from Sara Washington…
One of the most important rules about filmmaking, and especially documentary filmmaking, is “Show, don’t tell.”
Ok, say there is a rogue science experiment that got loose from it’s lab. Let’s say this experiment was half elephant and half tabby cat, and on this past Thursday it was walking through Golden Gate Park like it owned the joint. Which is the experience that you feel would make the biggest impact on your life: me telling you about it, or actually seeing it with your own eyes?
When you make the choice to stand behind the camera and direct its gaze you realize that the rule “show, don’t tell,” is one that sounds deceptively simple. Kind of like “Do the right thing.” There are situations in which we feel the “right thing” is clear and straightforward, and there are other times when it is really, really not. Showing that, when it rains, there is a hole in a parking lot that fills with water? That’s pretty straightforward. Showing things like despair? Hope? Love? Anxiety? That’s a different story entirely.
I was trained in documentary film. I studied at UC Santa Cruz, spent six months working at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and went on to The New School in New York City where I continued to study documentary film on a graduate level. I’ve racked up a considerable amount of student loans, watched many, many films, and written many papers on the subject. I know from experience what it is to be a novice, barely acquainted with how my camera works, while watching works of the masters of filmmaking and think “How the hell am I ever going to get to a place where I can do that?”
I can tell you that the single most important thing you need to do to begin filmmaking is to pick up the camera. And if you aren’t ready to immediately start exposing intricate webs of corporate conspiracies? Start small.
In the couple of years that I have been teaching various kinds of storytelling classes, my favorite way to get people shooting and thinking like real storytellers is the “how-to” assignment. Creating a how-to film is the perfect exercise for beginning storytellers, and especially beginning filmmakers and immediately throw them into working in the mindset of “show, don’t tell.”
And it’s not just an exercise for filmmaking virgins. Over the summer I tackled two new projects. One was a short film series about makers in San Francisco, that I am still currently working on. The first maker I featured was Sean Young, who founded Stovall & Young denim. I wanted to explore the question of why he made jeans. The simple answer is: he likes jeans and was passionate enough about them to start his own denim company. But why does he love jeans so much? What happened in in life that sparked this affinity for jeans? How did it develop? And how is that affinity reflected in what he does and how he does it?
The second project was one that was a bit more straightforward. I collaborated with my friend, Crystal Sykes, on a series we call “On the Rocks.” The aim of that series was a bit simpler. My one question: how do you make various kinds of cocktails?
Two very different kinds of projects, and the approach to each one is a little different, but the same basic principles are applied to each one. And if you want more information on how to apply those basic principles, you’re going to have to take my class.