Technology revolution helps budget film-makers

Pelle Neroth decided to make a low-budget documentary, reaching out using the potential of the internet and taking advantage of technology not available a generation ago. A week after the film went online, he shares his experience.

How do you make a documentary that is watched by tens of thousands of people?

You buy a DSLR* camera, film your stuff and then put it out on internet sites. We were just two people with a DSLR camera – a high-end one, admittedly, but a one that sits in many homes –  and a lot of determination and a willingness to learn about making and editing a documentary by watching instructional videos on the internet.

Of course you have to have a good idea and a willingness to see it through, but I do wonder if the film industry is not going to be the next dinosaur to fall to the enfranchisement that technology brings to individuals outside the system.  

While the movie industry brings out superhero films and sequels to superhero films for 12-year-olds which they seem to expect adults to take enjoyment in, there’s also an enormous amount of creativity outside the industry mainstream ready to be unleashed. And – maybe – a lot of niche streaming sites ready to maybe provide an income for low-budget film-makers and documentarians with interesting, quirky projects.

Our story was that I and an old school friend – whose daytime job is working as a professor in New York – decided to make a documentary about the political situation in Sweden. We filmed during visit-the-parents holidays back in our home town of Malmö over the course of two years and then edited it on a Windows program called Adobe Premiere Pro, shuttling film clips back and forth across the Atlantic via Google Drive.

Premiere Pro is one of the two standard editing programs used in broadcast journalism (the other is Apple’s Final Cut) – but you can download a trial, and a subscription is not expensive.

I will exaggerate a little bit and say that it takes 10 minutes to learn the basics of uploading clips to a timeline and then slicing and moving the clips about, which is basically what editing really is. The true skill lies of course in the details like transitions, colour grading, and the selection of clips.  It does get fiddly, though, and takes an enormous amount of effort at this stage. Our film was sculpted, step by step, by the juxtaposition of images, voice-over, music and talking heads lifted out of very long interview sequences, in order to fashion our story.  We did many versions before we felt we had got the flow and structure of our documentary right.

We made some things easy for ourselves. Colour grading was minimal. The default look out of our camera –  a Canon 70D – was just fine. We were not going for any fancy looks, like the metallic blue hue you find in some Hollywood thrillers for instance.    

We had hustled the interviews in the usual way familiar to the journalist. You email people and, once you’ve established their trust, you get to talk to friends and colleagues in their network. We conducted interviews in English and that gave us an outsider status which made people open up and, in addition, they were grateful that we understood Sweden very well. The interviewees gave their time for free, as is the custom.

In the old days you had to spend money on film stock and development. Now everything is digital. DSLRs  record onto an SD memory card, which means an infinite amount of the footage can be recorded absolutely cost-free. So you can film scenes again and again without worrying about cost. Film school students of, say, 15 years ago would have died of envy. The quality of the DSLR footage is almost as good as film. It doesn’t have the grainy, flat, weird look of video.

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of good audio. It is what everyone says but it is true. So a condenser microphone and a Zoom H4N recorder are recommended. We bought an annual subscription to Vimeo, which is like a high-class version of YouTube. It offers more privacy options, higher display quality. You can click on an option that disallows downloads – always a problem with YouTube which means once your video is out there you can’t control it – and Vimeo also offers a monetisation option called  Vimeo View-on-Demand. 

After a week of offering our hour-long documentary for free, we have attracted 25,000 views, lots of reposting on Twitter and various blogs and nothing but positive praise. Twenty-five thousand might not sound a lot. But it depends on what you measure it against. It’s piffling compared to the viewing rates for cat videos or ripped pop music. But suppose it had been shown at a cinema? There are maybe five towns in Sweden with arts cinemas that would show non-mainstream political documentaries.

Maybe 300 people per town if it ran a week, so a total of 1,500 people. We reached that figure in first hour, admittedly supported by the positive previews on a few political blogs.   We’ve had viewers from all over the world whom we would never have reached otherwise, including 300 viewers in Iceland, 45 from the Faroe Islands and even four viewers from Peru.

Now the challenge is to move to pay-per-view.  We are starting with Vimeo, the service already hosting us, but there is also a brokerage company called Distribber which promises to repackage the documentary in the electronic formats preferred by the large American streaming companies, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Google Play and iTunes, and do all the paperwork.

These submission fees are around $1,500 to be paid upfront and we’re not quite sure we want to go there yet but there are a couple of  stories on the internet by budget film-makers who claim to have pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars by being streamed on these services, obviously more than recouping their initial outlays. (Interestingly, these same documentary makers advise that putting films/documentaries out on self-published DVDs and selling them via post is too much effort: One film-maker said he spent six months stuffing padded envelopes.)

Here, the differences between me and my colleague shine through. Some European pessimism has rubbed off on me and I think we should be cautious about going to the big streaming companies whereas my friend, resident in the city of swagger and money, thinks that we can reach in this way large numbers of people –  principally Americans –  willing to pay the four  dollars to watch our film online, even on this niche subject.

Anyway our feelings about the project are good. We are in high spirits. As a freelance journalist I’ve always borne, quite frankly, a sense of resentment towards commissioning editors of all kinds. These are the people who say no. But these middlemen are no longer needed. Thanks to modern technology, film-makers can make films without paying huge overheads, and – so pleased about this -  can reach their audiences directly.  As long as they have the ideas and the commitment.


*A DSLR (digital single lens reflex camera) is the standard camera type for amateur enthusiasts and professional photographers. About ten years ago, Canon’s engineers started installing film recording capabilities on their medium-to-high-end models, available at the flick of a switch.  Thanks to the high optical quality of Canon’s lenses, honed over a century of stills camera development, the quality of  reproduction of the moving footage is very high.  Other camera makers soon followed suit. I would say most people use their DSLRs – Nikons, Canons, Pentaxes – principally  for high-quality stills photography. But they shoot amazing footage.

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