People pick up sensational topics so that the videos go viral
Ever thought about making a documentary and conveying a point, all in 3 minutes? We spoke to Business Consultant turned Documentary Filmmaker Amrit Vatsa, who started 3minutestories.com with an aim to create content that a larger audience can enjoy. The young filmmaker talks about the genesis, objective and challenges of a 3-minute story.
Must be a question asked often, but how did an IIT grad venture into filmmaking?
It wasn’t like I always wanted to be a filmmaker. I was working as a business consultant in several cities, last being Bombay. My work was interesting and I really enjoyed it but after four years of working, I realized that at a very personal level, I wanted to create things for the world to see; as a consultant I was creating things that only few people cared about. So I thought about things, which are interesting, and a bigger audience could enjoy. The immediate answer wasn’t filmmaking; the immediate thought in my head was – if I quit my job to try something new, who will pay me? To solve that problem I first started with wedding photography as it served both the points – people would look at the work and secondly, there was a market to pay me as well. Even after I settled down with that (Wedding photography), it wasn’t very clear that filmmaking is the next step.
Luckily I was in Goa and someone told me about an interesting group of people who were shooting with film cameras and wanted someone to make a documentary on why some people still use film cameras in today’s digital world. And that’s how my journey started. I made the video for them and it became viral in the photography circuit internationally because no one had made something on these lines before. This opened up my mind to the fact that there are many interesting people doing their own little thing and these stories are just lying untapped; especially from a movie perspective. People pick up sensational topics so that the videos go viral. I wanted to stay away from that and pick up topics that may not go viral but would at least make sense to some people. And that’s how it all started.
What led to the concept of 3-minute stories? And more so, why 3 minutes?
The first film I made – the documentary on people using film cameras – wasn’t 3 minutes. I thought I would make a 20-25 minute documentary and talk about all the things that I could think of. But I had no background in storytelling, so it became a challenge to shoot and edit the video. I had so many hours of footage and I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I had two options – I could hire a professional to do it for me, but that was tricky since I didn’t know if I wanted to monetize this project. The other way to solve my problem was to bring down the time duration of the documentary. Because I failed at making something longer, I thought ‘what is the least amount of time in which I can convey a story’. One minute sounded impossible to achieve, even two was difficult. Three looked like the least amount of time in which I could satisfactorily convey at least one point. Start, talk about the point and end. Another thing I realized was that if I make something big after investing 6 to 8 months in it and no one really wants to know about the story, that would be too much of a shock for me. So I thought if I started with the 3 minute, smaller story approach, one day there could be someone who sees the potential in one of these stories and tells me to explore it further and offers to fund it into a full length project. So broadly the idea was to explore more subjects at a faster pace than being stuck to one project for a longer time.
While narrating a story in such a short time, what are the key factors that one needs to keep in mind?
When someone’s says that I’m doing something interesting, this is my story, I ask them – you are doing a lot of interesting things, but will the world care to listen to your story or know about your story fully? Everyone who has a story needs to ask himself/herself this question. Do we really care about listening to all the details all the time? So I realized that one has to be harsh – just because you are doing something good, doesn’t mean that everyone wants to know how you are doing it. Sometimes if I myself am not sure about a story, I tell people that let’s start shooting and then see how it goes. However if I start and realize that I can’t do justice to the story in just 3 minutes, I forget my brand and everything else and ensure that the story is told in the best way.
I regard my documentaries as something that will not tell you everything, but will open up the viewer’s mind to a small idea that they were not thinking about and then push them in a direction where they can explore (the idea) further. So my documentaries may not be complete in a sense but as long as they generate interest amongst others to read and learn more about the idea, my objective is met.
What is the biggest challenging in narrating a story within 3 minutes?
It is very challenging. My initial assumption that you can probably tell a story in 3 minutes was very wrong. If you go back and look at my work, there are just 3-4 stories that are in the 3-minute deadline, and about 12-15 stories that are not. I fail almost all the time, it’s a challenge but I don’t take it to heart – it’s not like I will delete important things just to meet the 3-minute deadline. In a way it has been advantageous to me from two angles – one, if I say 3 minutes to you and you start watching and the story interests you, even if it goes on for 6 minutes, you won’t feel its long. Many a times I’ve asked people if they noticed how long the story was and people haven’t really noticed it. But if I tell you it’s a 10 or 15 minute video, you might just bookmark it and see it later. So it has worked in the sense that even when it’s not 3 minutes, the idea that it is somewhere around it, makes people watch the video. And because the target is 3 minutes, I try to make something, which is as crisp as possible. It’s a challenge to stick to the deadline but I don’t have to follow it always and as a general brand perception it has helped since more people end up watching the video.
Having had no formal training in filmmaking, how have you honed the necessary skills?
A bit of it gets carried from my consultancy background. A consulting job is where you have a lot of information and when you are very clear about the point you want to put across, you use the information in a particular way. The difference was that the medium there (in consultancy) was Powerpoint presentations and the audience was very clear – we knew who we were talking to. And you have to convey things to them in the form of a story or else no one remembers it. My documentaries reflect the same kind of mentality. Most of my stories are not very abstract or artistic. Since I come from an IIT/ Consulting background, they are generally to the point. My personal documentaries are like an extension of the consulting PPT to a more visual form and I don’t know the audience so I make sure that the point is more generic and connects to people on a human level.
How are your projects funded?
Most of the projects are self-funded. In just two or three cases someone funded the travel. Self-funding largely includes my travel expenses. As long as the story motivates me and I get to learn and share something, I don’t mind putting in this basic money. It’s like money being spent on my own education. But there are some (stories) in which I may not learn anything new as I have already done something similar, in that case I charge them some amount. But I haven’t really charged a lot of money from anyone as such.
Your website 3minutestories.com features stories from various people – known and unknown to you as well. How did your concept grown into a platform for everyone to showcase their stories?
I like that idea (people sharing their stories) more. In my personal journey, where I want to do something that I can share with the world, I also want to meet more people, understand what they are doing because that would also help me evolve and figure what I really want to do in life. I am an introvert but this platform makes it easier for me to connect with people. You tell me your story and I will make a documentary on it. I gain by listening to their stories; my documentary must be capturing just five per cent of what I actually understand after meeting them. Some people might just want to share their story, some might want for the story to be told so that more people can know about it. Personally I love the process of meeting new people, listening to what they are doing, irrespective of how the final documentary comes out. Since I’m making a 3-minute documentary I might end up showing very little but a lot more goes into me, I learn much more about the people.
Are there any do’s and don’ts for people who wish to share their stories with you?
No there is no such thing. My only requirement is that you need to have a good story and there should be something that I can shoot. Sometimes there are stories that are difficult to shoot. That’s my only limitation; typically the event needs to be happening right now or if people have some footage that I can use. Otherwise I end up showing the person talk for two minutes, and no one would want to see just interviews. As a storyteller one has to be choosy about the medium in which you want to tell a story, some people assume that everything will look good in a documentary. But the answer is no. You should choose the medium, which does justice to the story, sometimes that could mean just writing it rather than visually showing it.
As a filmmaker, who are the people that influence you? Any documentaries that you’d recommend for people to watch?
I’m more of an output driven person. I look at the works and not who has made it. I watch documentaries day in and day out. I keep motivating myself by seeing good work – whether the person is known or unknown doesn’t matter to me because people are doing such good work these days.
Among the recent ones, Katiyabaaz showed the potential of a documentary to not be boring and be so full of life, like a movie. There is a list of documentaries that I curate and keep pinning that you can check out on Pinterest.
With the entire short film format gaining momentum in recent times, what are your future plans as a filmmaker?
My plan is to get to that first feature length documentary – one hour or so. I have a subject that I have started work on, but it is tricky. I’m so used to making these 3-minute stories and a feature length will need almost 6 – 7 months of my life. And I don’t know what the outcome may be. So my aim is to get that one full length documentary, which reflects my own style, something that can be shown visually and can break the typical notion that we have about documentaries – that they have to be message centric and so on.