I asked him how he chooses his characters for his documentaries:

Kirby: That is a very good question. Your subject is one of the top two or three most important elements of a documentary. First of all, it’s good if the potential subject likes the camera. It’s good if they play to the camera and if they like to be filmed.

Certainly I’ve had situations where someone seems fine, but once you start shooting, they become reluctant in front of the camera. So if you start with someone who is naturally an extrovert that really helps.

Of course it is important to choose a subject that relates to what you want to say. As a filmmaker, you want a character whose story is iconic – that has a story that captures all the permutations of the issue you are exploring.

It’s also very important to have someone who is sympathetic as a person – because audiences identify with main character very intensely. Though often you can calibrate this in the edit room. When I started looking at the footage of Tony Comes, the primary subject in “Twist of Faith”, I noticed that he cried a lot. He was very sensitive and he was going through a lot, even so, I was worried that he might be perceived as a cry baby. I addressed this in the film by cutting just before he started crying, so that we could feel the emotion but didn’t see the crying. So when in the film he actually did cry it was much more powerful. It’s almost always effective, if at some point during the film, your main character does break down, but their emotional arc needs to be calibrated otherwise – at least in this case – people might otherwise turn away from him.

Documentary Insider: I have a student who is considering several people within the world of her documentary. What is the best way for her to determine who would be best to make her main character?

KD: She should go shoot them all.

It’s a good idea to just shoot any one who could be a main character because you never know what story is going to develop into something that becomes the spine of the film. For example, you might have one potential subject more charismatic than the other, but the other one’s mother dies, or they break up with their partner. Ultimately these could be things that are going to make them a better character

So, this is how I would proceed: first of all just go shoot all these people. Shoot them in situations, for a day or a half day. You learn a lot from them by shooting them in a half day. You’ll impress them just by showing up with a camera, and it can even be your own little consumer camera. And they’ll start to tell you things on camera. And what ever they won’t tell you on camera they will tell you immediately afterwards, so you’ll learn things about them which will help inform which character to follow.

You might even end up using some of that footage in the film.

And then, of course you’ll be able to review the footage, and show it to others to get their input and help you make the decision.

If they are out of state, then you get on the phone talk with them, get a feel if they are eager. In the case of Tony, he really wanted to do the film. When I met him he asked me if I paid subjects. I told him no, and he said, “That’s good because I don’t want anyone to think I did this for financial reasons.” So I knew we had the right guy.

DI: What about approaching the “Villain” or antagonist of the story. Any suggestions?

KD: Don’t assume the antagonist won’t talk. Even though they might be suspicious or not want to do it, often they will want to talk if they can get their point of view in the film. I’ve even found that they often don’t mind being attacked because it builds their credibility with their own base.

One way to approach them is to let them know you want to tell two sides of the story. Surprisingly people seem more open if you are a student or recently graduated – always try – I’ve often been surprised at who says yes.

DI: What is the best way to approach a potential subject?

KD: What works best is to be sincere and very knowledgeable.

Be willing to deal with any reticence and be clear that they don’t have to answer any questions they don’t want to.

DI: Do you try to let potential subject know all the hardships of being a subject up front – or do you let them discover that for themselves?

KD: Well, ease into it. Of course don’t lie, but the fact is most subjects have no idea what they are getting into –but typically, as an extrovert they enjoy it.

It’s very exciting to be the subject of the documentary, being followed around. Suddenly everything they do is of interest. Being the subject of a documentary is a very special experience. Sometimes when it’s over, there can be a feeling of “Where’s my crew?”

Sometimes, when you encounter a problem with your subject, like exhaustion, it’s on you the filmmaker to help them pull through for the film, to let them know, “We only want to make this film as good as possible.” Or “We want to get this film into Sundance.” (laughs) that works a lot.

Of course, have the release signed before you start shooting. not after. Other wise, it can be very awkward.

DI: Do you have any other suggestions?

KD: Yes. Start shooting before you have money. Don’t wait for grants and funding – go out with a friend - get a camera and radio mikes and just start.

There are a lot of reasons for this:

1) You get footage to raise money.

2) You learn if you actually want to make this film.

3) You get the story started earlier so you get a longer arc and the film has more drama. That’s helpful even if you only get to shoot your subject once every three months, because a lot of very important things can happen to them during that time.

And 4) After you’ve shot, do some initial editing of the material. This will inform you how to approach future shoots and you’ll be better prepared.

Okay, and one other BIG thing:

Go through a screening process in the editing stage. So many people just do not do this, and it’s so helpful: When you get your film to a second or third rough cut you should start to have screenings. Invite people over, give them snacks. Then they watch the film, and afterwards tell them you'd like them to respond to any and every element of the film. Begin by letting people speak. If they turn to you and ask your intention, defer that by asking if others in the group share the commentator’s opinion. You don’t want people’s response to your intention – you want their response to what they’ve seen.

After about 45 minutes, I start asking questions I’ve prepared in advance –whether they like the music, if they like certain minor characters. Do they understand a specific comment made by someone in the film – and as I go through this list it opens up further discussion.

We did this 14 times with “Twist of Faith” and I just did it 8 times with “Outrage”.

You can use as few as 2 people but it’s better to use 5 or more – bu generally no more than 15. And I have different people for each screening.

By doing this I can find out if a major character is working. If everyone in a room says they really don’t like a particular character I would probably try to remove that character for the next screening and see how the film played. It’s possible to save yourself 10’s of thousands of dollars on editing time, and make a better film this way. The less experienced you are the more important it is to do it. I do it on every film.

Also, start editing very early in the process, while you’re shooting - you’ll see how well you are covering the subject matter in your shooting. I always start cutting while I’m shooting.

DI: I see a lot of people making trailers to raise money. What’s your opinion on this?

KD: In general unless you know how to make a trailer – you should probably just start cutting the film.

I usually discourage people from making fund raising trailers. Particularly if they are inexperienced filmmakers they won’t get money based on trailer.

So that’s my last suggestion: Just start cutting your film. Start shooting it, and cutting it. And don’t be discouraged. Making documentaries is hard. Don’t give up easily.

DI: Thanks so much Kirby for your time and wonderful wisdom.

KD: No problem, my pleasure.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Distribution and Your Part of the Long Tail

As we make our films, we can start to feel our audience (at least we should) but then when we finish, suddenly we are subject to an audience of one – the distributor who thinks they can take our film and sell it. Of course now (depending on our model), we'll ideally want a theatrical release, but we (I suspect) imagine that if we don’t get that – AT LEAST there will be some long tail for us – some long term niche that we will fit in and hopefully get some recompense/audience for all the hard work we put in. Right?

To do this, we have a vague idea that we can make a deal with iTunes or Netflix. Right?

But if you've depended on this, (up until a few months ago) you'd be up for a disappointment: Distributors take your rights, and a percentage of your revenue for years. So the distributors will take between 15% and 50% on top of iTunes 30%. And depending on your deal, that could be for the length of your long tail. Hard Tail’s Journey into Night – right?

Well a guy named Adam Chapnick heard this persistent complaint from filmmakers that he was working with in his marketing and distribution consultancy (called DocWorkers and he decided to do something about it.

So, he self funded a company called Distribber

Here is the idea: you submit your film and your trailer to Distribber – it has to be 70 minutes or over for now, though Adam is working on getting shorter films included too. If he thinks it’s viable, he’ll submit it to iTunes. If your film gets accepted by iTunes – Distribber takes a flat fee, (currently $1295) and for a $79 yearly fee pays you 100% of your revenue from iTunes. If iTunes doesn’t accept your film, no sweat, no fees no nothing.

Most films on the service sell for the $9.99 rate set by iTunes. That means from the beginning you get your whole $6.99 after iTunes 30%. Distribber gives you back your long tail. (that means in 186 sales, you make back the initial fee)

I thought this all sounded very intriguing – so I set up an interview with Adam to find out a bit more. Here’s what he had to say:

Hey there Adam.
Hey Stephanie.

Stephanie: So, what are you looking for in the selection process?

Adam: We have a sense of what iTunes wants – and they have a sense of what they want. We give them as much information as possible so that they can say yes or no. We give them a link to each film’s trailer. Also, there is a field in the submission form where the filmmaker can list their film’s selling points. The filmmaker will say things like “we won Sundance and won five other festivals” or tell us, that it is about certain relevant subject matter – or that it it aired on PBS – anything that helps us pitch the project.

S: Are you submitting these into a black hole then?

A: Oh, no, we have relationships with the folks at iTunes - and on top of that, I really want to be available to all the filmmakers, they all have my number, and call me if they have any questions. My number is (323)304-5039 and my email is

S: So let’s say I have a film that gets in – now what?

A:Well, we have to check that all your rights and licenses are in order, and that’s pretty well covered because we require that films come in with E&O insurance.

S: So how is it going?

A: Well our offer is very attractive. Filmmakers love it – the more money you make the better deal that it is. My whole goal is to make this something that is not murky.

We are making it clear and simple, and I am willing to talk to everyone all the time.

Filmmakers tend to be very wary, and weary, of distribution deals, and one of the hesitations I hear most often is based on the fact that filmmakers really don’t believe our deal, but it’s real, and it’s working great for the first 13 films, which are just coming online to sell right now.

S: Wow – that’s great, but what do you say to the filmmaker of a worthy film that gets turned down by iTunes?

A: Well we are actually doing a lot to address that.
    1. we are working to initiate an appeal process with iTunes. And
    2. I am working to set up deals with NetFlix, Hulu, all of them so that Distribber can be a flat rate a la carte service, super easy to sign up for all the different companies in one place each for a flat rate.

S: So sounds like you're in this for the long haul.

A: (laughing) Oh, of course. Every one is so wary of the process of distribution, I see this as a long term trust building exercise, and I am up for it. In the short term, we are working to get the approval process to happen more quickly.

S: Can you tell me any of your titles?

A: Oh, sure – our first two were “Runners High” and “New York Doll” – both well received great documentaries with good audiences. We’ve attracted a lot of films that fit their profile, but we are also getting smaller films and placing them too. It’s been really exciting.

S: Well thank you so much Adam, it’s been a pleasure hearing about your business based on the Long Tail.

A: Well Thank you Stephanie, thanks for doing this.

S: You’re welcome.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Notes for Beginners

I was just in another forum where I was asked to give advice for beginning documentarians.

For some of you this will be a review - but hopefully helpful non the less.

As a veteran, award winning editor, I've seen too many independent (read - self financed and beginning) filmmakers shoot and shoot and shoot and not give much thought to their story beyond the initial idea.

In response, I've started a workshop and we really hash out a lot in there that has really been helpful to my students.

We think about WHAT do I really want to say or explore with my film -

We ask HOW do I want to say it -

Because sure, you can interview 25 people about junk food, or you can follow yourself around while you eat only junk food for a month.

The HOW is often the most elegant part of creating a really good doc.

Also we pay attention to the ongoing conflict between what the main character Wants and Needs - and how this evolves into a satisfying transformation.

We also identify the different aspects and wider themes that come up in our story - because really - my favorite documentaries are always Trojan Horses for bigger issues and questions than I realized I was going to get into when I started watching - that is the true gift you give your viewers - so why not start thinking about it before you're done shooting so you can have that material when you start editing?

My students have all gotten a lot out of going through this process - both in how their final films will end up, but also in terms of saving $ by shooting what speaks to what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Stephanie Hubbard

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How to decide where to put the camera?

Knowing what you want to say and how you want to say it.  That's the basics for Directing. 
Of course, there's much more - having a great idea, pitching it to people, getting them to believe in you -- but when it comes down to the actual DIRECTING part - actually being clear on what we want to say - we can be a little in the dark. 

But that's okay, because darkness can be a place where we discover what it is we want to say. 
We can get real quiet and start asking the questions which will reveal the answers - and once we have those answers, then we can direct with assurance - even as we are open to spontaneous happenings and all a matter of things that pop up when making a doc, writing a novel, or screenplay. 

But it's not alway easy to ask those questions.  Too often we have an idea, and then we start applying for grants, so instead of asking questions according to an artistic, organic process, we are filling out forms, trying to win grants, or making  a "work in Progress" to win grants.

Instead - and this is my opinion - I think it's important to let all the grant forms go, and allow yourself to ask the really creative questions as part of an artistic process.   Really start to imagine the world of your story, and what happens there.  Your story, your characters, they will tell you with startling clarity - but first you have to listen to them and really let them tell you. 

I was scheduled to start working in private session with a filmmaker not long ago.  She was a veteran documentary editor, but was working on the first doc she was directing also.  The day before we were to meet, she called me, ready to cancel, 

"I'm doing a writing pass on it," She was working on it for an application,  "and I'm not sure if now is the best time to get opinions of it."  As a long time editor, I knew exactly what she was talking about.  She had to let her own ideas come through.  But I knew I could help her.

"My job is not to give you opinions on your film," I told her.  "My job is to help you find out what it is you really want to say."  Fortunately, she came as scheduled, and we started work, and when we did exercises, she started to reveal the characters in her story.   But it wasn't until I reflected those revelations back to her that she could really start to see her story clearly herself. 

Every artist needs someone to bounce off of.  Make sure you have that built into your process, and it will help you again and again.  

     Happy filmmaking - 
     Classes starting in September Wednesday Afternoons - 1-4. continuing Tuesday night 7-10. 


Wednesday, August 19, 2009


It is hard sometimes to show up. Documentaries can be hard. They are expensive, they are dealing with the unknown and the unknowable. They force you to depend on the the unexpected. Who knows what will happen when you start shooting? Or worse, when you stop shooting?

Have you ever noticed, when narrative filmmakers use improvisation in their films (my favorites are Michael Leigh and Ken Loach) that every story about their film is all about their process. But their process is just what documentary filmmakers set out to do every shoot day - sometimes doing it for years.

But that is why it is so God Damned exciting to see a really terrific documentary. And that is what keeps us in the fight, shooting, and hanging in there with our subjects.

Sometimes, we need to acknowledge that it ain't easy, and then tomorrow start again.

I just want to acknowledge all the filmmakers out there tonight toiling away on bringing to light their wondrous stories to share with us.

Thanks to each of you for being of so much service by bringing your stories to light.



Thursday, August 13, 2009

Self Distribution 2.0 & The Character in Documentary

Independent Filmmakers Distribute on Their Own
Published: August 13, 2009
Instead of waiting to be discovered, aspiring filmmakers are paying for their own marketing and distribution.

There are so many ways to get your film out. 
Make sure you connect with your audience in a way that's satisfying to them, and fulfills your vision of what you want to do - and VOILA, just like a great character, you can take that movie anywhere and people will respond. 

In documentary, how do we create great Characters?  By telling the complicated truth. 
So often, we assume that if we show that someone is unlikeable we'll lose our audience.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

So often, we assume, that if we want to make an "issue" movie, we have to whitewash the reality of our subjects, only showing them as they fulfill positive expectations. 

We can see this in other works of art, but we must be brave, and have confidence in our story to do it in our own work.   

Try working through your story beats by really seeing the reality of your difficult characters, and see how fast it gets interesting. 

This includes "Abstractions" as well - we've had an earlier post on this, but more to follow. 

Thanks for visiting the Blog, I'm looking forward to your comments. 

Please know I am starting new workshops in Los Angeles in September. 

Stephanie Hubbard

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What structure can do for you?

Save you a ton 'o money - that's what.

When you get clear about what it is you want to say, and the best structure to provide the most satisfying experience for the viewer of your very real and organic "hero" then the gifts are many.

You know what it is you want BEFORE you start looking for archives, doing lots of expert interviews or travelling around the world. OF COURSE you are always looking for the amazing spontaneous moment, or that gift of footage you had no idea about - and your structure won't get in the way of that - in fact, your structure will help you burrow your way into what is most dramatic, and help you discover what speaks to the real struggle at the heart of your film.

By working your way through the structure before hand, you are free to know what to shoot and where, and how to be open to what is coming your way.

Students in class this week really immersed themselves in the process of finding out the main beats of their story. It's terrifically exciting to see them make such fast progress, and to see them really start to get how their structure is helping them.

Some are using what they've discovered to write grants, or as the basis for their fund raising trailer, and others will be starting their film with a clear eyed idea of what they need and how it will work.

All this is super helpful in the long run as documentaries can sometimes take a very long time to make - and often require a sort of stop/start relationship as we work out our funding, and work at our own jobs etc.

I will be starting an online version of this course in the first week after labor day, and starting another actual class in Los Angeles. I would like your feedback as to preferred class times - so please email me at to let me know your thoughts on attending etc.

The class is usually $349 per month - but for people emailing me from my blog, the price will be $300.

This includes 4 class meetings a month, with the option to meet privately if you would otherwise miss a session, unlimited email correspondence, phone calls, and a take home assignments each week to empower you to make quick progress on your project.

If you compare the price of $300 for one month's full access to your project on the part of an award winning writer and editor, to the price of a week of editing - you'll see that spending slightly less than a day of editing now, will save you on shooting days, archival days and may even help you get more funding due to your new found clarity on your production.

Okay - yesterday we practiced pitching. Here is what you need for your elevator pitch:

A quick description of WHAT happens, complete with terrific antagonist.
The Point of View of Your FILM
The STYLE of the film.

Practice with friends!

I look forward to your emails! Thanks so much! Stephanie.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Today in the Documentary Insider Workshop

I worked with two students today - always a pleasure. 

Here is what I learned: 

Even when you have your outline worked out - ESPECIALLY when you have it worked out - ask yourself this question:

What do I want my film to be about?

And listen to what bubbles up.  Just let it flow out of you, aid you, inform you.  

There in will lie what needs to be tweaked, changed added to your beautiful film. 

It is the sixth taste of your film, the Umame that gives it that extra something. 

Happy filmmaking!


Workshops starting now for Wednesday Afternoon in Los Angeles. 

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Want and Need and No Characters?

So, you want to make a documentary - about something quite abstract.  The fall of the Roman Empire perhaps.  What then? 

I think the tendency is to go out and interview a bunch of people around the project, and try to cut it together to convey a message - hoping to raise consciousness, even to tell the story.  

But what to do to decide what the story is, who to interview - how to integrate archival, what archival to ask for?

The Want and the Need.  First of all, who is the Hero?  Is it The Roman People? Perhaps the antagonist is the Roman Oligarchy.  Perhaps the Hero of your story is an place or a building? 
The Coliseum?  Does this place have a voice - what does the coliseum want?  To see complete peace between all peoples?  What does the Roman inner circle want?  To do what ever they want, no matter what the consequences? 

Once you've determined "who" whether rabble or inanimate object, then what they "want"  and then what they really "need".  I.e.  The Roman people need to learn to live on their own resources.  But then you have the basis for determining the beats of your story. 

More on that tomorrow!

To join the workshop - call (323)202-5645.  Remote participation available. Or email

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Want and the Need

So in last nights workshop, we really worked on the concept of the WANT and the NEED. 

Now I felt a little funny when I posted my three act structure post yesterday and someone said, "That's a popular approach"  I worried that it might seem I was engaging in a knee jerk embrace of a tired idea.  But I think not, and here's why:

The three act structure was first codified by Aristotle.   In the last 30 years, various script analysts have added all sorts of bells and whistles - the 22 act structure - the Reversal - etc.  All sorts of things that feel like mechanical impositions on your story.  What I like about the tradition of story that I have learned, (and it's source is Vicki King/Al Watt/Allen Zadoff all amazing writing teachers)  is that it is all about the Want and the Need.  Once you've established that, then you can move forward in a truley organic way secure in the knowledge that your film/memoir/script/documentary/novel will fulfill that essential human craving for story that makes the difference between an entertainment that is satisfying and not. 

Okay - so let's get to the meat:  What is want and what is need?  Sure a character can want a lot of things - but what is the capital W want of the story?  It needs to be the essential thing she can't have.  The essential thing that is keeping her from what she really wants. Now the flip side of the Want is the Need.  Now what I found with both of the workshop participants was that contained in what they wanted - their initial impulse for it - could actually be contained in the Need as well.  

For example - one filmmaker had a character that he thought wanted a bunch of things - but what became clear was that this character wanted the security of  for his children and he was trying to gain them security by fighting with outside forces.  The hero's need in this case is to pay more attention to his children, and thereby give them actual psychic security. 

So the key in finding Want and Need is to find something that is more thematic - and that really strikes at the core of what the character TRULY wants but can't have.  He might want everyone to agree with him to keep his children secure - but the fact is he can NEVER get everyone to agree with him.   And in fact, his fight to get everyone to conform to his point of view is only keeping him from his children. 

How he moves through the resolution of the Want and the Need will result in an entirely satisfying transformation for this film. 

In future blog posts:

 - how to apply the Want and Need in a non-character based doc. 
- what are the questions to ask to get to the structure. 

Want to run these principles on your doc?  Sign up now for The BeeKeeper Documentary Story Workshop. Email me at or call (323)202-5645. 



Find me on the web at
by phone (323)202-5645

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Hero's Journey for Your Documentary.

Last week I had an exchange with another editor who was struggling with his client's film.  This is what he said:

"For most of the editing I've felt like I'm wandering in the woods, as there is no script and there wasn't even an outline until I made the director sit down with me and try to cook one up, and even then it's still very sketchy."

Sounded super familiar to me.  The good news is that in writing years of feature scripts, and then spending three years writing a book (all about true events)  I learned to ask these questions:  

What does the main character want?
When is it that the Main character is destroyed?
What does the main character need? When does he get it?
What is this film really about? (usually not directly related to main character - but some universal that he/she can embody)

What is the secret of this movie?
What do you want to say?

Then you can start to lay out the structure:  

Here's what my fellow editor replied first:

Sure, tell me how to lay it out structurally. :)

I have a good sense of the emotional arc of the film, just not of the structure of the actual material (specifically how and when to weave the interview segments into the events).

And here's what I replied:  

Okay - here's my rule of thumb for that: 

make it so one affects the other in a chain - sometimes that might be chronologically - but often it is thematically or something else. 

Okay for the emotional arc: Let's say we use a 120 minute film as our paradigm (knowing we change the proportions if it's shorter)

minute 1 - intro with an image that contains the whole enchilada
minute 3 - lay out the theme - often this is done in the first thing the audience hears.
Miinute 10 - inciting incident - what get's this journey started
minute 30 - hero makes a decision he/she can't go back on
minute 45 - has some success (but any success is usually out of frying pan into the fire
minute 60 - mid way point - huge set back - but hero makes new commitment but really the real descent has begun
minute 75 - mayham
90- hero CANNOT Get what they want - and knows it absolutely here - they're dreams are crushed once and for all. 
91 - okay - so if life is utter destruction what then
move forward with new purpose - living with what I need instead of what I want. 
110 - battle scene - old ideas come back to tempt hero away from new understanding , but they deal with it - they prove to the gods they are worthy. 

Denoument - and 
120 final image - of resolution. 

okay - so that's super narrativ-y - how do we add on the doc layer?

Okay - at 75-90 we add in other layers - what is this about (should be said first at 3) but the viewer starts to get it in here - this is where the viewer realizes this is about more than they thought - like in "When we were Kings" when you realize this is about EVERYTHING - or in Errol Morris - or in "Unknown White Male" in really good docs - this element is operating along side all the rest. 

SO What is this film really about - tell us in minute 3 - and start building the elements then really SHOW us by minute 85....

So that's the frame work I work with - but in a workshop we work specifically with your material.
One Key thing I want to add - is that each of these plot points up to 90 is about the collision of the WANT and the NEED.  

That will be tomorrow's post!
Find me on the web at
by phone (323)202-5645

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Decent Idea + Enthusiasm (only) = Maybe an Okay Documentary

As a professional working documentary film editor since 2001, I have seen many documentary "filmmakers" come to me with - literally - 40, 60 or 100 hours of footage, and really no sense of what they want to say past the initial idea that  started them shooting in the first place. 

They started armed with enough charisma and enough of an idea to garner support from various quarters - but most destructively - they started armed with a virulent case of  "Documentary as Discovery".  Now, these documentaries (because I always help edit them into the best film I can) may actually win prizes - and even have important things to say in the end - but they typically fight for distribution.   Why is that?  And what can be done to help the fledgeling documentarian with enough chutzpah to get it done, and even a decent idea to start - what can help them actually go the extra mile, to enable them to create a film that people love to see, that actually sells, that really works as a complete piece?

With this question in mind, and with my experiences working with such filmmakers in the past, and fresh from my own four year struggle to write a lengthy memoir under the guidance of writing teacher Al Watt, I started a documentary workshop this spring. 

Four filmmakers came - and what made them similar is that they each showed up with a lot of charisma, and a pretty darn good idea.    Here is what we learned about how to take a good idea to the next level.

1) Don't stop with a good idea.  Really work it through.  Keep asking yourself, "What do I want to say with this movie, and how do I want to say it." 

2) Pull it all in.  What is really making you excited about this movie is more than what it seems on the surface.  Really explore all the aspects of the material - where does this material REALLY take us. 

3) Things you need to have: 
    A way in.  This is how you are going to tell the story.  We are going to follow so and so.   We are going to mix verite footage with intense montages of archival footage.  But it's about more than the surface explanation you give for the funding - it's really about how we are going to get into the material. 

   A Kitty Hawk Moment.  Think of your favorite documentary.   Now think of that amazing moment when you realize this movie is about more than what you came to see - it is about "everything".  That's what you need to take your film over the line and make it more than you imagined. 

How do I find these things?

I can tell you what we do in the work shop - we get still, and really allow our unconscious to speak, then we listened to it.  And six weeks later, each of the filmmakers is confident that they each have their whole movie - and each of them know what they are looking for in that Kitty Hawk moment all along the way of their shooting. 

They will have plenty of room for discovery, but they have a road map, and a plan, a structure to take them there and an approach.  

I hope these suggestions help.  If you want to be part of the next workshop, email me at


Stephanie Hubbard

Monday, July 6, 2009

Workshop open now

For folks interested in attending the weekly workshop, it meets Wednesday 1 pm to 4 pm at 5768 Pico, in my office just east of Fairfax.  


Find me on the web at
by phone (323)202-5645

Workshops for Documentary Filmmakers

Well it's month 2 of the Stephanie Hubbard Workshop for Filmmakers. 

I have so much subject matter I want to cover with people, but this particular series of workshops became about helping several filmmakers, each of whom had a great idea for a film.  I've seen so many people have great ideas for films, go off and shoot LITERALLY hundreds of hours of footage, then come to me with out a thought of what their film is about, asking me to make them a great film that will say what they want to say. 

SO - this workshop has been a way to work with filmmakers to enable them to work through their ideas, their approaches, to find the frame work for creating a documentary film that WILL WORK!  It is more than breaking down the synopsis, finding the transformation, discovering the structure.  It is finding that magical moment that exist in the best documentaries that make them great - that moment when you realize "Unknown White Male" is about more than a guy with amnesia, that "Times of Harvey Milk" is about more than Harvey Milk and the struggle for gay rights.  It's that moment we have come to call in class, "The Kitty Hawk Moment" when the film takes flight.  That is what this workshop is about - knowing what you need to know BEFORE you start shooting to have what you need to create that moment within your documentary - because that is what it is all about.  Don't you think?

I'd love to hear your posts about what you think that moment has been in your favorite films - please let me know!


Find me on the web at
by phone (323)202-5645

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Entering Documentary Challenge

Well, it's been a while since I blogged (what is the number of blog entries that start this way?  Too many I suspect.)

I was finishing a book, editing a show, and working for two clients - but now I am waiting for editing notes, and getting organized for....drum roll please....I've entered the Documentary Challenge.  Next week I will be creating a team with some of my favorite colleagues to create a 5 to 7 minute documentary in 5 days.   I'm usually loathe to enter contests of any sort, but in the past when i've either written plays, or made short narrative films in short time spans I have LOVED the experience. 

The think I found most difficult about taking the plunge here (aside from my freakish hatred of contests) was making the shift from editor to that other thing - producer/director.  I mean I produce and direct for clients all the time - but that's always with a very clear objective.  I'm used to making art as an editor, working with someone else's material.  There is something I LOVE about being the scavenger, the hunter sifting through material to really make something work.   

The thought of having to be the entity also responsible for providing and creating that material feels extreeeemely uncomfortable. I think part of what makes me a good editor is loving seeing what people have been working on for years - their ideas, all the stuff they've collected.  I like entering the process at that point.  SO - now, thanks to Documentary Challenge (and my friend Hannah who sent me the link in the first place) I will be assuming the mantle of full creator from the beginning of a film project. 

I will keep you posted as best I can, and welcome any suggestions ; - )

Talk more soon, 

Stephanie Hubbard.