Learn about making documentaries based on archival footage

Key Insights
  • Documentary filmmaking is a powerful and unique form of storytelling - it can be a philosophical way to explore life by investigating the meaning of images and distinguishing belief from opinion.
  • Non-fiction filmmaking requires personal ethics and responsibility - as the storyteller, it's essential to consider how you're framing knowledge, truth, and imagery. 
  • There are different approaches to using archival material which include:
    1. Finding the story in an existing archive (example: Our Nixon)
    2. Finding the archives to support a story you want to tell (example: Nuts!)
    3. Using found footage from living subjects (example: The Pain of Others)
  • Understand the nature of the archival material. For example, incorporating amateur archival footage into your project creates a layer of subjectivity that you as the filmmaker can use to delve further into the story.
  • If you’re looking for archival material to support a story, be prepared to fill in gaps creatively through animation, recreations, graphics, or other visuals.
  • When dealing with living subjects, carefully consider how you are presenting them.
  • Artistic choices can be made based on a set of arbitrary rules. For example, Penny decided to not use still images in Our Nixon and this rule shaped how she told the story. Establish your “rules” and follow them.
  • Still images are perceived as passive; moving images are perceived as more active. Depending on the feeling you want to convey, be creative in how you present material.
  • The beauty and the challenge in making a film is sifting through the vast array of creative options available to you at any given moment. It's your job to narrow down those choices to craft the story.
  • There is a difference between a collage and a compilation. A collage makes new meaning, while a compilation retains the meaning of the original image. 
  • The internet is an invaluable tool for the documentary filmmaker and the best resource for those looking to get started - you can access information and images from anywhere in the world!
    Filmmaker
    Penny Lane has been making innovative nonfiction films for over a decade, including four features ("Hail Satan?," "The Pain of Others," "Nuts!" and "Our Nixon)" and over a dozen short films. She was recently honored with a Vanguard Award by the San Francisco Documentary Festival, a Breakthrough Award by Chicken & Egg, a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival. She was admitted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2017. Her short films, such as "The Voyagers" (2010), have won accolades at film festivals and popularity online. And yes, Penny Lane is her real name.

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