300 Hours of Footage and Counting: When to Call it Quits When it Comes to Shooting

By Fernanda Rossi, key speaker at Doing Your Doc.

To shoot or not to shoot (some more): that is the question: 
Whether 'tis nobler to suffer in the cutting room, 
The time and money of outrageous production, 
Or to take arms against a sea of blank tapes, 
And by opposing end principal photography? 

OK, it might not be iambic pentameter like in the original Hamlet, but the anguish of filmmakers is as real as that of Shakespeare’s tragic hero. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t oppose endless shooting; I oppose aimless shooting. Therefore my questions to every filmmaker when in a consultation is: “What do you think you’re still missing?”

Sure, tricky question—I might as well ask for the next winning lottery number—but again, it’s not a question of whether to shoot more or not, rather it’s about being aware of why you’re shooting. Expectations play a big role in documentary production schedules.

In general, the end of cinematography, which in documentaries sometimes overlaps with editing, can bring as much anxiety as locking picture itself. “Oh no, if we stop shooting we’ll truncate the script of reality!” Granted some subjects require non-stop shooting, such as nature and sports documentaries, time-sensitive topics, and once-in-a-lifetime historical events. Paradoxically, some of those situations have intrinsic “endings.”

Often the end of principal photography is often, and regretfully, imposed externally by a shortage of money and time, or internally by the burnout of those involved. Ideally, the shooting ends because the filmmaker’s message has been captured. To obtain this healthier external and internal completion, the director has to visualize the film in his or her head while shooting, and even continue to do so while editing, and trust that his vision will be conveyed.

When having the finger stuck on the REC button, I recommend filmmakers to revisit the premise of their films and why they embarked on this adventure. They write it down and look at it for a very long time. Then I ask them to run the footage in their head by memory or with a short index of tapes in their hands and see if they find a place in those sentences in front of them –the premise and motivation to make the film. Is there any part of the sentence that didn’t get any of the mentally assigned footage? Then maybe more shooting is needed. But if every word in the premise got one or several scenes, most likely it’s time to wrap up photography and start editing or go deeper into it, if editing has started already.

Filmmakers can always go back and shoot some more needed be. Fortunately, most often than not, documentary filmmaking is very flexible and forgiving.

Conclusion: Shooting is expansive, editing is contractive. Understanding the story helps endure the pain of shrinkage.

Fernanda Rossi will be discussing this issue of what to do when shooting too much in her upcoming workshops on story structure at NALIP's Doing Your Doc in New Orleans, February, 10-12.

About Fernanda Rossi: Author, international speaker and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored more than 300 documentaries, fiction scripts and fundraising samples, including two Academy Award nominees. She is the author of Trailer Mechanics, 2nd edition to be released in March 2012.