Solving documentary production challenges: Troubleshooting tips! Part 1Apr 26, 2023
How’s the old saying go? Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Depending on whether you're an optimist or pessimist, you may read that quite differently! But I find it a key philosophy when approaching filmmaking production.
So that’s what today’s blog is all about! Production is a fun and exciting time but it's also very complicated and things are bound to go wrong.
Don’t worry, myself and everyone at Moonshine Communications Academy are here to take you on a trip through all the many different ways we have (or haven’t!) overcome massive obstacles in our filmmaking journey.
When nature calls
If you’re filming out in the world, you’re almost certain to come up against tech issues! It’s just the nature of the beast (see what I did there?). So bring the best advice is to be prepared for as much as you can. For example, things like lens cleaners and sun guards are great to have in your kit when you’re filming outdoors.
Another helpful hint: bring spares of the essentials! If you’re filming in a hot environment then cameras do tend to overheat and batteries unexpectedly drain. So keep your camera out of the direct sun when possible and have spare batteries ready to go - this alone can get you out of trouble. Find out more about equipment over on this blog!
Being prepared for where you’re going is a bit of a no-brainer. Then, you can think through things like: will you be combating mosquitoes and intense heat? Or will you need to be rugged up against frequent blizzards?
The other force coming to cause trouble is often the wind! The lapel microphones need to be shielded under cloths or they won’t stand a chance and you’ll pick up all the whistling and noise that will kill your audio dead! Be prepared with a ‘dead cat’ for your boom microphones (the big fluffy thing that goes over the top to muffle wind!) and decent-sized wind shields, they could be your best protection.
Strong gusts also have a tendency to push things over! Which is not great for lights or anything that isn’t weighed down with sandbags. The other device that doesn’t hold up well in the wind is the drone. Though we love it here at Moonshine Agency, you do need to be careful piloting it around obstacles when the treacherous wind is about.
Rain, rain, Go away
Personal anecdote incoming!
When Mike and myself were filming in Queensland a few months back, we were met with torrential rain. I’m talking a high-pressure shower for about an hour. To avoid drowning, we retreated to a small undercover area where we could film in.
‘Undercover’ would be generous. The roof was filled with holes and the only thing safe was the camera! And then once we were finished, we were unable to fit all our gear in the car and our tripod had to brave it on the roof racks. We were fortunate that the bag was of good quality. But it was a nervous trip and we really didn’t know if it would withstand the water until we unloaded it at the other end. Somehow it did!
Crook as a dog
Another uncontrollable obstacle is getting sick. We're all well versed in using hand sanitiser, wearing masks and saying “hello” with our elbows; but sometimes, you just can’t help it.
If someone on your crew is ill and you have the resources to swap them out, don’t insist they come on set. If somebody is contagious, the last thing you want is for them to infect your entire crew and shut down production.
Have you tried turning it off and on again?
There’s nature, there are people and then there is technology - another instrumental yet temperamental part of the production.
The first step to avoid issues would be to buy good quality equipment. I can appreciate sometimes the wallet is tight, but lower-end equipment can lead to poor-quality results. Use what you have by all means, but if there’s an option to make your budget stretch and get a higher-quality piece of equipment, it’s worth it in the end.
The only real bulletproof way around this problem is to have as many redundancies as you can. Have extra batteries, have a backup lapel microphone and camera. It’s simple, but it works. I understand this is probably a lot easier said than done, especially when travelling interstate or overseas! But these are all options to weigh up.
I’m going to call my agent!
I kid, I kid.
But moving away from troubleshooting gear now, we’ll turn our minds to talent. Luckily with documentaries, you rarely have to deal with prima donna actors! But you do have to worry about the uninitiated getting stage fright. There is something about that big black lens that freaks even the most confident of people out.
The best trick for this: keep them relaxed. If you and your crew are relaxed and set up before they arrive, then you can keep the situation light. Avoid any chatter that is not directly about the set-up or including the participant. It might leave the talent feel like they are in the way or awkward if the crew are talking amongst themselves and having ‘in’ jokes.
Don’t underestimate the power of small talk to relax your talent. Offer them water, thank them for being there and make them feel comfortable. Reassure them that you’re going to look after them and it’s going to be a good experience.
Take a deep breath and jump!
Reading this back, I do think ‘woah, a lot has gone wrong over the years.’ But it’s all completely normal! And everything that goes right outweighs the wrong.
It really comes down to preparation and adaptation. Other than that, it’s a leap of faith!
So we can’t help with the latter, but we can help you with the preparation bit. Next week, we’ll be exploring even more problems and how to solve them. But until then, be sure to check back with all previous blogs for more tips and then go follow us on social media for even more sweet movie-making tricks.
For anything else, be sure to get in touch via our social media or even just send us an e-mail! We’re here to help, so use us! We would love to hear about any of the massive obstacles you’ve overcome as a filmmaker and how you solved the problem.
Movie making magic emails*
Emails that make you a better filmmaker. From us to you each week.
*anecdotal only, magic has not been scientifically proven
We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason. Not even in exchange for a unicorn.