Just what does an independent documentarian do? Where does he/her get ideas? How does he/she make a living at it? I recently had a conversation with Emmett Williams, independent producer, to find out how he manages a career making documentaries.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with Emmett on several projects and am impressed with his scope of work. His television credits include producer, writer, editor and camera operator. His work can be seen on such national networks as The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, TV Land and public television. Emmett is also a song writer/performer, photographer, concert producer and journalist. his passion for media and the arts is clear to anyone that has worked with him. Emmett, a vegetarian, even ate seal meat to connect with his subjects during a shoot in Alaska. What I’ve found particularly striking is his commitment to his projects and his ability to keep a sense of humor about everything his does.
As an independent producer, what type of productions do you produce/work on?
Mostly, I produce long and short form documentaries. Sometimes they’re ideas that I’ve come up with and sometimes I’ll partner with a non-profit organization to make a film about a topic that is important to them. For example, the film “Camp Twitch and Shout – The Movie”, which will be available online December 7, is a partnership between myself and the Tourette Syndrome Association of Georgia.
There are also a few online only projects that are in the works that are destined for YouTube or the Mission Man Media website, like a series of shorts about artists called “The Form Appears” and another series entitled “Everyone Has A Story”.
Finally, there are a few things I want to do that will be specifically for museums and galleries.
How do you find the projects that you work on?
It’s rare that I go out searching for stories to tell. Usually the stories just arrive serendipitously. For a documentary that will start production in January, the idea came from a conversation I had with a friend in a bar just a few months ago. There are an endless amount of stories out there that are waiting to be told, you just have to keep your ears open. I’m fortunate to be in some form of production on projects that will keep me busy through the first half of 2011.
How have you raised funds?
Every way possible. I’ve won grants, been funded by the organizations that I’ve partnered with, friends, family, the coin jar in my bedroom. Any way possible. I read somewhere that it takes 3 years on average to raise money for a documentary. You have to spread your fundraising wings as far and wide as possible.
I’m in the process of raising money now for a project in Africa and I’ve literally sent hundreds of emails, applied for grants all over the world and spoken with people on three continents trying to get it made.
Sometimes you work on freelance gigs for other people. How do you feel about that? Do you limit the size and scope of freelance gigs?
Making documentaries is cyclical in that you make a film, then raise (beg) for money for your next one, so you have to earn money during that downtime in between projects. If I’m inbetween projects, I’ll preferably do some freelance writing or producing for television or for a company that needs something small, but I’ll do anything really to keep me out of an office.
BUT if someone from an office is reading this…and hiring on a temporary basis….
You often work as a one-man band producing, shooting and editing. Is there a lot of pressure to be responsible for every aspect of a project?
I really prefer working alone because I like the intimacy of just being one-on-one with the subject. I’ll often spend a few days just hanging out with whomever I want to interview before I even bring out a camera. I think if you are prepared ahead of time and really know your equipment it cuts down a lot on the possibilities of something going wrong. Of course, life would be easier with a crew as far as dealing with the equipment. But for me, its worth the few times when I’ve forgotten briefly to turn on the audio or left something back at the hotel to continue to work independently. And the more you do it, the easier and more organized you become. The real key is a comfortable backpack and pants with lots of pockets. If you have those two things you’ll be fine.
Do you feel that there is a lot of room for creativity when producing a documentary?
The style of documentary that I like to do relies a lot on serendipity to be honest. I like to leave a lot of time to wait for things to happen. Often, things are happening quickly and you are happy just to get the shot. While this style doesn’t lead itself to as much creativity as a fiction film, there is always a little room to put your own personal stamp on a film. It really takes sitting down before you start shooting and making a firm decision about the look and feel of your project.
I also think the most important aspect of making a documentary is the story and content. No matter the style, if you have those two things you can craft a strong project.
What is your favorite part about producing and why?
My favorite part is that moment that happens in most interviews where the subject finally lets their guard down and really opens up about whatever you are trying to get out of them. I really think everyone has a story and it’s my job to get it out of them.
What is your favorite project to date and why?
I’m editing the first of a four-part series called “Native Past, American Present” about the efforts Native Americans are making to hold on to their history, culture, and identity. I recently spent a month in Alaska on the project and everything about it was special. Incredible people, important stories, and beautiful landscape. That’s been my favorite so far, and I plan on going back next fall to spend two months working on part two of my series. And while I’m there I’ll be working with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska to teach filmmaking to Native children.
How did you get started?
I’d worked in television for about ten years when I decided that I really preferred working for myself, or at least on projects I really believed in. One day I decided that’s what I would do. In hindsight, it might have been less complicated to ease into documentary filmmaking instead of jumping into it blindly, but I knew what I wanted and somewhat knew how to get there. So, I just announced that I was a filmmaker and it’s grown from there.
Any advice for those seeking to do what you do?
Just do it. Cameras are dirt cheap, editing software most likely comes with your computer, and its free to put your stuff up online. There are an infinite amount of stories to tell. There are really no excuses if it’s something you truly want to do.
For more information about Emmett Williams and his work, please visithttp://www.emmettwilliams.com.