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Documentary Filmmaking: Tell Small Stories

  • June 26, 2013
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Documentary Filmmaking: Tell Small Stories

Make your crew of 2 look like a crew of 10


By Julien Lasseur

“We don’t use documentaries to convince people; we use documentary filmmaking to be surprised.”
– my father

In my rural Connecticut hometown, Richard Griggs sometimes drives people to the airport. While this isn’t his full time job, he enjoys the company and the opportunity to get out of town.

On our way to the airport, Richard and I were talking about living out west and my new found obsession with bicycling, when he told me the incredible story of his hit-and-run bicycle accident that happened in Los Angeles in the 1990s. Richard had not only survived a three-day coma, but he had to relearn how to walk, talk and other basic functions. A year later and with no memory of the accident, he rode to the site with a new bicycle.

Weeks passed since my conversation with Richard and as I became increasingly immersed in LA’s bicycle culture, I kept thinking about his story. I wanted to put together a feature length documentary about the dangers and rewards of biking and I thought Richard’s story would fit right in.

It wasn’t long before another unrelated documentary project brought me back to Connecticut. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any communication with Richard so it wasn’t until the day before I had to leave again for Los Angeles that I had finally been able to get ahold of him. I had very little equipment left from the other shoot but I asked if I could meet him at his place to conduct a short interview. “Yeah, that sounds great, maybe we could go up to my studio.” Studio?

I arrived only to find a beautiful artist workshop packed full of delicate wire sculptures. The story I wanted to tell instantly changed but it wouldn’t be until halfway through the interview that I would recognize what Richard’s story was really about.

Richard’s story wasn’t about LA bike culture and it wasn’t a story about bike safety. The story is about someone narrowly escaping a horrific accident and using the process of creating art to stay alive. As Richard explained to me, for people who suffer from brain injuries, there is a lot of extra functioning that they need to do. For him, creating these sculptures from found objects is like giving them a second chance at an existence. A beautiful irony if you ask me.

The purpose of this story can best be described by the quote up top. When making documentaries, it’s absolutely essential to keep yourself open to the fact that your original story might completely change. When setting up an interview, make sure your subject is comfortable and that they are able to engage in a dialogue with you. The conversation I had with Richard not only gave me a story but it inspired the tone I set for the piece: very informal and conversational as if a friend were telling you their personal story.

The last thing I’d like to conclude with is thinking back to my time at Hurlbut Visuals. I assisted Shane with so many speaking engagements that I began to memorize his presentations. One statement that stuck with me was, “With DSLRs, you can fit your entire camera package in the overhead bin space.” As filmmakers, we have such an opportunity to tell small stories like Richard’s and it doesn’t take a lot of gear. You can see my list below but I’m sure it could have been done with less.

I’d like to give a special thanks to my brother Sebastien for helping me out on this shoot and to Garth Neustadter for his wonderful job with the music.

24-70mm Canon L-Series T2.8
70-200mm Canon L-Series T2.8
4 Batteries
4 16gb CF Cards

Letus Shoulder Rig
Manfrotto Tripod

Diva400 w/ stand
Lowel Pro w/ stand
Lowel Tota w/ stand

  • Canon
  • creativity