Independent documentary I directed and shot when I was 17, for AQA's Extended Project Qualification, exploring the reasons behind the rise of atheism in today's youth.
Directed, Filmed and Edited by
Written and Presented by
Special Thanks to
ALL SAINTS' WESTON
CAMDEN SCHOOL FOR GIRLS
HOLY TRINITY BROMPTON
ST. MICHAEL'S WITHOUT
(BELOW: 1850-word post on the project.)
What Has Caused The Rise Of Atheism In Today’s Youth?
The aim of my EPQ was to create a half-hour documentary on the issue “What Has Caused the Rise of Atheism in Today’s Youth?”. I have undertaken the project with my friend Toby. I have been responsible for directing, filming and editing the documentary and he has been responsible for researching the subject, writing, interviewing and presenting in it.
The subject idea came from an interest shared by both Toby and I in the rise of atheism.
I have been making films since I was 9, but have never done a full-length documentary before, so there was a learning curve to overcome. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and reading articles online which went into detail on the subject of documentary filmmaking, including ideas about story arcs, editing techniques, lighting conventions and so on. I also made sure to watch a wide range of different types of documentary so as to explore as many different options for style, pacing, cinematography etc. as possible.
At first I was very keen for the documentary to be a presenter-led journey, shown in chronological order, but after discussion with Toby it was agreed that we’d be better off splitting the documentary up into six sections (Upbringing, Peer Pressure, ‘Outdatedness’, Religious Education, Social Media and Scientific Advancement), each exploring a potential causal factor. The selection of these was based on research carried out by Toby. This meant that we could utilise the opinions and expertise of our interviewees much more fully, giving each of them the opportunity to talk on a number of different subjects. This also meant that when more than one factor applied to an interviewee (Alom is a teacher – religious education/peer pressure, but also a scientist – scientific advancement) they had the opportunity to talk on each, and just appear in the documentary when required/relevant.
The idea developed to its final form from there – to fill the documentary with the opinions of 5 to 7 interviewees on several partially predetermined subjects and then link together their thoughts on the subjects with narration from Toby, both on camera and in the form of voice over. Toby would also appear on screen in his interviewer role opposite the interviewees.
The first step was to secure some interviewees. Toby took on this task predominantly, and I stepped in to advise when necessary. I discovered Alom’s work ("The Young Atheist’s Handbook” (http://alomshaha.com/the-book)) in the ‘religion’ section of the school library after finding his book there.
When preparing for shooting each interview, I put a lot of thought into what we would need to take, making sure to pack only the essentials, for example, when traveling by train and walking around London carrying equipment for the day. When shooting an interview to which we were traveling by car, I would take my slider and jib but for a few of them I had to be more sparing.
The most challenging aspect of the process was working out how to film the interviews in a way that was aesthetically pleasing and also technically accomplished. I have included a diagrammatical representative the setup I opted for in the end:
I used two Canon DSLRs for all but the first interview we filmed – Adam's – when I had to manage with just one. One of the cameras filmed our interviewee, where I chose to use a 50mm prime lens to give a sharp image with a very shallow depth of field. This look was based on many of the interviews I watched in the preparatory stage. The other camera filming Toby had an 18-55mm lens for more flexibility with the focal length, and so that it was wide enough to get the shoulder of the interviewee in the corner of the frame.
Sound was another factor that I wanted to get right. I had done a full practice set-up, with Toby sitting in for both himself and the interviewee, about a week before the first interview to ensure that the equipment and setup was working as intended, but our first interview went less-than-perfectly technically. The sound was a real issue with a noisy fridge humming throughout and a hiss due to the automatic gain control from the audio recording software.
After that first interview I refined the technique and decided to record the interviewee’s audio with the RØDE Videomic Pro suspended on a boom stand above him and Toby’s audio with a lavalier microphone. In an ideal world I would have had another boom stand and Videomic Pro for Toby, but the RØDE Smartlav+ sufficed at less than a third of the cost, which was helpful on our tight budget.
Lighting the interviews was another area of deliberation. In the end I opted for three 160LED lights, two of which I set to tungsten (3200K) one acting as a key for the interviewee and one for Toby, and then one set to daylight (5600K) for a backlight on the interviewee. This closely replicated a look that I had seen in many of the more professional-looking BBC documentaries I watched, and is visually dynamic offering clear separation of the subject from the background. (See below.)
The logistics of actually shooting an interview were relatively straightforward due to the comprehensive planning, and once tripods, boom stand and light stands were set up on site (Toby and I had whittled the time taken for this whole process down to under 20 minutes by our last interview!) it was just a matter of turning everything on, setting the microphone levels, focusing the camera, and pressing record.
Whilst Toby was asking the questions and the interview was underway, I had to make sure that the camera was in focus on the interviewee at all times – shooting at a fast aperture meant that the depth of field was very shallow, and even small movement back and forwards from the interviewee sometimes meant having to refocus. My method was to aim for the reflections of the lights in the interviewee’s eyes to be sharp, which worked well.
Another aspect of Toby’s on-screen role is the sections when he is talking to camera. Initially we were planning on having a few more of these, but as the project progressed, we realised that it would be much easier to have a few poignant moments to camera, and the majority as voice over. Obviously it is difficult to remember long sections of information, so we split his on-screen talking into sections and I edited it together with temporal jump cuts, which have a nice look to them, and fit in with the style we’re going for. The piece is about young people, and stylistically jump cuts are good for providing quite an ‘edgy’ look whilst creating impact and tension, which works very well in the concluding section when Toby is talking directly to the camera, addressing the audience. This section cuts straight to the credits at the end of the piece, which means that the impact stays with the viewer even after the content has ended; there's not a smooth (figurative) ‘fade-out’.
Whilst on location for all of our interviews, I made sure not to neglect the importance of filming cutaways of the interview (out-of-focus wide shots, close-ups of hands, feet, backs of heads etc.,) and also GV (‘General View’) of the location (contextual shots – wide shots of the outsides of buildings, people walking around on the street, bits of artwork on the wall etc.). This is imperative as it allows for cuts to be covered up, and also gives the audience a chance to familiarise themselves with the location at which the interview is taking place. This is another technique I picked up from watching documentaries and also from experience editing; cutting from something said in one part of an interview to something said in another can go unnoticed by an audience if appropriately disguised by a shot of something else over the edited interview audio.
Once we’d filmed an interview I transferred all of the footage into two separate hard drives, so that there was a backup of everything in case of any hard drive failure, and then set about marking where in the clips good quotes or shots were. For example, there are moments where an interviewee would say a phrase that is either very emotive or efficiently put, which I flagged up for possible inclusion. From this I was able to start forming a rough ‘paper edit’. I also got the interviews professionally transcribed in order to speed up the edit down the road, when I was looking for a particular quote or theme. This way I could do a simple search in the text document and a timecode would be provided, evading hours of wasted time skimming through the footage for a desired line.
Another part of this editing process was recording Toby’s voiceover that he’d written independently based on notes I'd given him from my rough edit at the time. This was a complex process technically. I set up the microphone at my house, and after much experimentation with inputting manual microphone levels and positioning of Toby at different distances from the microphone, Toby read his voiceover script. This took a few takes of each section, but recording the audio straight into Final Cut Pro X meant I could edit as we were recording and test out a draft version under the visuals in real time. Toby and I would discuss each take and I was able to create ‘Frankenbites’ whereby different phrases or even individual words from different takes to create better performances.
Over the course of the project I have learnt many new skills I may not otherwise have gained. I realised more than ever before, how much effort and time must go into planning any type of film (researching, story-boarding, test shoots, directing in the moment, logging footage, editing, refining the edit and so on), as well as more complex and specific techniques – setting manual white balance on a camera, for example, when shooting with lights at different colour temperatures; using the Multicam feature on Final Cut X to line up the footage from Toby’s camera in each of the interviews with the footage from the camera filming the interviewee, and the importance of filming plenty of GVs.
It has also cemented my view that documentary is a genre into which I want to take my filmmaking, going forward.