A documentary filmmaker's recipe for success

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Oscar, BAFTA and two-time Emmy award-winning director Jon Blair explains why he opted to become a documentary filmmaker and gives his advice to people wanting to make it in the genre.

In addition, as commissioning editor for Major Series, Specials and Discussions for Al Jazeera English, he tells us what he’s looking for in the way of new commissions.

What first attracted you to documentary filmmaking?

What got me in originally was the desire to change the world. What kept me in for as long as I have been doing it, is the desire to tell stories that somehow matter and which are in some way going to make people understand the world they live in.

How has technology changed documentary filmmaking?

Technology has transformed things with lightweight and very cheap kit, so someone who is determined to tell a story can do it for very little money by getting themselves a relatively low cost prosumer camera [a professional camera that appeals to the masses]. They can put some editing software onto their Mac and finish the film.

When I started, it was a roll of 16mm film that was £50 before processing and £100 with processing and then you still had to do post-production.

Where do you see the future of documentary filmmaking moving to?

Poor. No-one’s going to get rich making documentaries other than people who own a large production company which are churning out vast amounts of programmes of different genres. 

Don’t get into documentary making if you plan to earn a decent living through your entire life, it’s just not the place to be – go and be a banker.

The kits have made storytelling accessible to anyone, but having cheap kit doesn’t give you craft skills. The best documentary makers are craft people and I think the assertion of craft will again become important as part of the storytelling.

What are you looking for in the way of commissions?

My area is not really the place for entry level filmmakers. We have a number of other strands where that’s possible, but I’m looking for major series – things that are going to make a mark in some way or another. Programmes that are incredibly good at storytelling and which are revealing of the world we live in.

These programmes tend to require some level of experience to know how to do it, and so my advice to younger filmmakers is to watch a lot of TV.

Become aware of what’s being commissioned and who wants what. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know not to go and pitch to BBC1 something that is about the drug taking of an obscure Amazonian tribe.

There’s the old joke about how you get a commission - you go into the commissioning editor and say: “I’ve got this brilliant idea. It’s in innovative; it’s fresh; it’s sparkling; and it’s just like your last success.”

What advice would you give younger people trying to break into documentary filmmaking?

• You’ve really got to want to do it. Don’t do it because you think it will be a good lifestyle or you can’t think of anything else to do.
• You’ve got to be a bit obsessive about it and feel that it’s something you just have to do. Grab whatever opportunity you can.
• Try and get as much craft skills as you can, and that doesn’t necessarily mean going to film school. I never went to film school and I’ve never been formally trained at all.
• Talk to other people.
• Watch other people and get on a production to try and find out how things gets made – what is the rhythm of a film and how do you write good commentary?
• Watch a lot of documentaries and then try and figure out what the filmmaker was doing – do you like what they’re doing?

Are you a documentary filmmaker? Why not share some of your tips on how to make it at the end of this article on our Facebook page.