The Upside of Downtime

Fernanda Rossi November 24, 2009

Dear Doc Doctor: It seems ages since I started this film. The topic is still relevant but I don’t know whether the time passed in production helps the film or not.

Doc Doctor: It most likely does!

Time-related issues are a constant worry and topic of discussion in consultations—first and foremost because film is a time-bound art, like music and theater. Many of the concerns turn on the issue of how to arrange story elements in time and over time–as opposed to how to arrange elements in space, as in painting or sculpture. Yet the time that gives documentary filmmakers the biggest anguish is the time that happens outside the film: time-management in production and the time taken between creative moments—from shoot to shoot, from first cut to second cut. Even though both of these time concerns can be seen as production hurdles, they both have a strong impact on storytelling.

When having an initial conversation with filmmakers in preparation for a consultation, I ask how long they have been working on the project. Invariably, the filmmakers answer, "Too long." And it’s the same answer whether it was one year (a blink of the eye in documentary filmmaking time) or five years (a pretty average time for independent productions). Some may add that their work on the project has been "on and off" during that time—acknowledging that it’s not a full-time endeavor. Or is it full-time endeavor, regardless of the intensity of activity?

In a society that lives fast and values instant gratification, time management is to be mastered and lapses in time are to be avoided, so much so that such lapses are referred to as “dead time," not a positive-sounding phrase. Most blame the film funding/financing process as the main time eater, yet the creative process itself is the true time eater.

There is some truth to the concern that the funding process can force long production schedules. Grant cycles are long, expanding over a six-to-eight month period. And grants are few and highly competitive, driving filmmakers to successive submissions that can take several years. Network financing, though it can be faster, also takes considerable time in the form of relationship-building. That leaves the filmmaker (according to Morrie Warshawski of Shaking the Money Tree) with 80 percent of their time dedicated to raising money and 20 percent to working on the film.

However those I’ve worked with who had full funding didn’t have necessarily have shorter schedules. The creative process has its own agenda regardless of a filmmaker’s funding or time-management skills. More precisely, the elapsed time between shoots or visits to the edit room is hardly dead or down, especially in verité documentaries.

Life moves and the patient, savvy doc filmmaker is always on the prowl to catch the shift. A new character might emerge making the story grow. Or if nothing happens outside, plenty is always happening inside the filmmaker’s head. Clarity for seeing a story not only needs distance, it needs time —and some craft, of course. Those darling scenes we loved the first day are easier to let go a month later if supported by the right story development. That steep step forward in one direction needs courage and conviction that only comes when sitting down and letting good structure methods works their magic unrushed. Not doing anything can be charged with subtle action.

Elapsed time, whether filled by writing funding proposals or holding a nine-to-five job or tossing in bed at night, is an ally to the story. Documentary storytelling is inevitably a reductionist process; the bigger the span or range captured in 90 minutes, the stronger its impact. Then why not let time pass? As per the creative process, it’s the simmering time that often gives the deeper answers if it that time can be harnessed with a healthy dose of craft. After all, mastering storytelling includes the mastering of its timing both in and outside the film.

One day I’ll ask, "How long have you been with this project?" And somebody will say without regret, "The time necessary to tell this story."

International speaker, author and story consultant Fernanda Rossi has doctored over 300 documentaries, scripts, and fundraising trailers around the world including two Academy Award nominations. In addition to private consultations, lectures and seminars worldwide, she has served as festival juror and grant panelist. She is also the author of the book Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer. More info and book at

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