In films, there are many ways to tell a story.
Usually they follow a beginning, middle and end. However, you might restructure the chronology. Go silent. Shoot in black and white. There’s a ton of ways to do it.
But when it comes to making documentaries. There’s usually a standard process in place:
- Find an interesting topic.
- Research topic and find interesting contributors to interview.
- Shoot complimentary footage to supplement the interviews.
It’s a tried and tested approach.
Until this shoot…
We were approached by the Yorkshire Sport Foundation (YSF) to make a short film that was more story-based than previous video content they had commissioned.
After having our initial call with the client we learned that our subject was certainly a candidate for a good story. He had been on quite a journey to get to where he was now. This kind of thing gets us excited because the more difficult the journey, with obstacles to overcome, the more exciting the story.
Our subject was Babur. A young man who had suffered mental health issues when he was younger. He was housebound. Too afraid to interact with the outside world. He even became mute at one point.
With the help of YSF and the mental health services, they had persuaded Babur to do some sporting activities as a way of interacting again, with the goal of incorporating himself back into society. When Babur had a try at rock climbing, something switched-on and he was smitten. From there he hasn’t looked back. The transformation is impressive.
We were tasked with filming Babur in-situ at a rock-climbing centre.
We were very aware that putting him in front of the camera was going to take him out of his comfort zone.
We film people who have had media training for large conglomerates and even they lose their words once the record button is pressed. So to try and make the process as normal as possible for Babur we opted to film him in a completely different way.
In a traditional shoot we would set-up the camera, lighting, and audio equipment. Then set our subject in front of the camera and ask them some questions that they may have already seen prior to filming.
Post interview, once we have heard what they have spoken about, we would film our b-roll footage (the accompanying shots to complement what the interviewee speaks about) perhaps with the interviewer present in some of the shots. Again, this can be quite orchestrated in that we might get them to do a walk-through, or imitate an interaction with someone. And it might be filmed 2 or 3 times for each segment.
However, we knew that Babur was still of a slightly nervous disposition. We were adamant that however we filmed him, we wanted him to not feel nervous and get flustered. If he did we would run the risk of losing him, if he didn’t want to continue.
To try and avoid this we got to the filming location early, well before Babur arrived and found a place to film where there were no other people around, thereby trying to avoid him feeling self-conscious of onlookers (other climbers) maybe wanting to take an inquisitive peek at what was going on.
As well as this we decided to film his interview with as small a crew, and as little camera kit as possible. So we had a crew of just two people. We only used natural light from the windows, and we just held the camera, rather than have it on a tripod. In essence it looked as little like a film-set as possible.
When Babur arrived we decided to not just do the introductions and launch into the filming. Instead, we spent about 20 minutes just getting to know Babur. No camera or no microhpone, just a mug of tea in hand, chatting about how he had coped during lockdown, if he had still been able to get out climbing, how good he was at climbing etc. The aim was to build trust, ensuring he could feel comfortable around us.
To then keep him relaxed and feeling that the filming was non-invasive, we flipped the usual filming protocol and decided to film the b-roll first. So we suggested he could have a climb on the various walls for 45 minutes whilst we filmed him. This was because we knew he would be in his happy place. Though the cameras would be around him, hopefully they wouldn’t feel like anything unusual. Coupled with this, we just let him climb as-and-when he pleased. We didn’t ask him to stop on the climbing wall so we could reframe the shot, or get it in focus, it was very much on his terms. This did add the extra issue of getting our shots correct quicker, but who doesn’t like a challenge?
We followed the same “hands-off” approach when it came to the interview. The standard procedure would be to go through a list of questions, asking the interviewee to integrate the question in their answer, as the interviewer’s question would be cut out in the edit.
With Barbur however, we didn’t want to unsteady him by having him try and remember this, so we took the approach of chatting with him around an issue of say, his difficulties with his mental health and once he got into the flow of talking comfortably about it, we stepped back, kept quiet and let him talk freely about it.
We spoke for about 40 minutes about his mental health, his introduction to YSF, becoming more relaxed and returning to normality, and of course, his love of climbing. It was very much a case of gently steering the chat in the direction we wanted, rather than hard and fast questions, and then restructuring it in the edit into a coherent narrative.
By the end of the interview we knew we had some fantastic material to work with. We also had Babur looking and sounding very relaxed. And we had plenty of those endearing laughs on camera!
What we unearthed during the interview was that he had progressed so much that he was now helping out as a climbing instructor. By the end of the interview he was so relaxed with the whole process that we were able to ask him to let us film him in his role of climbing instructor. This was completely set-up and the antithesis of the approach that we had wanted beforehand, but by now he was more than happy to do so.
With some good editing the film came together beautifully. Babur came across brilliantly and the client at YSF told us that the finished film “told the story brilliantly and has been very well received by the people we are working with.”
From our perspective we were very happy because we had assessed our subject well and been creative in our production approach. It was non-conventional but we reaped the rewards for our client.