Image throwing yourself into adverse conditions, running into a burning building, witnessing a tribal sacrifice and living in a jungle surrounded by wild animals - just to catch it all on camera.
Although it may sound like fun to those who crave adventure , a documentary video director embraces these challenges and often risks his life for the sake of the “perfect shot”.
“People have their stories of life, of struggle, of celebration, and of hope. The documentary is about giving voice to these stories by letting people tell their own stories, in their own words, in their own time,” says documentary director Anderson Engkiong.
For every production, the director is the main link between the creative and the technical teams, communicating artistic and practical content.
Directors carry an enormous amount of responsibility for the project’s success and need to adapt to every new situation, learn the latest technology and find their place in the competitive media world.
“Being a director is not an easy job at all as it can become rather stressful even when you are enjoying yourself,” says Engkiong.
A director’s responsibilities not only revolve around directing but demand involvement right from the beginning.
“You need all the necessary skills of a scriptwriter, researcher, cameraman, production manager and editor,” adds Engkiong.
A well-crafted script forms the heart of every documentary as it melds image and sound to form a cohesive, coherent and powerful portrait of people and their stories.
“A good script is able to capture the nuances and subtext of a story and synergistically bring all parts together to form the big picture,” he says.
Crucial to scripting is research – differentiating fact from fallacy, truth from fiction. A director usually does most of the research, including a “recce” (survey) of the location before filming.
Effective production management skills are also essential to avoid disaster and keep well within the production budget.
“So yelling for lights, camera and action is not all there is to the job,” says Engkiong.
Zooming in Being creative and expressive is key in a documentary video production. Although there are no clear routes to becoming a director, enthusiasm and perseverance are helpful allies.
With years of experience under his belt, Engkiong has directed various productions for both in-house and international projects.
As a freelance documentary director he is free to choose projects that interest him– indigenous people, society and culture, environment and conservation.
Having been a cameraman, editor, scriptwriter and now a director, Engkiong says it has been truly fulfilling, without a day of boredom.
“When I’m directing a documentary, indirectly I learn about different cultures and beliefs,” he says, adding that his documentaries are mostly about the indigenous peoples of Malaysia.
“They are unique in their own way and there are lots of things people don’t know about them, especially their way of life,” he adds.
Documentaries he has directed include the spirit of mask-carving, sewang (a traditional aboriginal healing dance), and special circumcision rites.
“To direct a good documentary, you need to stay with them, eat with them and, most importantly, communicate with them,” says Engkiong who has experienced eating only potato and salt fish while using sign language to communicate with the natives during a seven-day documentary production.
“It is a test of your mind and body – whether you are strong enough will determine the quality of your production,” he says.
A graduate in journalism with a broadcasting minor, Engkiong identifies a common ground between both fields.
“It’s self expression through different media used to express your imagination.”
His first project was a wedding where he was both director and cameraman. From then on, there were more weddings, university convocations, corporate videos, training videos, and the filming of the eco-challenge race in Kelantan last year.
“I love the travelling, going across to Sabah, Sarawak and Thailand to film documentaries. There are no boundaries to meeting people from all walks of life, even kings,” he says.
Unlike drama, television documentary tends to be all in the edit.
“You don’t get away with editing; in fact, it is ideal if you are able to edit and do the camerawork yourself because it’s from your own ideas,” says Engkiong who is skilled in editing with both linear (analog) and non-linear (digital) equipment.
Having worked for various organisations, such as Museum Negara, the National Archive, National Literary Agency, Radio Television Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia, Engkiong is eager to embark on upcoming projects.
However, the aspiring director hopes to be a lecturer in his field: “I want to contribute to the profession by moulding those with passion for broadcasting into successful directors and editors.”
You should have at least a diploma in broadcasting in order to understand the theoretical side of the job although experience is as important.
Other qualifications apart from broadcasting are fine but one will have to start at the bottom and be prepared to put in more hours learning the trade compared to those with a diploma or degree in broadcasting. Vocational or professional training is also helpful as it is aimed at enhancing your craft through learning something new. It also brings aspiring directors together to discuss their art.
What does a documentary director do?
From the first day after obtaining a project, the theme and topic need to be determined. Internet research, meeting people and extensive reading are important in deciding the right angle for the documentary.
The director will then “recce” the shooting location, set up interviews, and allocate the right people for certain on-set responsibilities.
Every day is money when it comes to production, so not only do you have to budget expenses, it is also important to consider the number of days set aside for filming.
Then comes directing of the documentary. You use the storyboard or script as a guideline and ideas should spark from your own observations throughout the filming session.
Most importantly, think of what interests the viewer, not yourself. What is interesting to you may not interest viewers.
Previewing the recording tapes (and there are many) will be done after filming to check if the source is sufficient for editing.
Finally, a documentary video director sits down with the editor to create a masterpiece.
What kind of personality suits this career?
To be successful, you need a lot of patience, as you will meet many different characters, encounter various situations and be required to “rough it out”.
The ability to adapt to a different culture, language and way of life is also important because these can terribly distract a director’s focus.
You need to constantly stimulate your creativity, remain focused and conceptualise your idea, bearing in mind the producer’s standards.
Most importantly, always be prepared to accept criticism as directing is a learning experience and definitely not inborn.
What’s the worst part of your job?
Deadlines! Some producers change their mind about deadlines at the very last minute and it can get quite stressful because you have less time to put in more ideas, so quality is threatened. If a filming session does not materialise, the amount of time and money put into it will also be wasted.
Sacrifice – with round-the-clock editing, going without sleep and not having enough time for your family. This happens almost all the time so it’s quite a hard reality, especially for relationships.
Also, having to force ideas out when you’re having a huge mental block is a challenge to many directors.
And the best part?
Going out and experiencing everything and anything under the sun!
Seeing the end product after all the sweat and blood put into it also gives me personal satisfaction.
On top of that, you’re in control, especially when you shout, “Lights! Camera! Action!”
What is the income range?
As a freelance director, you can get up to RM350 a day, depending on your experience and the production company. This can total up to about RM10,500 a month if you work everyday, including weekends.
If you are attached to a particular company, then expect about RM2,000 a month.
What are the career prospects?
As a newcomer, you can start as a “runner” – a person who, as the title suggests, runs any type of errand but is deeply involved in the production.
Most of these positions are either unpaid or very low-paid, but it is a worthwhile experience as it gives you a foot in the industry, enables you to meet people and learn by observing what’s going on.
By doing that, you gradually pick up certain skills in camerawork, lighting, sound, editing, and then directing.
Once you start specialising, production companies will approach you to handle certain projects.
It’s also possible to start your own company, being the producer and hiring your own production crew.
When you are a producer, that’s when the big bucks come rolling in – you get up to RM50,000 and above for a five- to seven-minute documentary.
Do you limit the number of projects you take on each year?
There is generally no limit. It depends more on the kind of resources needed for the project. Some projects require a lot more resources than others.
It just hinges on the location and how stretched our resources are. I couldn’t give a fixed number, but we do turn away many more than we accept, although it becomes more manageable with proper time management.
What is the current perception of documentaries as an art form?
I believe there has been a decline in local documentaries on television. Funding in particular has become more problematic.
I haven’t noticed many young people or young producers interested in documentaries.
There aren’t as many of them here compared to the United States, Australia or the United Kingdom as more people are interested in dramas and sitcoms.
What do you see for the future of documentaries?
It would be great if broadcasting companies were more interested in showcasing lower budget local documentaries. Public television still remains the primary home for this kind of work.
I think styles come in and out of favour, even among filmmakers. All of a sudden everybody wants to do drama.
However, I’m sure that eventually people will once again be interested in the documentary form. I wouldn’t say that nobody’s interested.
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