The Joys of Documentary Filmmaking

People think of documentary filmmaking as something that just sort of happens. In reality it's a highwire, high-stakes world. And it is awesome!

SAN RAMON, BAY AREA CALIFORNIA- I wake up at 5:30am. I don't need the alarm clock, but of course I set it last night. People think of documentary filmmaking as something that just sort of happens. It's not. And while I crave this high-wire, high-stakes world I do control every variable I can. I slide open the hotel room's drapes. Dawn is peeking through the redwoods as I do my yoga stretches and bodyweight workout. Today will be long and I am not 25 anymore. But I've always taken physical fitness seriously and that's good because today will be mentally and physically demanding. Today I'm the director plus the DP/camera operator. And some crazy person suggested I shoot this doc mostly handheld.

That crazy person was me, and I stand by my choice. Whatever it takes to get the story.

I shower and then sit in bed, going over my notes from my pre-interviews. Today I'm creating an authentic conversation (client's words) that gives an inside look at what it's like to work at a Silicon Valley company. This client is brave- most would stick to a tight script and be sure their people said the "right" thing. That's not what we're doing. We're going real. It is a big risk.

But the client is also wise. Because, me. I'm their ace in the hole. I know how to work with people to help them find their stories and get past the rehearsed and the stiff. To go into the raw and turn that into a story.

I kind of fell into docustyle. I spend a lot of my time doing glossier projects like commercials and brand films. But years ago in New York I was offered a doc project and I loved it. I've directed bigtime CEOs from Fortune 500s and I’ve directed people who work on assembly lines. I try to bring out the humanity in every story we tell. We all want to be heard, and I'm there to help them be the best they can be. It's directing no matter how you look at things. But it's directing without a net. You never know what you'll be working with, and it's your job to sculpt that raw stuff into a story that resonates. I use every trick in my bag to do it, and I have a lot of them.

Today we're keeping our production footprint very small. It means everybody's wearing multiple hats but it's worth it- smaller crews tend to help subjects relax. As I drive my truck into the parking lot 15 minutes before calltime I see Mario- our sound person- is already here. Then the client's creative director pulls up in her truck. And Scott, the third part of our doc crew trio, pulls up.

And so we load-in for our day. I know it's going to be great.

Patrick Ortman is the CEO and founder of Froth & Fur, a boutique bicoastal video and animation studio that's worked with more than a dozen Fortune 500s, advertising agencies, and organizations to tell their stories from coast to coast. He's based in LA, and can often be found in NYC.