Posted by Roxanne Messina Captor

Documentaries have been produced since 1922. They were always considered the educational part of moviemaking; not entertainment. That has all changed. We are in the Golden Age of Documentaries. Prominent directors are using the documentary format to tell their stories. My documentary "Homecoming: Veterans, Wives, Mothers" joins the ranks for consideration for the “Outstanding Short Form Non-Fiction” Daytime Emmy Award for 2021.

I need to say this format is one I use when I think a topic merits the documentary style. Most of my work is producing and directing Emmy-nominated MOW's and Independent films. At the college and universities at which I teach, I head the short-form documentary and web series production. I was trained by Francis Ford Coppola and come from a classical dance and theatre background.

 

5 Documentary Filmmaking Tips from an EmmyNominated Producer

 

"Homecoming" delves into women veterans returning from tours of duty. When they return they are faced with the challenge of re-adapting to life at home. They go back to being wives and mothers. Bring disenfranchised families together. At the same time, they may be dealing with issues such as PTSD, physical disabilities, navigating the VA, racism, sexual abuse, anxiety attacks, and homelessness.

As I researched the subject, it became clear to me that the documentary format for "Homecoming" was imperative. The real stories of these amazing women were more powerful than any fiction. Letting the military women speak for themselves about their trials and tribulations, their hopes and dreams, their frustrations and achievements. Telling the stories of these women veterans’ wives and mothers as they navigated the new battlefield...THE HOME-FRONT.

Tip #1: Do Your Research

Here I must say research is imperative. That is the first step in starting your documentary. Also gaining the trust of your subjects. Remember you are dealing with real people, not actors. This is their story and they are now on camera. In our case, many of the military women did not want to speak about their lives. They, as most military, believe in dealing with what is given to them and moving forward. No whining or feeling sorry for themselves. Many female veterans did not want to tell their story; they didn’t want to look weak in front of their comrades, or face loss of promotion. The film helped them tell their true and honest story.

 

5 Documentary Filmmaking Tips from an EmmyNominated Producer

 

Once I won their trust from my background as a filmmaker and being a military family, the women opened up. I found this process an emotional and powerful experience for all of us. The film became a cathartic release for all of us.

It took great research to find the subjects for the film. Many of the women helped introduce me to other women for the documentary.

Tip #2: There are No Reshoots

The production process is like any film. There were many hours of pre-production, production and post. With documentaries, there are no reshoots. One is working with real people. The filmmaker must catch the answers to questions and the emotions exactly as presented. Questions need to be tailored to get the answers that will be pertinent to the film.

This film was made on a shoestring. Calling in favors for equipment, crew, and post-production needs was imperative. Crew with equipment helps. Since a documentary may shoot over months due to the availability of subjects, having a number of key crew is helpful.

This is where I need to say, we were on a TIGHT budget. Let's just say NO budget. I always believe in hiring great, talented people and giving them credits that take them to the next level. My classes from Santa Monica College (SMC) became my mother load. I was writing, directing, and producing, but I knew I would need help. Key positions were Santa Monica College advanced students from my classes or from my classes at Emerson LA or UCLA.

 

5 Documentary Filmmaking Tips from an EmmyNominated Producer

 

Although the crew was working for credit, locations were donated; there are always expenses. And the expenses add up. So, if you decide to take on a project like this, know you are going to go into your savings. Nothing in film or television or digital comes 100% free. But if you believe in your project, it is worth it.

This is very important...low budget means barter, barter, barter. Locations and permits were done with great expediency. Finding multi-dimensional locations give the film color. Most documentaries today have a narrative filming style. Locations help with the style. It also helps your subjects feel more comfortable.

The schedule and cast were finally in place. It had been constantly changing as the locations changed and cast had scheduling issues. We needed to finalize shooting days for crew and availability of subjects. Again, one woman would introduce me to another, and so forth.

The filming went very smoothly. The women opened up and the stories flowed. I always believe in a harmonious set. This comes from respect. Our set was hardworking and fun!

 

5 Documentary Filmmaking Tips from an EmmyNominated Producer

Tip #3: Capture the Truth

We learned so much about women and life in the military. This is important for documentaries. One must be prepared with questions that will get the filmmaker the story angles they want. However, the truth is better than fiction. One must stay open to gems of information that will move the film forward. Wait for you’re subject to give you the gems you want. Some of the ones we got from our women were:

  • The uniform has allowed women to level the playing field; they are pilots, mechanics, team, and squadron leaders.
  • According to the Department of Defense, in 2010 more than 30,000 single mothers have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and as of 2006 more than 40% of active-duty women have children.
  • In Los Angeles alone, 8000 vets are now homeless. The number of homeless women veterans has doubled from 1,380 in FY 2006 to 3,328 in FY 2010. Many of these women are single mothers.
  • For any veteran with dependent children, being identified as homeless creates a threat and fear of youth protective services assessing the situation as dangerous and removing the children from their parent.

 

Homecoming:Veterans,Wives and Mothers from Messina Captor Films on Vimeo.

 

Tip #4: Editing Tells the Story

Shooting is over and now the real work starts. Like we were resting before!?! The most important part of a documentary comes into play. Editing! A good editor is imperative. If the best you know are working, then hire two or three. You will find that works the best to get through the hours of footage you may have.

Fortunately, I had two excellent editors who had won awards for their documentary work. We were able to work around their series jobs. This is as the filmmaker; one needs to be clear and concise about what you want. It helps the editor and saves time and money. Paper edits are extremely valuable.

B-Roll for a documentary makes or breaks the film. Using pictures or home videos of your subjects can be very useful. A good editor can add movement to this footage to make it sing. Also, there are royalty-free stock footage sites that can give you anything you need.

Remember even $200M films use stock footage for that plane flying into the frame. You do not need to waste the time and money on a shot that has good stock footage. In our case, we went to royalty-free stock footage military sites.

Tip #5: Make it Sing

Music makes or breaks a film. We were able to find royalty-free music on different websites. Two we used were: www.mobygratis.com and https://app.soundstripe.com/. I also had a friend that donated some of his original music. Always beg your friends for help. Remember this is a good credit for them and their work is now out there for many to hear and see.

I have a newfound respect for post-production supervisors. I was doing the job, with the editor's help. This is a job I never want to do again! Coordinating all the different departments, making sure their work is on time, and gotten to the editor when they need it, and as the director making the creative decisions was exhausting and stressful.

Just as we were getting close to finishing... Boom! Pandemic! This is when I learned that in the world of the Internet one could do most of the post by Google drive, We Transfer and File Mail. We did not need to sit in an editing bay together. What would have happened if Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates had not developed the programs and technology they did in the mid 70's.

In Closing

So the film is finished. What now?! Enter every festival that you think would like your documentary. Now, there are many documentary festivals. Start contacting distributors. Netflix, Amazon, and smaller distributors all are buying documentaries. We just got into the IHollywood Film Festival.

Remember every point is another step in the process....each one a journey of trials and tribulations. Would I do it again? OF COURSE!!!

 

 

About Roxanne Messina Captor

5 Documentary Filmmaking Tips from an EmmyNominated Producer

Emmy Award nominee Roxanne Messina Captor is one of Hollywood's most versatile director/writer/producers. A directing protege of Francis Ford Coppola and a founding Original Programming Executive for Turner Network Television, Messina Captor just wrapped production on the independent digital series “The Salon". The series pre-launch buzz recently attracted the attention of Kelsey Grammer and Tom Russo, who just came on board as executive producers of the project.

“The Salon” is based upon Messina Captor’s short film, “A Couple of White Chicks at the Hairdresser,” starring Shelley Long and Harry Shearer which qualified for the 2009 Oscars and was a selection of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner.

Messina Captor’s documentary short “Thank You For Your Service,” about women veterans in active duty, was an official selection in the 2018 Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival and Market 2018. The film also won “Best Narrative Feature” for the Hall of Fame, Women’s History Month. Her documentary short “Homecoming: Veterans, Wives and Mothers” premiered at the San Pedro International Film Festival and streams on Shorts TV and Sofy TV.

Under the banner of Messina Captor Films, she is currently developing “Pearl” starring Judith Light, William H. Macy, John Cho, Leehom Wang, and Jing Tian, with support from The Pearl S. Buck Foundation. Other Messina Captor projects include “Gypsy Robe,” a feature film project based upon the Broadway gypsies of “The Great White Way.” and Christmas MOW's for various networks. Messina Captor has produced and directed numerous MOW's and series for networks, cable and streaming services.

Messina Captor formerly served as Executive Director of the San Francisco International Film Festival from 2001-2007, increasing attendance, fundraising and celebrity attendance by 40%. In recognition of her efforts, Messina Captor was awarded the prestigious 2005 Chevalier Du Ordre Des Arts Et Des Lettres, Republic of France.

Messina Captor currently serves on Governor Gavin Newsom’s Higher Education Policy-Making Committee and was a semi-finalist in AFI’s 2019 Directing Workshop For Women. She is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Who’s Who in America, Creative Coalition, Greenlight Women, FACCC Policy Committee, the Los Angeles Music Center's Club 100 Group, and is the moderator for the annual Women in the Arts Panel. She is currently a Film and Television/Media Studies Professor at Santa Monica College. She teaches documentary production at SMC and Emerson LA. She has taught at Cal-Arts, UCLA and Cal State Long Beach.

 

 


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Let's hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Got an idea for a post? Or have you collaborated with Stage 32 members to create a project? We'd love to hear about it. Email Taylor at taylor@stage32.com and let's get your post published!

Please help support your fellow Stage 32ers by sharing this on social. Check out the social media buttons at the top to share on Instagram @stage32 , Twitter @stage32 , Facebook @stage32 , and LinkedIn @stage-32 .

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