Welcome to our #doclifer stories. In the spirit of connectivity and togetherness of the documentary filmmaking world (which is the essence of why we started the TDL podcast) we are bringing you stories from #doclifers – doc filmmakers like you and I – from around the world.
If you’re interested in contributing your story to #Doclifer Stories, we’d love to hear from you. Your contribution will help to foster the TDL mission of building a supportive and networked community of doc filmmakers throughout the world.
#Doclifer Stories – Julie McElmurry
#1. – What was your first experience making a documentary film like?
In Fall of 2015, I saw an ad on facebook for a $1000 grant available for those who could help tell the world about the work that nuns do. At that point, I had already interviewed about 30 people and made some little videos for various groups and had acquired a Canon Vixia camcorder. I had friends and former classmates who were nuns and knew they had great stories to tell so I knew it would be easy to find subjects.
In January 2016, I found out I got the $1000. I immediately googled “How do you make a documentary?” I had only about six weeks to film and create a short documentary, oh, and to learn how to do it at the same time! So, I spent February traveling to Florida, Pennsylvania and Hawai’i to interview my subjects. Most of the nuns I interviewed were friends of friends who had been recommended to me. In February, I bought a copy of Power Director at the legendary B&H Photo in NYC for editing, a step up from Microsoft Movie Maker and learned Power Director as I went along. In fact, it is what I still use. I found a composer in Scotland, who actually offered to score the entire movie for gratis.
At no time did I doubt I’d make the deadline. The biggest challenge I recall was that I had no clue about data storage. I only had a handful of SD cards and was relying on the slow internet at the nun’s guest house to upload the video to a certain annoying website that holds your big files. I think my husband, over a phone call, told me about external hard drives, which I had never touched before. That made my life much easier.
The composer created his original musical score in less than a week. Watching it with his music was just magical and I saw how his music kicked the movie up about 10 notches. Since then, I always give my composers creative control. I actually love that I ended up getting a second movie out of the footage I’d collected, so within just five months of googling “how do you make a documentary”, I had completed two!
#2. – What have you learned about making a doc film that you wished you’d known before?
That audio is king.
It is by dumb luck, and by the fact that my filming is primarily in quiet places, that my audio turned out okay in my early movies. I relied on my Canon Vixia in-camera microphone (shudder!) or a cheap lav hooked up to the camera for the first several interviews then I learned about this thing called the Zoom. Found a Zoom on craigslist and recorded directly to that until this, my sixth movie, when I finally busted out the boom mic. (also purchased on craigslist). The sound captured by the boom is so full and complete and well-rounded and textured and I just love it.
My next challenge is to take more risks collecting sounds. I need to re-watch the scene from Il Postino where the simple postman fellow goes about collecting sounds from the island. I know that sound adds so much, I just have to make myself collect it (just as I now make myself collect a minute of room tone in the empty rooms after the interviews are finished for use in post production).
#3. – Share a current or most recent project with us.
My newest film is Montana’s Monastery, about the only monastery in that vast state, but my other latest project is forming The Charlotte Unconventional Film School. I did that so other adults can come together and learn through in-person classes with local film professionals. It has been awesome to build that space where people get to know each other and go on to create together.
#4. – How did you get into this project? Why were you drawn to make this film?
This is the sixth movie I’ve made about women religious (nuns) and the third one filmed at a monastery. Montana is an absolutely huge state with beautiful scenery. I knew I wanted to travel in January and Montana beckoned me with a chance to see the snow and the mountains in the dead of winter. This was very exotic to me.
I enjoy visiting these monasteries, it is like going on a retreat. The women are so hospitable and it gives me time to think and reflect. In fact, in January, I did not have wi-fi so I spent all of my downtime that week listening to episodes of The Documentary Life. It was such a rejuvenating experience to be in a beautiful place and listening to the wisdom of so many others. I really came home form that with a renewed appreciation of this “calling” we all share as we seek to capture, preserve and share stories that might not otherwise be heard. It is a serious gift, responsibility and privilege that we have.
#5. – What would you say to any #doclifer who is starting out on their film or who is perhaps struggling to complete their film?
Community! If you are struggling to complete your film, reach out. Find another #doclifer and tell them you need to talk about this. Have some written or spoken (if possible, in person) exchange with them and ask them for some encouragement and support. Maybe they can help keep you accountable. Maybe they can help you realize that you simply are weary of certain aspects of the process and those can be outsourced. Maybe they can help you recognize that while you thought the film “should” be about A, it turns out you’re more interested in B.
Making a documentary is making art, so it is a struggle and can be very emotional at times. It can cause us to feel the nagging presence of “the resistance”, as Steven Pressfield refers to it – that feeling of insecurity that threatens to stop us from work. Talking with someone who “gets it” always helps.
#6. Anything else you’d like to share with the community?
Just do it. Just make your first ten documentaries. You know they are not going to be perfect, but honestly, the only way you’re going to get good at this is to do it. I learn by doing. And while I do it, when I hit a wall with my ignorance, I know what I need to learn next.
So many generous people have made how-to videos and written articles (and created podcasts!) that share their wisdom, that it is out there for the asking. Don’t be afraid. Choose something you’re interested!
And when someone tells you “Oh, you should make such-and-such a documentary” all you have to do is offer to teach them how to do it and you will see them quietly back away and leave you alone.
Thank you to Julie McElmurry for sharing her #doclife with our community.
You can find Julie at: