Documentary filmmaker Jeff Malmberg's three key elements to creating intimate, complex portraits of real people on-screen.
- Crafting documentary portraits require your subject to be vulnerable and trust you. It's crucial that you not burn or alienate them. At the end of the day, they just want to be seen, heard, and understood.
- Be prepared to have to spend quite a bit of time with your subject establishing a connection and a building rapport before they'll truly open up to you on camera - this means that a bulk of your initial footage may not be used as you work toward getting to the essence of their character.
- As a documentary filmmaker, you owe your subject and the audience the "light and dark side of a face." That's to say that both the good & the bad, and the satisfying & unsatisfying should come through in the depiction of your subject because it creates an authentic and balanced portrait.
- Expect that it could take years for your story to fully form. Allow for the time and patience it requires to document your subject fully - the story will evolve over time and space.
- Think long-term and have an evergreen mindset - try to focus on shooting footage that you think will never expire.
- As you find your story when editing your film, it's not uncommon to realize you need more coverage and have to revisit your subject to shoot additional footage.
- Every good documentary filmmaker knows when it's time to set the camera down. Give yourself a deadline and stop filming when you feel you've gotten enough footage to shape your character's full portrait.
- When sharing your film with the person/people who are featured in it, be prepared to receive mixed reactions and to have a dialogue about it - most people are not used to seeing themselves on-screen and will have a self-perception that may not be reflected as they would prefer (or recognize) in the film.
Jeff Malmberg is a documentary filmmaker whose debut film "Marwencol" has won over two dozen awards, including two Independent Spirit Awards. It was recently named a Cinema Eye Decade film, as one of the 20 best documentary films in the last ten years.