3 Awesome Docs with Hollywood Level Storytelling

Every once in a while a student will contact me with an interest in enrolling in the Film School Solution coaching course, but with the caveat that they are interested in documentary filmmaking. And while I know most people and myself are more focused on narratives, I want anyone considering documentaries to realize that even if you are working with a real life subject, the fundamentals of good storytelling are required for a good documentary. 


The only thing worse than a bad student narrative film are bad student documentaries that are boring, preachy, or way too serious, because the filmmakers don’t respect the audiences need to be engaged in a compelling story.

There is a reason why stories like “March of the Penguins” and Michael Moore’s works do so well. They engage and entertain. They are about topics people care about or are controversial. They include tension, likeable or hateable characters, and there is a narrative.

I am huge fan of documentaries and I decided to list 3 of my favorites that are not only very entertaining, but at least 2 have been related to Hollywood movies or TV Shows.

#1. When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions

The actual NASA missions to the Moon are fascinating and dramatic tales of human ingenuity, courage, and triumph. We take our technology for granted these days, which is why it’s so mind blowing to realize that we sent human beings 100,000 away to an orbiting satellite with computers the size of Buicks. We’re talking 40 year old technology, mounting human beings on rockets that were once ballistic missiles, risking death on national TV. It was incredible.

The actual build up of the Mercury missions, when we sent the first American into space Alan Shepard is harrowing enough. They had this guy mounted on a rocket with tons of TNT level explosives. He sat on top of the rocket for four hours because nobody in Mission Control wanted to be the one to give the order. His heart rate was 200 beats per minute resting, he pissed himself, and he finally said “let’s do it”, and they really didn’t know if he was just going to get blown up, or make it through the atmosphere.

The Doctors thought that in space, because of zero gravity, your retina would detatch and your eyeball would come out of its socket. Or you wouldn’t be able to swallow.

astronautWe take it for granted, but they really didn’t know what would happen. That is real life courage, something you don’t see much these days but is great inspiring material for a good doc.

And it’s amazing to see the progression from one guy in space for a few orbits, up to dual pilot missions, into the Apollo Missions where they sent guys into deep space to fly around the moon, and then finally to the moon.

To date, the only big Hollywood movie made about this program was Apollo 13, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks. It’s a nail biting story of the only time in all of the NASA missions to that point there was a major malfunction, and everyone had to figure out how to get the astronauts home.

Watching the documentary’s account of the cry tank stir, the astronauts having no idea what was wrong, having to jettison their command module… is more harrowing than the movie version.

And that’s the thrilling thing, when I watch the interviews with the guys who went into Space, you think this really happened. And I can hardly believe it. The story is so big it trumps the individual personality of any one character, but that is a story worth telling.

#2. Man on Wire

This is the story of Philippe Petit,  a real life Frenchman tight rope walker who walked between the Twin Towers in 1974. While the NASA missions doc is much more epic, this doc is much more in alignment with what you would consider shooting: the story of one remarkable person and something incredible they did.

man on wire2

The doc delves into Petit’s daredevil and childlike personality, his history, and how he become obsessed with the idea of walking between the two towers after the buildings were constructed. So, like any good narrative, you have a likeable character on a mission. The time we spend with Petit we get to know him – he is arrogant and a little (or a lot) insane, but you just like him, he is so damn enthusiastic. He is willing to risk his life for his dream, which is something extraordinary.

Where the movie takes on Hollywood level tension is when you actually hear about how they pulled off the walk itself. Sneaking into the WTC, setting up the wire, it’s all incredible, terrifying. You know he survives, but you can’t stop listening to the story to see how it all went down.

A tight rope walker needs tension on the line to walk across without falling. Similarly a good narrative needs tension, whether it’s a doc or fiction, and this is where many docs fail. Watch “Man on Wire” to see a great example of a story that builds the tension more and more intensely until the very end, leaving you feeling almost as exhausted as if you had walked across the wire yourself.

#3: “Prohibition” by Ken Burns

Prohibition-Header1Ken Burns has made a hell of a lot of good docs in his day, but my most recent favorite is one about the period of Prohibition in America. I’m a huge fan of “Boardwalk Empire” and the time period of the 20s. It was a weird time in America. Can you imagine if alcohol was illegal today? Seriously, it boggles the mind. The Social Media backlash alone would be so fast it would never get off the ground. But 100 years ago, our Congress voted to make it a crime to take a drink.

And if you think Obamacare is causing problems, it’s nothing compared to the chaos caused by the Volstead Act.

Many of the characters form “Boardwalk Empire” from Enoch Thompson to George Remus to Dean O’banion to Al Capone (of course) were real gangsters really benefited from this ridiculous legislation. I have been watching the doc along with “Boardwalk” and its cool to see how the show’s writers incorporate the real life historical facts into the story.

But what’s even more fascinating are the other stories of the impact of Prohibition on cities and people you haven’t heard of. The history of the legislation is equally fascinating – I did not realize that before that time people drank in America about 10 times more than today. People drank with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it was much more common for families to be torn apart by alcohol, and that is what spurned the temperance movement.

The Temperance movement was spearheaded mostly by women – and one named Carrie Amelia Moore Nation was definitely movie worthy. Rather than peacefully protesting, this woman actually went into saloons with rocks threw them into the glass on the storefront and into their mirrors until they were destroyed. She got arrested, released, and did this again and again. She was like Ghandi but violent, a woman, and she used rocks.

Burns covers a lot of ground in this 3 part series, but what’s interesting to think about is how many of the stories in this series could be worthy of their own documentary. Or, did these stories have limited appeal and were better told in a 5 minute segment within a larger context. Burns is a master of keeping people interested in historical subjects that are epic and may not seem terribly compelling at first glance.

Whether Directing Docs or Narratives, Audience Engagement is Key

What’s never discussed in any film school is simple the importance of maintaining an audiences attention. Whether you want to tell stories about real life events or those that take place in fictional worlds, you need to understand the art of making people want to know “what the hell happens next?” That is what a good director needs to know how to do regardless of format. To discover the only film program that teaches audience engagement in depth and prepares you for a directing career, check out http://filmschoolsolution.com!


Tech Talk: $600 Vs. $30,000 Camera Image?

Which camera do I buy?!?

Time and again I hear these questions and time and again I tell students the same thing: the camera doesn’t matter. I would rather watch a dog food commercial shot by Quentin Tarantino on an iphone than the average student film shot on a 35mm Panavision rig.

And here is a great example. Recently I helped out on the behind the scenes footage for Adam William Ward. Adam shot a pilot using the RED Scarlet. (We have had repeated discussions about the necessity of using a RED camera). Granted the RED looks great, but here is something interesting. The behind the scenes footage was shot with a little Canon t2i, the 18 Megapixel wonder camera I recommend for my students.

The RED Scarlet package costs upwards of $30,000 with lenses and accessories. The Canon t2i was about $600 and $100 for the lens I was using. I found a location that I new would be visually engaging and set it up with a couple of cheap lights.

So watch the video below. The first shot is from the $600 t2i with no lighting except daylight. At :13 you will see a montage of RED Scarlett footage. Then at: 25 pay close attention to the interview shots with people in front of the fireplace. Was this shot with the RED Scarlet or the t2i?

t2i gives Red Scarlett a Run for the Money?

Those interview shots in front of the fireplace were shot with the t2i. Pretty sweet right? The editor was confused and said “The shots in front of the fireplace look better than the stuff shot with the RED.”

Now let me say this: Adam’s project is awesome and looks great. You can see footage from the show itself in the opening sequence, with his two great actors Charlie and Ron acting like crazy people. But isn’t it strange to see footage from a $30,000 camera and a $600 camera intercut like that and not really see a huge difference?

This is a stark contrast to the 1990s, when I went to film school. Back then, if you took a market grade VHS camera and intercut it with a prograde camera, the difference was night and day. The consumer level camera looked like crap.

But today, you can get stunning images with inexpensive cameras – the key is to learn how to frame, shoot, and light, cinematically, which is what I teach in Film School Solution. But the truth is even the best images can’t save a bad story, which is why the focus of Film School Solution for the entire first month is on engaging storytelling to make movies people want to see.

Adam did that incredibly well with his new Pilot Parole officers, which I will be writing about more shortly. It’s got a hysterical storyline and GREAT acting. He opted to shoot with the RED and it does look bomb. Of course he lives in LA where RED cameras are plentiful. But if you find yourself outside of LA and are freaking out because you think you need $1,000 a day to rent a pro camera, snap out of it. Get your own DSLR camera and learn to light it cinematically, and you will be amazed at the images you can get.

To learn more about our training check out the Film School Solution webinar here. 

Plot Vs. Pixels: How Good Does It Really Need to Look?

There’s no question the explosion of digital technology in the last 10 years has changed the industry. But one thing hasn’t changed: the essence of a good movie.

Movies are still about great storytelling. But it seems like new filmmakers are still convinced that the perfect, most cutting edge equipment will somehow make their movie stand out.

I frequently get emails from aspiring filmmakers wondering what camera to buy and what accessories to purchase, launching into in depth conversations about pixels and color grading. But rarely do I get questions about how to create a compelling character or a story that audiences will talk to their friends about.

I love new toys as much as the next guy. But I’d rather see a movie that Quentin Tarantino shot on his camera phone about a family having breakfast than another short film shot on the RED with gunshots and no characters that I care about.

It’s not that visuals aren’t important. I cringe when I see indie films with blatant  backlighting, or character’s faces shrouded in strange shadows. But  once you’ve lit a scene evenly and are working with a decent camera, everything else is indulgent. Cameras are light years ahead of where they were even 5 years ago.

I know this might offend some DPs. When I was doing a crew call for a low budget feature last year, I received a resume from an accomplished professional who had shot some network shows. He was shooting $1 Million an episode TV. I was working with a budget under six figures, and my Director wanted to shoot with DSLR.

The DP chided me, insisting that 4K was the bare minimum. His reasoning? 6K was coming up, and pretty soon 1080i would be obsolete, you wouldn’t even be able to watch it on television or the internet. Was this forward thinking or being alarmist? I think the latter.

Visuals Are Important, But Not What Makes a Movie Great

I’ve known DPs and Gaffers who will walk out of a movie if they see what they consider sub par visuals. Meanwhile, the rest of the theater will stay and enjoy the show.

This may be controversial to say: but audiences just don’t care what your movie was shot on, so long as it doesn’t look absolutely horrible.

First features like “Clerks”, “Pi”, and “Following” are all perfect examples. These movies launched the directing careers of Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, and Christopher Nolan. They were all shot on black and white 16mm and looked pretty awful.

Then there was “The Brothers McMullen”, another indie gem by Ed Burns that was in such bad shape, the studio had to do a lot of work in post to make some of the scenes usable.

Danny Boyle’s horror classic “28 Days Later” redefined the zombie genre. It was shot on multiple Canon XL1 Standard Def video cameras with a effective sensor resolution of only .4 Megapixels.

Fan favorites from “The Karate Kid” to “The Breakfast Club” have adequate cinematography. Even “Pulp Fiction” isn’t that visually impressive. Think of how the latest Hollywood CGI juggernaut like “Battleship” is so sorely lacking in terms of story and forgettable.

“Napoleon Dynamite”. “Superbad.” “Memento”. “Paranormal Activity”. Inventive, silly, wildly unpredictable, terrifying. These are the things people talk about with their friends that propels movies into our collective memory.

Is Your Movie Going Theatrical?

I’m not advocating bad lighting or cinematography. But put things in context. Whether you are shooting a short film or making an Independent Feature, the likelihood of a theatrical release is very unlikely. Most people will be consuming your media either on their home computers, laptops, or televisions. Does it make sense to put all your money and energy into the picture resolution when your audience is watching it one  a screen the size of a lunchbox?

It’s better to focus that energy into the quality of the story, while still assuring visual quality. But there’s no need to stress about the Black Magic vs. the 5D or comparison tests, etc. It’s not what matters to your audience.  They don’t notice that the t2i gets a little more camera noise when the lighting falls off on your character’s shoulder: only you and the other DPs do.

I’m sure your movie is going to look great no matter what you shoot on. Here’s some tips to make it even better.

Techies: Take a Screenwriting Class.

Even if you’re a camera hound, take a screenwriting class. Force yourself to create a story with just words and paper, no fancy camera or lighting equipment. Put some care into your story and your characters. Make us care about them, don’t just assume that because they are on screen we are suddenly going to like them.  Share your experiences and workshop with other writers. Learn from the teachers. Experience writers block. Break through it. Create!


When consulting with new filmmakers, I often find they are working with weak scripts. It’s not that they are horrible writers. For the most part, it’s simply that they didn’t put the same care into their script as they did into getting the exact right look in Davinci Resolve. Often they work with first drafts. Simply telling them to re-examine and rewrite a scene often produces great results.

ReWriting is magical, and simple. Sometimes you don’t even have any sage advice or notes to work from. But looking at the script a second time ignites something new in your brain, and you will often find the weak points in your story or dialog.

Read Your Script Aloud to Friends

When Quentin Tarantino accepted the Oscar for Best Screenplay this year, he thanked his friends for listening to him read his scripts out loud. He didn’t thank them for all their notes and comments. But he thanked them for being “the space” or “the listening”. And it’s amazing.

Even a Master like Tarantino has to “test” his stories. There can be a huge disconnect between what you think is great in your mind and how it actually “lands” with an audience. If you read your script, even for a short film, to a group of people… you’ll get really clear on what works and what doesn’t. It’s a great reality check that will help you find the weak spots in your scripts and improve them.

Add Some Humor

Humor is one of the fastest and direct ways to engage an audience. This is particularly true if you aren’t shooting a comedy. The problem with many shorts is that they are way too serious, with not a single moment of levity. So even if you are shooting an action short or a drama, temper the intensity of the plot with at least one comedic beat. It doesn’t have to be a wild joke. Just think of Bruce Willis pausing to look at a Playboy pinup in “Die Hard” while he’s being chased by terrorists.

It helps connect the audience to your character, even if you don’t have time to develop them very much. If you don’t know how to do humor, find a writer who can and ask them to help “sweeten” your script. It happens in Hollywood all the time.

To learn more about how to make your movie with great visuals, an engaging storyline, and how to reach an audience directly, check out filmschoolsolution.com.

Speilberg/Lucas: What Film Industry “Implosion” Means to You

spielberg lucas industry implosionTwo guys, one named Steven Spielberg and one named George Lucas, were quoted last week as saying the film industry as we know it would soon “implode”.

This is extremely important to you as an aspiring filmmaker, especially if you are considering investing $100,000 in a traditional film school and trying to go the “conventional” route towards a directing career.

What’s funny is that their comments were immediately met by backlash from a lot of other critics and bloggers questioning the sanity of this statement. After all, what the hell do these two guys really know about movies?

Fact is, two of our favorite filmmakers are actually very tuned in to the reality of the changing marketplace for cinema. So here’s a quick recap of what they mean by “implosion”.

In Plain English

What they are referring to is sustainability, scale, and the daily transformation of media consumption. Historically, consider that from the beginning of cinema until the 80s, the only place you could really get movies was in the theater. Then you had home video. Then cable TV. Then DVDs.

Now, you have Youtube, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and hundreds of VOD options. The marketplace is expanding, production costs are dropping for indie movies and rising for studio movies.

Spielberg and Lucas paint a picture of a future where movies cost different amounts of money depending on their scale on budget. i.e. you’d pay $7 to see “Lincoln” and $25 to see “Iron Man 3″. They also imagine a future where theaters are decked out like sports stadiums and going to the movies is like paying to see a sporting event, with prices to match.  They also imagine theaters offering more varied selections like tv stations.

Why an Implosion Means Opportunity for You

One thing everyone can agree upon is that studio movies continue to get more and more expensive, and are relying on franchises to recoup their budgets. That means Zack Snyder gets to helm “Superman” because he made money with “300″, even through he pretty much sucks as a storyteller. It means that a $200 budget on Superman is no big deal, so long as they are sure it will make $500 million in overseas, because what the hell… it’s SUPERMAN.

That also means the fantasy sold by film schools is becoming more and more ridiculous. Students spending their life savings to make a couple of short films and then hopefully get a job grabbing coffee for a working director are even more so on the ladder to nowhere (you can read more about this in my article on “above the line vs. below the line”). The spots available to direct studio movies become smaller and smaller, like trying to get a starting spot in the New York Yankees lineup.

The only way to even have a shot in hell of being taken seriously as a director isn’t to try and work your way up from below the line (which is like trying to become the King by working as a Paige), it’s to take advantage of the other side of this equation: the massive expansion of media outlets and the drop in production costs.

The next wave of directors won’t be from film schools, they rarely are. (For proof, just take a look at AFI’s list of working Director alumni. There are no grads listed past 2003, and most graduated in the 80s or 70s).

The next wave directors is already coming from people who skipped school, grabbed their own equipment, and started making their own projects right now. The director of the future will learn how to tell compelling stories and work with smart budgets, then reach their audience directly through the internet, build a fan base, and demonstrate their market value. They will then be able to leverage that to get more investment capital for future projects independently, or gain representation and begin competing for the increasingly competitive higher echelon jobs in Hollywood.

But hey, that’s not just my opinion. It’s just based on what a couple of guys said last week. So if you’re interested in having the film industry implode all around you while you try and figure out how to pay off your $100,000 in student loans, by all means head to a conventional film school.

But if you’d like to actually make your own movie, market it, and position yourself as a Director to be taken seriously, then make sure to check out filmschoolsolution.com and learn about our new course.

Behind the Scenes: FSS Student Adam Ward

adamwwOne of my first students, the multi talented Adam William Ward, is directing a new  project here in LA. I was fortunate enough to stop by the set and grab some killer behind the scenes footage of what looks to be a very funny comedy called “Parole Officers”. Believe it or not he even named the main character “Seth” after me! Although since the plot features “Seth” having his life ruined by some ridiculous characters (the Parole Officers), I’m not sure if this is a compliment.

It’s a pilot with feature potential, and Adam is not only directing also co-wrote and playing the starring role.

That may seem like a boatload of responsibility, but Adam’s up to it. He’s extremely focused and driven on top of the talent. I shudder what would have happened to Adam if he’d spent his life’s savings on an expensive film school instead of just taking action and making projects.

As it is, Adam already directed a project called “Three Guys and a Couch” that got him into the Union and got him representation here in LA, as well as meetings with several studios. Now it’s just a matter of creating more work for his directing reel.

The Magic of a Movie Set and The Perfect Take

I was fortunate to capture one of the greatest moments you can experience as a Director. And even though this project is being shot in LA, you don’t have to be here to feel this great feeling. All you need is imagination, some equipment, and a small group of people working together to make a story come to life.

In this case, that visual story involves some slapstick at an engagement party, and one of the older actors getting punched in the face. What’s great about this behind the scenes footage is two fold:

1. You get to see Adam in action, utilizing the leadership training he got through my courses.

2. You get to see a cast and crew focused on a take, doing the take, and then everyone scrambling like little kids to the playback monitor to see what they just shot and laughing about it.

Adam’s the one in white, directing and acting. Check it out:

THAT’S what you want. That’s the juice and the rush of making a movie before it’s complete, getting the right take and everyone coming together to celebrate it.

You don’t need a $100,000 film school degree to experience that yourself. You do need to learn how to be a leader and a visionary and inspire people to work with you on a project of your creation.

The sad thing is that many film school students spend a small fortune to shoot a couple of short films and then never make another movie their entire life. Even fewer actually go on to make even one feature, and almost none get to experience the thrill of promoting their stories to a worldwide audience.

That’s why I created Film School Solution. To help driven and talented directors of tomorrow get a jump start on their career and learn the practical, no BS route towards making their projects happen AND getting them to a worldwide audience of raving fans. If you haven’t signed up for our free webinar to learn more about the course, make sure to head over to filmschoolsolution.com and sign up now.

FSS Student Fabian Santos’ First Feature

I’m mega proud of my student Fabian Santos. He’s done something most film school students never do: he directed his first feature.

The movie was shot on location in his native Brazil and is titled “Na Frieza Do Seu Olhar”. It’s in Portugese, and English subtitles are forthcoming. Here is the trailer:

And here is the movie poster:

What Doors Does This Project Open for Fabian?

Unlike a typical film school alum, who graduates with a tiny short film reel and a mountain of debt, Fabian already has a valuable commodity that he can sell directly to an audience. Yes, even in South America, Fabian can position his movie right next to movies being shot in the States and earn money through digital download.

It’s also the first notch on his belt as a Feature Director, demonstrating his ability to tell a 90 minute plus story.

And the beauty of a First Feature is that it’s his First. Nobody expects a first feature to be a masterpiece. It’s the beginning of a progression that will span his career. His next movie will be even better. And he can use this first feature as leverage as he raises funds for future projects. This is the right “ladder” to climb if you are serious about a Directing career.

Fabian’s Premiere Party in August

In a couple of month’s, the film will have a local premiere in Fabian’s home town. I’ll be sure to blog about it, and it’s going to be great. Fabian already has an active, rabidly enthusiastic fan base from which to build a larger base and leverage his value as a director. It’s also going to be a hell of a lot of fun.

Fabian’s Testimonial

Fabian was kind enough to take a minute and speak about his thoughts about me and my courses.

To learn how to make your first feature, get it to an audience, and be taken seriously as a Director, check out filmschoolsolution.com.


“Boardwalk Empire” is a Must Watch for Filmmakers

Television was a bad joke in the early 90s. Predictable sitcoms… procedurals… bad used car commercials. But today, it’s mind blowing how different television has become as an artistic medium.

AMC and HBO have led the way with original programming that is more like watching a 50 hour movie than television. I was just re-watching “Boardwalk Empire” with a friend and was keenly reminded of this fact. Every single episode is shot just like a movie. So every season is a lot like watching a great, in depth, 12 hour movie where you get a chance to explore the world’s of a variety of characters much more so than you ever would in a 2 hour feature.

The biggest thing to notice is the shooting style of a show like “Boardwalk” versus a Network show like CSI. Network shows look like television. They are shot very quickly, with relatively fast 2 shots and some moving shots. But for all intents and purposes they are filmed stage plays that are very predictable. Someone gets murdered, we see the crime scene, then the lab, etc. And there’s a lot of back and forth. It’s very engaging to the “puzzle solving” aspect of the mind but not to the part of our mind that gets engaged into a cinematic experience.

In a show like “Boardwalk”, you are first transported into a different time and place, back into the 1920s. The amount and quality of production design on the show is obscene.  Even the post office where the Federal agents work seems authentically old, even though it just consists of a few chairs and desks. The attention to detail required to pull of this illusion is absolutely astronomical.

But beyond that is the shooting style, which should be noted by any aspiring filmmaker. “Boardwalk” episodes move like movies. There are moments of quiet and introspection mixed up with moments of grotesque violence. The camera is constantly moving. Dollies, Steadicam… strange and interesting shot compositions. The Boardwalk itself is traversed in so many different ways that it appears brand new almost every time, versus a typical television show in which a set becomes a lifeless piece of background filler.

What’s most notable to me is the care that is put into every scene by the creators. Every camera movement is carefully orchestrated to hit just the right emotional note in the story. It’s a level of craftsmanship you can’t find on a Network show with those kinds of deadlines. And it’s the very same style as is done in the cinema. So if you haven’t checked out “Boardwalk Empire”, make sure to do so, and study every episode like you would a great movie.