The Experiment

At the Center for New Documentary in Berkeley, California, Jon Else is researching how indie doc-makers can make broadcast quality films without breaking the bank. SUSAN ZELLER reports on his findings so far
January 1, 2002

At the Center for New Documentary in Berkeley, California, Jon Else is researching how indie doc-makers can make broadcast quality films without breaking the bank. SUSAN ZELLER reports on his findings so far

Documentary filmmaker Jon Else knows about the nightmare of fundraising. For the feature Sing Faster: The Stagehand’s Ring Cycle, he prepared and submitted 137 separate funding applications over nine years, before finally completing the film in 2000. His experience is not unusual. Tod Lending fundraised throughout most of the six years he spent making Legacy. Henry Hampton took 10 years to fully finance Eyes on the Prize. Almost every indie producer is a veteran of the lengthy grant application process and the frustrating pitch circuit. ‘The result is an exhausted generation of filmmakers,’ notes Else.

Unsatisfied with the current ‘culture of complaint,’ Else decided to take action. As a professor at the University of California’s graduate school of journalism in Berkeley, he launched the Center for New Documentary and is spearheading an experiment with low-cost, high-quality productions. He has enlisted the aid of three filmmakers with varying levels of experience – newcomer (and former student) Peter Nicks, mid-career producer Lourdes Portillo and doc veteran Albert Maysles. To date, only the preliminary findings are in (Nicks has completed his film, Portillo is in production and Maysles is about to begin), but the process is proving as enlightening as the results.


The purpose of the experiment is to prove that filmmakers can make top quality documentaries for much less than US$500,000 (the average budget for a primetime television doc hour, according to Else), if they alter their approach. He explains: ‘Ordinarily, we come up with an idea, figure out how much it’s going to cost and then go out and raise the money. The idea here is to have a set amount of money [$100,000 per hour], and then figure out what film can be made beautifully for that amount.’

Else is quick to acknowledge that not all doc projects will work for this model. ‘What we fear is that networks will look at this and say, ‘Please make The Civil War or Long Night’s Journey Into Day for $100,000.’ You can’t do it. Those films have to be supported at the $500,000 level.’ In his estimation, the ideal fit are personal stories and contemporary cinema verité feature docs – in other words, about 10% of all films. But, he asserts, his proposal is meant to suggest an alternative to, rather than a replacement for, the traditional system of filmmaking. ‘It’s a way to maintain forward motion while raising the half million dollars,’ he says.

In the long run, Else hopes filmmakers will profit creatively as well as financially from lower budgets. ‘Aside from fundraising, the other frustration [doc-makers] have is the increasing shift towards fitting documentaries into a series template. My intent is to work towards bringing the cost down so much that films can once again be truly independent.’


The participating doc-makers were invited to pick their film subjects, within the following parameters: a maximum budget of $100,000 per hour; shooting done with digital cameras (specifically, the Sony PD150); editing done with Final Cut Pro; all production staff paid their going rates; no archive footage or music; minimal or no air travel; and a tight production schedule (inside a year).

Nicks, who signed on as both the first filmmaker for the project and the Center’s administrator, opted for a 54-minute personal film, titled The Wolf. ‘For a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that I’d been working on Drug Wars [for the PBS strand 'Frontline'] for the past year, I started to think about my own experience,’ he says. ‘I had a serious drug problem when I was in college that led to doing some time in prison and various rehabilitation centers. So, I decided I wanted to look at that experience in the form of a personal, autobiographical film.’

Portillo chose to pursue a 20-minute short called McQueen (w/t). In the film, she uses the famous car chase scene in the 1968 Steve McQueen movie Bullit to examine how California has changed since the 1960s, from the neighborhoods in San Francisco to ideas about gender and pop culture. Both Portillo and Nicks are based in San Francisco.

Maysles, a New Yorker, is still considering what project he’ll take on, though he has one in mind. ‘My dream film is a film about trains, but really about the strangers that I meet on trains. The train in this film will be a metaphor for life.’ He recalls an experience he had about 15 years ago on a train, in which he met a young woman who was on her way to see her mother for the first time in 23 years. Maysles filmed the woman telling her story and her reunion at the train station. ‘That’s an example of how intimate and how touching and how much of a beautiful short story one can get,’ he says. His film will likely be a half-hour.

Else originally envisioned three one-hour one-offs, but was limited by funding. ‘The irony is this project is designed to help filmmakers avoid fundraising, yet I spent most of last year fundraising for the project.’ He ultimately rounded up $375,000 – $150,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, $100,000 from the Ford Foundation, $100,000 from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and $25,000 from the John D. Rockefeller Foundation. Says Else, ‘We really needed about a half million dollars, but we decided to forge ahead anyhow, because we felt the work was important.’


In considering the preliminary findings, Else comments, ‘It turns out most of it is not rocket science.’ But, he adds, some of the lessons are counter-intuitive. For example, the single biggest factor in keeping down costs was not the use of small-format digital video; it was the story. Else explains: ‘It’s a no-brainer that you start by doing stories that are close to home. If you can’t find a great documentary within 100 miles of your house, you’re in the wrong business.’

The next big factor was personnel. Says Nicks, ‘The more high-end the personnel, the less time you spend dealing with little problems that crop up due to inexperience.’ With that in mind, Nicks hired seasoned editors Jeffery Friedman (Common Threads, Paragraph 175) and Kim Roberts (Long Night’s Journey Into Day) to work on The Wolf. Despite a lack of familiarity with Final Cut Pro, Friedman and Roberts kept the editing schedule running smoothly. ‘That was significant,’ Nicks notes. ‘Very few documentary editors have used [Final Cut Pro], so we were breaking some new ground.’

The editing schedule, which Else calls accordion or slinky editing, was also innovative. He explains: ‘Rather than hiring an editor five days a week, full time, to begin editing and stay on until the film is finished, we’re working with editors who work a week on, a week off, or several days on, several days off. So, the editor is in fact working on two films but they’re checkerboarded.’ The benefit of this approach is two-fold: the producer/director has some breathing room to stay abreast, or even ahead, of the editor and the editor’s time is more productive and intense.

While Nicks firmly adhered to paying staff the going rates, he successfully experimented with consolidating duties. For The Wolf, Nicks was the producer and director, Craig Delaval was the associate producer and cinematographer, and the two editors each worked at half time. The one staffing decision he regrets is not hiring a full-time production assistant. Says Nicks, ‘Our associate producer was probably overburdened, and I think the key element was not having a dedicated production assistant full time. I think that small thing would make a huge difference and wouldn’t involve a huge cost.’

Nicks completed The Wolf within the $100,000 budget limitation, although he had to think creatively to do so. For example, he had planned to use the music from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (which was the inspiration for his film’s title), because he thought it was in the public domain. When Nicks discovered he couldn’t use it, he hired a composer, who came up with something different, but similar. ‘The music works because it’s not quite Peter and the Wolf, and that plays on one of the ideas in the film – who is the wolf, the addiction or the person?’ He continues, ‘The challenge, the idea, is when you run up against a situation where ordinarily you might feel frustrated, it leads you to [think about] what you can do differently. That’s the heart of what Jon is trying to do.’


While the experiment has not yet produced any divine revelations, Else is pleased with the progress. ‘It’s important to say that people are doing this in their basements all over the world and have been for about 10 years. We’re no fools, we know that. We’ve all done it in our basements. But, nobody has tried to do it an orderly way, with an eye towards figuring out how to do it. In this experiment, the films themselves are incidental.’ The success of Nicks’ film is a triumph nonetheless – he sold The Wolf to abc ‘Nightline’, and it’s scheduled to air in the spring.

Says Maysles, ‘The beauty is not in the cost, but in the proximity that the video brings you to real life. Heart and soul, that’s what we’re really after. We shouldn’t be deceived by the idea of having to jazz things up to make them more marketable. That jazzing process makes it needlessly more expensive. Fancy photography gets away from the directness that we should be practising.’

Else hopes to continue the experiment after Maysles and Portillo wrap, with at least one film by a non-traditional producer (writer, community activist, still photographer) and one investigative doc. However, funding is again an issue. ‘We feel the work is about half done,’ he says.

Once all of the results are in, Else plans to publish the findings as a ‘documentary cookbook’. He observes, ‘The final product of all this is not really the films, it’s what we learn from making the films, the mistakes and successes we can pass on to other people, ways of doing things and ways of choosing stories.’

A draft of the documentary cookbook is available online at

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