A documentary/film maker is somebody who directs or produces film. Film is typically produced for either motion picture, documentary or television programme use, but can extend to corporate training videos and community projects also.
The term “documentary/film maker” typically refers to a film producer or film director. They are the persons responsible for taking the concept for a film project, whether it be movie, advertisement or training video, and turning it into a finished film by assembling a cast and/or crew and “shooting” the sequences. The brief is wide, and can range from directing a motion picture costing hundreds of millions of pounds, all the way through to the “one-man band”, which produces short films by themselves for small, local clients.
Many people who have academic qualifications and wish to become directors enter the industry as freelance camera operators or in other technical operative roles. The typical salary is £1,200-£1,800 per week. Directors usually work on an ad hoc basis, and their fees can run from several thousand pounds for a low-budget piece, up to an astonishing rate in the many millions for established directors working on major motion pictures.
- Develop initial story or concept into a production-feasible, fully planned project.
- Manage a large production crew to ensure that the components of the film or TV production go ahead as planned.
- Hire and appoint members of the technical crew and cast where appropriate.
- Work with the Director of Photography and Director of Audiography to deliver the project from a technical perspective.
- Manage actors (if involved) and ensure that all personnel deliver their best performance for the good of the completed picture or show.
- Securing or procuring finance for the project, if it is to be an independent release.
An academic qualification in a media-related core subject is considered essential to becoming a documentary/filmmaker. Even if the candidate wishes to specialise in audio or lighting rather than pursuing a producer or director role, it is still very important to have a recognised qualification.
A BTEC in media studies is a logical building block after GCSEs in standard subjects. The BTEC is a stepping stone towards an HND in Media Production, which is the equivalent of the first two years of university study, and is recognised worldwide. The HND itself can be used to gain entry to universities, which opens up a range of specialisations of the core media production topic. Candidates who have completed an HND will leave the course with a range of skills to enable them to enter work in film, although not necessarily at producer/director level. Countries other than the UK offer different types of courses, but they progress in a similar tiered manner.
Academic study provides the key skills required to be able to do the job although candidates face a lifetime of learning as they progress from entry-level technical roles on to becoming a director.
- Capacity for learning technical skills. An aptitude towards cameras or audio equipment is important.
- A complete understanding of the different technical team specialisations, and fluency in them all.
- Ability to manage a large number of (occasionally difficult) people.
- Ability to work within a (sometimes significant) budget. A grasp of financial management is crucial to managing a film project through to completion.
- Ability to manage multiple project deadlines simultaneously.
Directing documentaries/film is generally viewed as being a very stressful proposition. On a large project, there are hundreds of people who all report ultimately to the director. In a small production company, budgets are often tight and areas of responsibility are broad. A producer on a low-budget film will often have to plug many gaps in the crew because the budget did not stretch to a full complement of technical staff.
The industry itself can be quite cut-throat, with projects often plagiarised and budgets pulled halfway through. A thick skin is required to succeed, and those who are afraid of rejection or disappointment should apply elsewhere.
Many people enter the film industry as a “runner”, which is a general unskilled role whereby the applicant can be asked to do any number of tasks, from delivering messages, greeting visitors and all types of cleaning duties. They are normally employed on short term contracts, but it can be a useful way of getting a foot in the door, and therefore helpful in making contacts.
Camera operators will quickly gain on-set experience from their first project, and if the shoot goes as planned, there is a good possibility that they will be rehired. This is why directors will often be found working with the same technical staff throughout their career. The learning process is not a quick one, and academic study forms the base for real-world experience later on. Often, simply setting up a small film production company can be a good way of keeping the learning experience going whilst in between paid, professional projects.
Also known as…
- Movie producer
- Film director
- Film maker
- Camera operator
- Sound Technician
- Director of Photography
- Director of Audiography
- Lighting Engineer
What’s it really like?
Daniel Hughes is a freelance camera operator, and runs his own media production company from his base in Leicestershire.
What made you decide to choose to get into this sort of career?
From an early age, I have been fascinated with ‘how it’s done’ in film and television. I was initially inspired by greats like Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton and Francis Ford Coppola, and blockbusting Hollywood movies such as Jurassic Park and Jaws gave me the ‘wow factor’. I thought, ‘I want to do that!’ Every time I went to the cinema there was an excitement, a feeling of disengagement from the real world. I wanted to be able to be creative (in whatever context) and at the same time earn a living from it!
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of project
I tend to plan my professional life on a weekly basis, so I usually know what the week has in store for me. My main bread-and-butter is corporate and commercial projects. However, my passion is independent film. Perhaps the most rewarding of all the local projects are the ones where I am working closely with charities.
What is the most common type of project for which you receive enquiries?
This can be very sporadic but my main line of enquiry is a lot of web-based film, wedding videography, charity or community based projects, as well as being commissioned as a camera operator or Director of Photography on freelance broadcast and corporate projects.
What do you like most about the job?
It is most rewarding as an artist to see one’s work broadcast, or screened at a film festival, however big or small! One of the main reasons I wanted to become a film director was because film making is a very subtle way of expressing emotion towards a subject, in whatever form. A piece of independent film is a way to create empathy with an audience.
What do you like least about the job?
It is often frustrating when I have an independent piece that is ready to shoot but I have difficulty finding a financier; the passion is there, but unfortunately the finances aren’t always!
What are the key responsibilities?
My role as a film maker is really quite simple, and that is to deliver a finished film that is of an exceptionally high standard. From beginning to end, I strive to nurture a project and collaborate with a team of creative professionals who all play a part in producing the completed piece. Independent roles are mostly outsourced, but as the film maker, it is my responsibility to pull it all together.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, for example, HND qualification?
I am currently qualified to HND level, but I personally believe that education is only the very first stepping stone. If you study in an environment that is very generic or overly formal, it can sometimes limit artistic development. A course needs mentors that engage with the students, giving them direction and developing their technical and artistic abilities. ‘Media Studies’ has for some time now been seen to be an easy option for youngsters leaving school, but I can honestly say that when I left school, I went into Further Education for all the right reasons!
Do you plan on going back to college?
Yes it is my intention to return to education in the next 2 years, hopefully to a film school in London. I hope to further develop my technical portfolio by gaining a better understanding of 35mm film. It takes time to learn this medium, but it represents the high-end of media production.
What about salaries in the industry – would you say it’s a well paid profession?
There is often the misapprehension that if you work in television, film or media that you are highly paid! Working in film and television can be ultimately rewarding financially, but there are often dry periods between shoots where there is virtually no work at all.
How far is it possible to progress within this career?
This is entirely dependent on whichever direction one chooses to go. As a camera operator, the next rung of the production ladder would be Producer or eventually even a film consultant. There are many paths and no proven, fool-proof route. But personally, I like working amongst a busy production team; it’s great when a team gels, and shooting flows so well!
If you left this profession, what else would you consider doing?
Film is something that has been a massive part of my life and has in many ways shaped me as a person. I would find it rather difficult to have a totally clean break from film making. Photography is another passion of mine, so I would probably consider taking this direction.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Simply keep at it, work hard, build a good portfolio and get to as many film festivals as possible as they have great networking opportunities. Get your work out there, and if it’s any good it needs to be seen. It is equally important to see film, seek inspiration and find a style or genre you like. The film and television industry has always been very competitive, but I personally believe that with the seemingly endless digital TV channels coming on line, a career in film is becoming easier to reach.