In 1999, I bought my first three-chip camcorder, the Canon XL-1. Having previously worked strictly with Bolex cameras, Kodak filmstock, and editing deck to deck, the XL-1 and iMovie were my two new best friends. The beginning of my digital revolution.
My exposure at that time, having just graduated college, was primarily directed towards narrative. I shot with my XL-1 as often as I could or at least as often as I could afford a new 6-pack of mini-DV tapes. (In 2003, I bought a 30GB hard drive for $500 - boy have times changed) With my rudimentary understanding of three point lighting, I started taking small freelance jobs and began working with a small group of NYC writers/directors.
Even though the look of most of these old films we shot is outdated, I can still look back at this work and see how my skills were evolving over time (albeit very slowly).
With my mind strictly set on narrative, the idea of shooting anything unscripted never crossed my mind, until one day in 2011, when I was approached with a request to shoot a documentary.
I had directed three feature films, a dozen music videos, and multiple shorts, all narrative and all in my comfort zone. The idea of heading out with my camera and just documenting reality was a little nerve wracking. What if nothing happened? What if something happened and I missed it? I was about to record hours and hours of footage that I would have to log and sort through for a story. What if there was no story? Should I try and create a situation and if I did, would it still be reality?
Looking back, my biggest regret is not diving into documentaries earlier. Yes, sometimes nothing happens. Other times, something does, and you miss it. At times, it may seem like there is no story and although tempted, I've never tried to create a fake or fraudulent scene in any of my documentary work just to get the footage I wanted.
Working on documentaries has helped me become a more rounded filmmaker. I know my camera and equipment far better than I did when working in narrative. I know how to get the best out of my gear in every situation. I know how to set up and break down fast and use natural light to my advantage. Not to mention I've been able to see and access some cool places that I never would've if I didn't have a camera on my shoulder.
The biggest benefit of working on a documentary, is learning how to be a storyteller. Watching and re-watching tens or hundreds of hours of footage, trying to decipher the story behind those clips, the right sequence of video and audio that makes them harmonize is a real pain in the ass. It's like being friends with Nicolas Cage. He's rich and maybe sometimes he buys you a meal or let's you ride in one of his classic cars, but he's a giant asshole who can't act. Okay, it's nothing like being friends with Nicolas Cage.
I still love narrative. Watching something you created on paper come to life is very rewarding. But so is documenting real life. Telling someone or somethings story, whether small or big, is a task that will help your film skills grow just as much as telling a story you created from your imagination.
My advice (which is just as valid as Nicolas Cage's receding hairline) is to try and find a balance of narrative and documentary projects throughout your year. I know some people are all one or the other, but doing a bit of both will help your skills tremendously.