Producing my first documentary short film was not as easy as I had imagined. I had stuck to the belief that it was purely just an administrative job – completing some paperwork and arranging interviews and shoots. However, I quickly realised that being a producer is not just a job for the pre-production stage, and that being involved across the entire production process was necessary. In this essay, I will reflect on my experience as a producer for the short documentary film Ride n’ Dine.
Lorene Wales states that “the producer of any media is, or should be, a leader” (2017: 3). From previous experience, I knew that I had good organisational and teamworking skills, so I felt that these were good attributes to have as a producer. However, as I will discuss further, I did not have the confidence or management skills needed of a producer. Wales goes on to say that the producer “is the one person on a project who is responsible for everything” (2017: 3). I found this great level of responsibility daunting, as I knew that my team would be relying on me to develop the idea and secure all the resources we needed.
What encouraged me to step into the role was the fact that I had devised the original idea for the documentary. I came up with a few ideas, such as covering Aberystwyth’s quiet high street and the local nature reserve. However, the idea of covering a small motorbike accessories shop on Aberystwyth’s seafront intrigued me. I was already aware of the shop beforehand, and therefore had some previous knowledge of what the shop is, what they sell and where they are based. As I knew the subjects, I decided to be the producer as I could directly approach them and deal with the logistical side of the production. I could have been the director in this case as I had a clear idea in mind, however I do not have strong directing skills and Ellie demonstrated stronger skills during production meetings. I also started to research the biking community surrounding the shop, making a list of potential newspaper sources that we could use as part of the narrative.
There were some unique quirks about the shop that stood out to me as potential hooks. Firstly, the shop is located at the heart of a popular biking hotspot, with bikers descending on the town every summer (Cater, 2017). Second, it is the only motorcycle supplies shop in the area, making it a popular choice for the visiting and local bikers. I thought this could be an advantage for us given that competition was limited. Finally, the store is an American-diner themed, motorcycle accessories-come-coffee shop, which was a major selling point. Not only did the location offer iconic visuals – through the typical checkerboard flooring and the red, white, and black colour scheme – but it also was the starting point of our questions. One objective I wanted was to establish why this business chose to create a seemingly normal shop with an unusual and striking signature theme. However, from the start, I knew there would be potential problems as we were filming in their quietest season. This should have been a red flag for me, and I should have started to prepare an alternative idea.
Regardless, the idea was agreed upon by my peers, and it was now my responsibility to develop the idea. A major document I produced with my team was the ‘treatment’, which outlined what we were going to do, why we were going to cover those stories, and how we were going to do it. In short, the treatment “gives more detail about how the idea is to be realised” (Chater, 1998: 18). Organising our research and ideas was important to keep the production on track, so I created a Teams group to keep our work centralised and open for collaboration. I obtained further information from the staff at the shop, and this allowed me to script some interview questions alongside the director. Another issue that threatened our once solid idea was the fact that the owners, who we had intended on interviewing, were unavailable. We could have requested a virtual interview, however we decided against this as we felt that we needed the interview to be set at the location. As a compromise, parts of the interview were scripted for our interviewee by the owners, however we should have avoided this as it made the interview feel less natural, and it prevented us from spontaneously asking further questions.
A major consideration we made was about how we approached the representation of the shop. Whilst Dave Saunders argues that documentaries “do not have an absolute ethical and moral obligation to strive for complete fairness and objectivity” (2010: 18), it is still implied that the content and presentation of documentary must still be acceptable for fairness to the contributors and must also be accepted by the intended audience (Barbash and Taylor, 1997: 56-57). During our pitch, a comment was made about ‘conflict’, as recent newspaper articles show that some locals are against the biking community. As a group, we had to decide on whether we created a balanced film, allowing for these alternative viewpoints to be addressed, or if we created a more objective film, focused primarily on the healthy culture and community surrounding the shop. To respect our collaborators, and due to time restraints, we decided to go with the more straightforward, objective approach. As a result, our film became more informational, which was not intended (Wales, 2017: 17). Throughout the entire process, the idea tended towards being an advertisement for the shop and avoiding this was not easy.
One major source of inspiration was the short film The Cigar Shop (keef, 2012), which focuses on a cigarette shop in New York, alongside its staff and customers that create a community around the topic. It had a straightforward structure: a main interview, smaller interviews with customers, and observational B-roll to accompany the interviews. The main interview did not take up much screentime, but it was present throughout most of the film in voiceover. As a group, we decided that this would be the stylistic approach that we would take towards the structure of the film. Looking back, researching, and looking at alternative short films would have given us a greater set of ideas about how we were going to approach our film, and having this ‘tunnel vision’ on one source of inspiration was not healthy for our own production.
The focus of the film shifted throughout production, with each crew member offering a different vision. Wales notes that “the producer has to have the ultimate vision for what the project needs to be and also the ability to communicate that vision to the director” (2017: 3). Whilst it was my original idea, and I had communicated the idea as best as I could to the director both verbally and through the treatment, I found that there was too much of a split between focus on the shop and focus on the individuals represented. This could have been due to poor communication and a weak treatment; however, I would also blame the uncertainties surrounding our production, as we were having to adapt the idea every other day. A lack of communication did occur, most notably through missed meetings and a lack of crew for our second shoot day. Due to how fluid the production was, it meant that the single schedule document I had produced was not adequate for use, and I was choosing to make announcements in our production group chat instead. I agreed to book a second day for shooting, however it was not confirmed until the day before, meaning Dan (audio) could not make it to the shoot. I was then forced to reassign Jakub (editor) to audio, given that he was the next person with the skills required for the role. These communication issues show that whilst I was organised in arranging things for the team, I was not able to effectively communicate updates to the crew.
The principal photography for this film took place over two days, with one day dedicated to observational B-roll footage of the shop, and one day dedicated to the interview and any pick-up shots that we felt were needed. The observational footage was intended to show the shop as it naturally was, without intervention or disruption from the filmmakers (Nichols, 2001: 109). The interview follows the participatory mode of documentary, as we have posed questions to the staff that the audience would want the answers to, despite not seeing the crew on-screen (Nichols, 2001: 115-116). Irving and Rea note the importance of ‘scheduling reshoots ahead of time’, and ‘assuming’ that a reshoot is required (2006: 63). Whilst I did allow for reshoots on the schedule, we decided not to conduct a reshoot as we wouldn’t gain any of the quality B-roll footage that we needed to save the film. Upon reflection, I think I should have tried to schedule another interview with another staff member that would be more knowledgeable and comfortable on camera.
As we entered the post-production stage, I worked with the director and cinematographer (Ky) to develop a rough storyboard from the footage we had gathered to present to the editor. This enabled Jakub to produce a radio edit that set the foundations for the film. Whilst I was active in this area, I was not scheduling important editing sessions for the editor and director, and I incorrectly assumed that Ellie was in contact with Jakub. As a result, the first edit was unsatisfactory, and Jakub dismissed a lot of the B-roll footage as ‘unusable’. Because it was too late in the schedule, I was unable to secure pick-ups, and therefore we were forced to work with the footage that we already had. I tried to work with Jakub to fix the structural issues of the film and he was able to produce a good final edit, however this could have all been avoided had I been organised and in control of the production team, and not assumed that things were on track. This has taught me that keeping in constant, near-daily communication with the team is important during the production period.
Working with a dedicated team is what helped me successfully produce this film, and whilst I was not as prepared for the role as I thought, I have grown an appreciation for producers as they must be organised and on top of all areas of the production. Even though the idea seemed strong at the start, developing a backup plan should have been a priority for me, and I must consider the viability of ideas before jumping on them moving forward. Finding the inner resilience and patience to deal with production issues and help resolve them for the team was a challenge for me, however all productions can face unexpected issues and it’s the producer’s job to find solutions to them. I have enjoyed working on this film with my team, and we have produced a good film that delivers a basic story. However, by developing a stronger plan and setting a strong foundation for the film, I am sure our future documentary films will present ideas in a brand new, and more engaging, way.
Ride n’ Dine (2021) Directed by Ellie Walker.
The Cigar Shop (2012) Directed by Keith “keef” Ehrlich [Online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/47940731 (Accessed: 09 January 2021).
Barbash, I. and Taylor, L. (1997) Cross-Cultural Filmmaking. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Cater, C. (2017) ‘Tourism on two wheels: Patterns of Motorcycle Leisure in Wales.’, Tourism Management, 61, pp. 180-189 [Online]. Available at: http://pure.aber.ac.uk/ws/files/10554786/Motorcycle_Tourism_Paper_preproof.pdf (Accessed: 03 November 2021).
Chater, K. (1998) Production Research: an introduction. Oxford: Focal Press.
Irving, D. and Rea, P. (2006) Producing and Directing the Short Film and Video. 3rd edn. Oxford: Focal Press.
Nichols, B. (2001) Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.
Saunders, D. (2010) Documentary. New York and London: Routledge.
Wales, L. (2017) The Complete Guide to Film and Digital Production: The People and The Process. 3rd edn. New York and London: Routledge.