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In Conversation

Capturing Stories Through Documentary with Charles Frank

Not every film needs a precise script and a large crew. You can capture powerful and personal stories through documentary, and the possibilities are endless.

August 26, 2020

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Our guest Charles Frank takes us through the personal journey of producing independent documentary content. Anyone with a camera and a story to tell can get started!

The following interview is an excerpt from our video series, SHIFT - In Conversation. To watch the full interview and see more video content, click here. Or you can listen to the SHIFT - In Conversation podcast here.

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Charles Frank - Director and Partner - Voyager
Grace Amodeo - Program Manager - SHIFT 

Grace:Tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do with Voyager.

Charles:
I'm a documentary director. I do a variety of documentary work -- branded documentaries, short-form personal films, and I just finished my first feature length documentary. I'm a partner at Voyager, which is a production company that has a roster of directors that do broadcast commercials, branded documentaries, and original films. 

Grace:
When you're imagining a film project, how do you make the decision between a narrative/scripted film and a documentary?

Charles:
Early in my career I did some scripted narrative work. And for me personally, I quickly realized that wasn't really where my strengths were. I'm somebody that does a lot better responding to a situation and seeing something within the world I live in versus conjuring up an idea or a concept. So for me, it's always documentary.

Grace:
Where does your inspiration come from?

Charles:
It’s different depending on the circumstances. When a brand or an agency comes our way and has a general idea of what they’re hoping to do, for me it's always about identifying something in it that is personal to me. It's about trying to find something within the brief that I really connect to and trying to inject that into what I'm doing. And then when it's a personal film, there is no brief. The reason I tell a lot of stories that are so personal to me is because I want to make films about something that's going on in my life right now. A lot of my films are about my family and my personal relationships, but as I continue to go through different stages of life I think my films will start to be a reflection of those different stages.

Grace:
What does documentary film production actually look like? 

Some filmmakers will spend 10 years following a story, so they’re beholden to the natural events that are unfolding. And sometimes those events take years, or decades.

Charles:
There's such a wide range of approaches for documentary. Frederick Wiseman, for example, chooses a six week window of time. He’ll show up with a DP and it’s just the two of them. They pick a contained location and the film is what happens in that six weeks of time. And then he’ll edit for a year and he’ll be done with that film. Some filmmakers will spend 10 years following a story, so they’re beholden to the natural events that are unfolding. And sometimes those events take years, or decades. I sit somewhere closer to the Frederick Wiseman style. There’s not necessarily a narrative that I’m following, it's more a series of moments and feelings in a space over a contained period of time. I just finished my first feature length documentary, and for that film it started with broad themes and ideas and not really having a clear sense of what we were after. It was like building a plane while you’re in flight, and it became more clear over time. 

Grace:
When you’re producing a film like that, what does your team look like?

Charles:
The team was very, very small. Basically it was me and our cinematographer Jeff Melanson actually on [Martha’s Vineyard] where we were making this film. We plant ourselves there for a month and we just live and breathe the film. Then we’d come back and we’d start working with our editor, Nicolette Bovat, to start assembling some of the pieces. Our producer, Andrew Hutcheson, was on the ground when we came back to help talk through things and assemble our plan for the next stretch of time we’re going to go out there. For that style where we’re living together and we’re trying to figure it out, I couldn’t imagine having a much bigger team than that. 

Grace:
Do you have to go through a process with your film’s subjects to get them comfortable with being filmed all the time?

The biggest part of my job as a director is making the space comfortable for everyone -- for the crew, the people that are there, and the subjects.

Charles:
Definitely. and I think that's always a process in every project, whether it's a very personal feature length film or a commercial where we’re shooting for two days. The biggest part of my job as a director is making the space comfortable for everyone -- for the crew, the people that are there, and the subjects. They are having these strangers enter their homes, asking really personal questions that might be difficult. The majority of what I do is just to try to make people feel comfortable, and to be transparent about my intentions, who I am, and what I’m trying to do.

Grace:
How does the post production process work? Do you have an idea of the edit while you are shooting, or do you try to find the story in the editing room?

Charles:
We always have something guiding us early on. It's not that we had an exact idea what the film was going to be, we just had more vague themes. For instance in this feature, Somewhere With No Bridges, one of the early themes was cycles. So anything that fit that thematic idea, whether it was a visual or a piece of music, anything that fit the cycles theme was worthy of capturing. It’s always important to think about the edit as you’re shooting, because the danger is capturing everything and then dumping this mess onto an editor without any sort of intentionality. The edit begins when you start filming, right away. That said, editing is a huge, huge part of documentary. Even for this film, our editor Nico was given a writing credit because she wrote so much of the story of the film through the choices she made in the edit. We try as much as we can not to overshoot. When we feel like we have it, we just turn the camera off. 

Grace:
Did the personal nature of this film make the production easier or harder for you?

The power of documentary is that it can be an immensely positive, beautiful thing. But it’s also a very powerful medium in the way that it can hurt people.

Charles:
It's really emotionally taxing. Every single day making that film I was thinking, “Am I out of balance here? Am I dredging up memories that are painful? Do I have the right to tell this story?”. There are consequences that are very real to me by embarking on this journey. The power of documentary is that it can be an immensely positive, beautiful thing. But it’s also a very powerful medium in the way that it can hurt people. It's something I think about all the time, how I'm representing people on screen. It’s really difficult, but at the same time it’s really rewarding. It helped me form relationships with people in my family that I’ve struggled to build relationships with. It started a dialogue between people that I didn’t even talk to before. It provided a forum for vulnerable discussion.

Grace:
What are your tips or advice for someone who wants to get started in documentary filmmaking?

Charles:
The coolest thing about documentary is that it is so accessible. Of course it is amazing to have a team and a support system and people that champion your ideas. But when I was first starting, it was a matter of just making stuff with whatever I had. One of my favorite short pieces that I’ve made is largely comprised of iPhone videos and home videos from when I was a little kid. And it was just me and the computer for a lot of it. If anybody out there wants to make a film and they can find a way to get access to a computer -- there are so many amazing resources online for free archival footage. NASA has an amazing archive of free footage, you could make a space documentary using just the internet and iMovie. My advice would be to just try to make something, even if it’s not exactly what you imagined. Eventually you’ll start seeing things in what you’re making that you like. 

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Would you like to participate in a future In Conversation video interview? Email grace@shift.io for more information. 

Grace Amodeo is a program manager at SHIFT, where she oversees the annual SHIFT Creative Fund grant program. She is a graduate of Emerson College, where she studied film with a concentration in directing narrative fiction. Grace lives in Los Angeles.
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