1st Edition

Documentary Vision Notes from Behind the Camera

By Richard Chisolm Copyright 2024
    100 Pages 1 B/W Illustrations
    by Focal Press

    This book is a collection of personal essays that address critical elements involved in the production of nonfiction films. Written by an experienced documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, the book draws upon practical wisdom to explore the nuances and challenges faced by filmmakers and viewers alike.

    Included in the text are rarely discussed ethical issues, best practices in the field, filmmaker etiquette, and a detailed analysis of interview techniques. The book also provides a candid view of how decisions are made in production that are consequential to a finished film’s meaning and fidelity. Drawing on a wide range of subject matter, it will enhance the reader's understanding of the tremendous power and potential of the documentary medium.

    The book offers an invaluable insight into documentary filmmaking for professionals who work in the medium and students who are learning the trade and honing their skills.


    Kirsten Johnson


    Part 1: Professional Identity Formation
    1. Motivations: Why Make a Documentary?

    2. A Big Umbrella: The Expansive Universe of Documentary Filmmaking

    3. The Mutable Nature of Truth: A Documentary Paradox

    4. The Burden of Originality: Avoiding Anxiety in the Pursuit of Uniqueness

    5. Facing Stigma and Double Standards: The Social Status of the Documentarian

    6. A Matter of Conscience: Taking Responsibility for Project Choices

    Part 2: Issues of Production

    7. The Delicate Art of Fundraising

    8. Relational Filmmaking: Fostering Trust and Collaboration with Participants

    9. Big Stories in Small Packages: Deciding What to Include and How It Will Fit

    10. Mission Control: The Necessity of Flexibility

    11. Handheld Cinematography: The Human Camera

    12. A Blessing and a Curse: The Film Festival Game

    Part 3: Conversational Portraits

    13. An Anatomy of the Documentary Interview

    14. Wrapping Up


    Richard Chisolm is an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Deeply committed to the stories and adventures of real people, Chisolm has worked for PBS, National Geographic, BBC, Discovery Channel, HBO, and many other media platforms. In addition to a national cinematography Emmy (1998), he is the recipient of a Peabody Award, a duPont-Columbia University Award, two Kodak Vision awards, and four CINE Golden Eagles. He has taught film courses at the Johns Hopkins University, Towson University, and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Chisolm lives near Baltimore with his wife, Meg, and their son, Jasper.

    “Prizewinning cinematographer Richard Chisolm delves deeply into his years of filmmaking experience and comes up with a serious overview of non-fiction filmmaking that continually reminds the reader the documentary profession is as much a business as it is an art form. Short essays, anecdotes and reflections explore freelancing, fundraising, and the art of the interview; but also professional values, personal conscience, transparency, and intentionality. He loads the book with a wealth of detailed production advice and important questions. This is an excellent resource for both emerging filmmakers and experienced veterans.” - Llewellyn Smith, Producer/Director, DGA, WGA

     "Chisolm takes the classically defined modes of documentary filmmaking and deconstructs them as an experienced, down-to-earth maker, driven by the insatiable need to tell real stories with nuance and integrity. The book drops the reader, medias res, into a veteran filmmaker's opinions, experiences and love affair with the power of the documentary medium. He speaks as a caretaker of his craft, offering insights from years of labor and wisdom that there is "room for everybody" at the nonfiction table by inviting you in, pouring you a cup of coffee and including you in the conversation. The reflections and observations found in Documentary Vision will engage the seasoned professional and inspire the budding filmmaker to cultivate their own best practices, from initial ideation, to navigation of production complexities, to the ethical rendering of their nonfiction work. Chisolm's prose implores us to consider the necessary relationship between subjectivity and objectivity. Most importantly, he emphasizes purpose; that when we pick up our cameras or consume nonfiction on our screens, we do so with intention; with a responsibility for the pursuit of truth, and with an appreciation for the art of the documentary.” - Jena Burchick, Assistant Professor, Electronic Media and Film, Towson University

    "This is a wonderful book. I have been making documentaries for more than 50 years, and I was surprised at how much I learned from Documentary Vision.  It reminded me about things that I knew, but had not thought about for many years.  And it provided fresh perspectives on topics that I think about all the time." - Muffie Meyer, Producer/Director/Editor, Middlemarch Films

     “Richard Chisolm takes us inside the worlds of documentary film production over a 40 year period. His insight from the vantage point of a cinematographer, director, and filmmaker provide a frame of reference that both production students and pros will find helpful. The work is very personal, very readable and very interesting. It should be part of anyone’s collection of resources for creating documentaries.” - Mitchell Block, Head of Documentary Production, University of Oregon

    “Chisolm turns the same insightful gaze he uses behind the lens to address key issues documentarians face, from relationships of trust with interview subjects to decisions about scope and structure. Whether you are a long-time professional or new to filmmaking, this book will provoke useful analysis.” - Amy DeLouise, Digital Storyteller-Trainer/Speaker 

    “From a filmmaker who has built a distinguished and varied career, this book shares insightful information. It should interest filmmakers and anyone creatively engaged in nonfiction storytelling.” - Jed Dietz, Founding Director, Maryland Film Festival

    “Through his typical candor and thoroughly brilliant insights Richard Chisolm gives us some unvarnished and desperately-needed truths about documentary filmmaking.  By sharing with readers the secrets of his own super-successful career, Richard’s talent for teaching by example comes shining through. His sensitivity and creativity are framed on every page, inspiring the rest of us to catch up to his unique brand of documentary acumen. I am happy to make Documentary Vision required reading for the courses I teach.” Theodore Bogosian, Director/Writer/Producer, Visiting Professor, Brown University

     “With a career that mirrors the development and expansion of the documentary form, Richard Chisolm’s reflections on telling real life stories are both accessible and provocative. Going beyond technical textbook, Documentary Vision is a welcome addition to the documentary canon, appropriate for students, self-taught filmmakers, and experienced filmmakers alike.” - Erica Ginsberg, Co-Founder, Docs In Progress, Co-Host, The D-Word

    “With insightful, concise language, documentarian Richard Chisolm walks the reader through the essential stages of nonfiction filmmaking. No one emerging from the text will do so uneducated about the process of capturing and assembling footage to tell a compelling story. It’s especially great for students but also serves as an accessible primer to casual lovers of cinema.” - Christopher Llewellyn Reed, Chair/Professor, Film & Moving Image, Stevenson University

    “Chisolm’s skillfully crafted book is a deep reflection of a long career filled with on-location learning experiences and stories, some of which he shared while working with me here in Israel. He sheds much needed light on challenging issues of our profession.” - Oren Rosenfeld, Producer/Director, Holyland Productions

    “Documentary Vision is the kind of candid, opinionated, first-person account of making documentaries I always wanted to write. Richard Chisolm has beaten me to it and done it far better than I ever could have. This is a truly insightful book on the subject by a highly accomplished filmmaker -- essential reading for anyone thinking of making a doc. It's also a fun and fascinating read for anyone wishing to better understand the documentary filmmaking process.” - Doug Block, Filmmaker, Co-Creator, The D Word