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Transitioning From Narrative to Documentary

Guest article by Jake Oelman.

Every director is different. Tone, aesthetic, process, subject
matter are particular to each unique talent. This combined with a
director’s personality and a thousand other little nuances
creates that director’s signature.

What director’s don’t have control over is the landscape and the
business environment that we all have to navigate. Some
director’s thrive while others stumble and I don’t assume to
possess a how-to-map for a lucrative filmmaking career but I feel
as if I do have a solid grasp on what it takes to do it at a
professional level.

For me I have to be able to adapt on the outside and be inspired
on the inside so as not to be gobbled up by the pitfalls and road
blocks of the “industry.”

I recently wrapped post production on my first narrative feature,
“Dear Sidewalk,” a quirky romantic comedy starring Joe Mazzello
and Michelle Forbes. As my freshman effort it was an exhausting
and exhilarating combo burrito wrapped inside of a bank overdraft
statement. For a majority of the time it was an all out dog fight
that left me licking my wounds but still begging for more.

When it ended I was barraged by emotions. Relief, pride, regret,
motivation, depression, excitement, and discouragement all come
off the top of my head. I spent two years on the film so when it
ended I was shell shocked. Some people would opt for a vacation
to try and re-calibrate but all I wanted to do was dive into
another film. Momentum is key to any career and I find this
especially true with directing.

Transitioning between big projects can be tough and that is why I
heavily rely on the film’s subject matter to guide me. I’m not a
director who looks at the business side of a project first. If
you allow yourself to be inspired by the material all of your
later decisions will be influenced by your desire to do what’s
best for the film.

If you develop a kinship with the material first you can then
figure out ways to potentially make a more profitable film. For
years I’ve had a slate of ideas that I’ve wanted to make into
films and depending on where I’m at professionally and mentally
at any given time determines which one I choose to dive into.

Right before we mastered “Dear Sidewalk” I was already making
travel plans for my next project, a documentary film I’d been
chewing over for the last eight years.

“Learning to See” is a documentary film about my father who is an
Ex Patriot living in Colombia, South America. He abandoned his
aspirations to be a psychologist in the States to pursue, of all
things, macro insect photography in the rain forests of Colombia,
Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil. The film will highlight the rarity of
the creatures he is discovering as well as his metamorphosis.

It’s quite an abrupt change for me to go from a comedic
narrative into a personal doc film but despite what some may
think the transition was rather seamless and welcome. Every film
exercises a different set of skills and perspective so jumping
from narrative to doc requires an alternate approach to story,
technicals, and financing.

With a narrative film I use the script as my guide and work with
the actors to bring the characters in that story to life. With
documentary work however I use the film’s mission statement to
guide my shooting and story telling.

It helps me focus my eye on what’s important to cover and
provides a base for me to draft interview questions. These are
simple concepts that differ in process but still harness the
essence and themes of story telling I’m trying to execute.

Technically the differences between narratives and documentaries
are huge. Narratives often rely on a crew of people to pull off a
shooting day where as with the doc a lot of my shooting is One
Man Band style. This means that all of those tasks that I would
lean on other professionals to do for me I now have to do myself.

The good part about this is that there’s no buffer between
yourself and the material so you literally take it all in. The
flip side to this coin is burn-out factor so you have to be very
organized with what you need and pace yourself in order to get it.

I think whether it’s a narrative or a doc film financing is
never going to be easy. Through experience you’ll get better at
it but it’s still tough.

With narratives the model is to either pre sell territories,
usually foreign, or go to independent financiers to invest in
your film. This model is somewhat relevant to documentaries but
the reality is that with docs you’re not selling star power so
much as you are selling social issues so it’s a much harder sell.
That coupled with the fact there’s not a lot of money in doc
sales, filmmakers are forced to get creative.

Grants are one way to do it but so is crowd funding. Since its
inception a few years ago crowd funding, with sites like
Kickstarter and Indie Go-Go have become increasingly more

Now it doesn’t matter that it’s a narrative versus a doc because
you’re still having to ask for money but the difference here is
that with narratives you’re typically asking for that money as an
investment behind closed doors where as with my doc I’m asking
for money out in the open for everyone to see in exchange for

If your campaign is successful your friends, family, and
colleagues can rejoice in your achievement. If however the
campaign falls short of reaching it’s goal everyone knows you
couldn’t raise the money which I think is a scary outcome for any

Now the great thing about filmmaking is that there’s no clear
proven path to getting a film made you just have to look at all
the paths laid out in front of you and pick the one that works
best for you and your project.

Personally I have my sights set on my next narrative feature but
features can take a long time to put together and I don’t like
being stuck in development hell. I would much rather be out
exercising my directing muscle. “Learning to See” filled that
role for me perfectly both in subject and in timing.

Because I’d spent so much time gathering material throughout the
years the time was right to finally put the project into motion.
At the same time my Dad has reached a point in his career where
he has amassed a great body of work and his art is aligned with
the film’s mission statement.

Because I’m doing a story on my Dad’s personal connection with
the material makes my prep work that much easier. I can jump from
one project into the next without dealing with a lot of
development. Now of course I still have to do my homework but in
reality I’ve been prepping for this my whole life.

Obviously coming off a comedic narrative into a documentary is
very different but I’m able to harness and use some of the
techniques from comedy in how I go about assembling the doc. For
example my Dad and I tease each other a lot so although the doc
is a biography that focuses on entomology and photography doesn’t
mean it can’t be funny.

Audiences respond to genuine emotions so despite what the genre
of your film might be the more you can lace a variety of emotions
into your work without disturbing the tone of your piece your
audience will ultimately thank you for it.

It doesn’t matter what type of director you are as long as you
keep practicing and learning your craft and let the spirit of
your subjects guide you you’re more likely than not to have a
fruitful career.

To learn more about my documentary film “Learning to See” you can
check out our Kickstarter campaign here or to learn about my
narrative feature “Dear Sidewalk” you can check out our facebook
page for more info.

Jake Oelman is a director, producer, writer, editor, and camera
operator who has lived in Los Angeles for the last 13 years. He
owns a small boutique production company Barcode Films and
recently wrapped post on his first narrative feature “Dear

Jake is originally from Boston, MA and studied film at the
University of Colorado, Boulder. http://www.barcodefilm.com

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