The Making of a Documentary

Technically, I began working on my latest documentary, “Opening Our Eyes” about 7 months ago when the idea came to me. I had just seen Robert Frank’s show “The Americans” at the Met in New York City with a friend of mine and I commented to him that I was really yearning to get back to my beginnings and take a visual road trip.

Even though I had spent a lifetime traveling and shooting assignments for editorial and corporate clients, I never lost sight of my passion to explore with my camera.

Gail at Red Square, Moscow

In the beginning, my explorations were through the lens of my still camera but when I started shooting motion about ten years ago, my tool of choice became a video camera and with that came self assigned documentaries.

It had been two years since my last passion project “Freedom Riders” and I was itching to start another. My daughter had just graduated from college, I was an emptynester and pretty much free to do as I pleased. I had accumulated over 300,000 airline miles, thousands of hotel award points and another 300,000 plus American Express points. I didn’t know what I was saving them for but it seemed like a good time to use them. So, I made a decision to take a trip around the world. I felt like I still had the energy and stamina to take on such a journey but something was missing – I needed a purpose.

The Idea
I have always been interested in the “common man” as opposed to the celebrity and the simple story that resonates in a viral way. I’m intrigued by people who go up against all odds, to right a wrong or fight for a cause and never give up. I usually side with the underdogs and am inspired by the Cinderella stories. And so after that day at the Met, an idea was born and that was to shine a spotlight on 6 people on 6 different continents who were making a positive difference in the world because it was their calling to do so.

Of course coming up with an idea is the easy part and many times those great ideas seem to drift away with time as one gets caught up in daily work and life. But this idea wasn’t going away – I knew it was the right time for me to bring these stories to life. My goal was to create individual videos about each of these people that would combine together as a feature documentary. My hope was that the film would not only create awareness of my subjects’ efforts, but also motivate others to create change.

The Pre-Production and Facilitation
Next came the hard part – making it a reality and the first step was figuring out how I would fund it. After working on 2 other self-assigned passion projects, I knew one thing and that is that it’s really hard to sell an idea. When I was in the planning stages of The Delta Bluesmen, I spent a lot of time applying for grant money and seeking funds from a variety of sources to no avail. I finally got frustrated and decided to self fund the project even though it meant taking it a bit slower and doing more of the work myself. My critics thought I was crazy to tackle a short film by myself and self fund it but I stuck to it and created a piece I’m proud of and which has brought many rewards to my life. So with that experience behind me, I took another leap of faith on my latest project and started the planning process. But perhaps most importantly, I focused on the fact that the positive aspects of working on a self-funded project is that it would be the way I wanted it to be – not compromised for the wrong reasons.

My first order of business was to send out a query to everyone I knew as well as use social media to find my subjects. My first subject was a given – a local young woman my daughter went to high school with, Maggie Doyne,

Maggie and some of her children

who opted not to trek off to college after high school. Instead she wound up in Nepal and built a home for orphaned children. She’s 23 years old now, has 30 children in her home and is in the process of building a school. Then my daughter Erin, expressed interest in working on this project with me. She knew she’s need to leave quit her job, sublet her apartment and say goodbye to her boyfriend for 3 months – but she wanted to be part of it. And so we became a duo and with that the project really took off with her support and help.

Since the project was self-funded, I had to be extremely creative with the budget – or lack thereof. So after nailing down our subjects across the globe, we started to plan the logistics –airline tickets, hotel rooms, visas, vaccinations and of course equipment needs. From January to May, I spent countless hours booking reward tickets with 14 airlines for 29 flights – a round the world itinerary with extra local hops thrown in. I’ve arranged for 99 nights of accommodations, staying with friends, friend of friends, using reward points, paying for budget hotels and bartering for other rooms. I had to bite the bullet and pay large sums for our vaccinations and visas and budget for our meals. Most importantly, I needed to purchase new gear because my intent was to shoot this project with the HDSLR cameras. I knew I wanted to shoot stills and video and also knew that I had to travel lean and mean so this seemed like the best solution. You can read more about the gear here.

The Execution
We are about one third through the shoot and have worked on 3 continents. The scheduling has turned out to be brilliant – we work hard and exhaust ourselves for chunks of time – anywhere from a week to ten days and then have a few days to recoup, catch up on sleep, write in our blogs, or just sightsee and take some still snapshots along the way. We’ve had a couple mother/daughter disagreements but for the most part we are having the time of our life and seeing the world. At this point we sometimes forget which currency we are using or what the exchange rate is or what our room number is but in the process of creating a film, we have built a lifetime of memories.

We have also created an audience who tune into our project blog religiously and follow our journey as we go along. But something remarkable is happening and that is evident in the comments we are getting. We are opening people’s eyes though our travels and our writings. We have connected our audience with our subjects and their endeavors and are building a global community. It has been truly inspirational meeting and working with our subjects and there are days that my heart is full to bursting and confirms my belief in this project.

When we return in September, my first priority will be to edit the videos that I promised in barter arrangements. And hopefully at the end of the month, I will begin the edit. It will most likely take me a month just to log and transcode the footage and sync the audio in the situations where it was captured independently. I’m confident in my editing abilities but I would love to work with a pro. So if there is a pro out there reading this who would love to get involved in a fabulous documentary – I’d love to hear from you.

Not really thinking about this part right now other than to use social media and perhaps itunes and Amazon to distribute it. But I have faith in this project and something tells me that this will take on a life of its own. It’s a feel good story and we’ve already gotten a lot of support and interest.

At any rate it’s the trip of a lifetime and I’m taking it with my daughter so I’ve already been blessed.

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8 Replies to “The Making of a Documentary”

  1. Gail,

    It’s so nice to hear from and see you in your travels. It sounds like you two are living your dream and working very hard to make it happen.

    Keep up the great work. You look great!


    Rod and Cathy

  2. Dear Sisters…

    Thinking of you both as you move along, am so excited and thrilled by your journey and it’s brilliant execution! Rock on……


  3. Dear Gail, We miss you at the TC meetings. Apparently they have agreed to reduce to one a month during the summer, so you are not missing much. About your fabulous trip with your daughter – how I envy you! Great to see the pictures of Maggie and her little troop – such happy, healthy faces. Your documentary will surely be inspiring. Can’t wait to see it. Good luck and happy homecoming.


    PS: Isn’t it great how we can communicate all over the world instantly. Almost unbelievable.

  4. Hi Gail & Erin,
    We miss you but feel we’re with you via your blogs. The true heroes you’ve introduced us to in your videos make it clear to us that we’re all capable of reaching out and making a difference.

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