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Make a Documentary—Starring You

With today's technology and a few expert tips, you can share your own unique tale like an ace documentarian.

This post is in partnership with Pepsi Refresh Project

Everyone’s got a unique story to tell. Why not pick up a camera and catch some of the amazing happenings of your everyday life on film? With today’s easy technology and a few expert tips, anyone can be an ace documentarian.

Pick a Topic

Look around your home, your neighborhood, and your workplace for inspiration. From household appliance parts to passing cars on the freeway to random collections, people are making amazing projects out of the ordinary things. “Think about your interests, your hobbies, your passions,” advises documentary filmmaker Alicia Ontiveros. Ontiveros won a $25,000 Pepsi Refresh grant in 2010 to make her film, Meet the Gulf, about how recent environmental crises have impacted Louisiana families. “You can tell a story about anything, from grass growing to the life cycle of a plastic bag, as long as it’s compelling and creative. You don’t need grandiose ideas.”

Choose Your Equipment

Don’t wait until you have cash to buy a fancy camera; use whatever’s close at hand. “It’s a trap to think you can start only when you have the perfect tools,” says photographer Mark Menjivar, who’s currently poking around in people’s fridges to record what they’re eating—with beautiful and thought-provoking pictures to show for his efforts. “It really doesn’t matter what you use. An iPhone, a film camera, a digital point-and-shoot, they’re all fine. Tap into your energy and curiosity, and get started.”

Same thing for film. “These days, film making technology is affordable and easy to use,” says Ontiveros. Get a few slip cams or a high-definition video camera, add a cheap tripod, and toss in editing software (she recommends Final Cut Express) and you’re good to go. As for all those pricey lights and high-end gadgets? Instead, be smart and think outside the box. Use the sun and a homemade reflector, google DIY equipment ideas, or make like The Blair Witch Project and turn wobbly shots and crazy angles to your advantage.

Try Different Techniques

Picking a process can help you get started. Instead of waiting for inspiration to hit, just snap a shot, and see what happens; some people take a photo every day to make sure something gets done. “Repetition of a constructed creative process is a great way to force you to produce new work,” say photographer John Cyr, who took a photo of the sky outside his bedroom window at 8am every day for 28 days starting on his 28th birthday and created an amazing montage of moving clouds and shifting light. Or pick a certain object and photograph that as much as you can (Cyr is currently taking shots of old-school gelatin photo developing trays). Also, add in other media. Menjivar includes writing and sound in his projects: he’s jotting down his diet for 365 days to accompany his fridge photography, along with audio recordings of people eating their favorite foods, which he admits “is fascinating, but totally nasty.”

Be Engaging

You don’t want to make your audience feel like they’re sitting in on a long therapy session. “Try to pretend it’s not all about you—even if it is,” advises filmmaker Doug Block, who has won numerous awards for his movies about his family. His latest, The Kids Grow Up, is an intimate look at his daughter’s life, yet he shows it sweetly and is considerate of her feelings. His biggest tips on not alienating viewers? “Humor is hugely important,” he says. “Poke fun at yourself.” And don’t give away family secrets without asking those involved for permission to film—unless you want to be shunned at Thanksgiving dinner.

Put Yourself on Display

Now that you have something awesome —share it, promote it, show it around! Post it on Facebook, talk it up on Twitter, and start a blog (Wordpress or Tumblr are both easy and free). If you have a film you want people to watch, post to a YouTube page or try Vimeo for a more creative types. For more in-the-know advice, go to Cinefile, a great site with forums, articles, and tons of industry news, where you can upload your videos and get thoughts from other filmmakers. “If you want online feedback, shorter is better,” says Ontiveros. “Keep your clips to two minutes or less.”

Ultimately, it’s all about personal expression and getting people excited about what you’re doing. “I love the medium of photography,” says Menjivar. “But my passion is about connecting with people.” So whether you’re shooting ants in your backyard or a series of toasters, think about what you want to say with your work or how you want people to respond. After all, you’re the artist – take charge of your art.

Read more from the GOOD Guide to Finding Arts and Culture here.

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