Over the last year I filmed a short documentary on the life and artistic career of my father Wayne Forte. He has been one of the strongest influences on me, not only as a father, but as a prolific lifelong artist.
I wanted a way to share his remarkable story with a wider public, to preserve a record of his memories for future generations, and to better understand the roots of my own ideas.
I used only the most basic equipment: a smartphone, a microphone, a tripod, a stabilizing gimbal, and video-editing software on my computer. I had no film crew, no expensive cameras, and did no post-production except what I could accomplish on my own.
I had never made a film before. I had no real experience with sound, cinematography, lighting, scripts, interviewing, editing, or any of the dozens of specialities that go into making films. I didn’t even have much of a plan when I started. I simply turned on my smartphone camera and started recording.
It took 16 months, more than 100 total hours of work, and 17 hours of footage from 4 countries, all condensed down to 46 minutes.
The full editing timeline for the final film in Adobe Premiere. Each slice is a different video clip.
When I finished the final cut, I premiered the film on YouTube in a coordinated viewing with over a hundred family, friends, and random Internet strangers watching from their homes in the midst of a global pandemic. In the couple months since, the film has been viewed more than 6,000 times by people around the world.
Every part of this story would have been improbable or impossible just 10 years ago. It was enabled by a quiet revolution in our ability to tell long-form stories using video, disguised as a steady stream of hardware and software updates every year.
This is the story of how I did it, what I learned, and the profound implications for the modern creative process I discovered along the way.
In March of 2019 I received news that an art gallery in Los Angeles would be hosting an exhibition of 30 years of my father’s Biblically themed artwork.
This was a huge milestone for him. And not just because it would be a prominent showcase in the heart of Hollywood. He had had a lot of success with his paintings of figures and still lifes, but the secular, mainstream art world had never embraced his religious art, which has long been his true passion.
Here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase decades of his most personally meaningful work in his hometown. I was living in Mexico City at the time, and decided to fly back to be there.
From there it quickly became a project.
If I was going to fly all the way back to the U.S., I thought, I might as well film the opening night. If I was going to film the opening night, I might as well do a few short interviews with the friends and collectors who would be there.
And if I was going to do all that, why not just film a few other interviews while I’m in town and tell the story of my dad’s career as an artist?
In my productivity courses I’m constantly advising people to “dial down the scope.” In other words, to reduce the size and complexity of their projects so they have a better chance of finishing them.
But once in a while, a project comes along that is so interesting, so unique, and so meaningful that it’s worth dialing up the scope. The main purpose of keeping most projects small is so that when a really special one comes along, you have the time and space to make it big.
I realized that by making this film, I could accomplish a few different goals at once.
It would be an opportunity to learn how to make higher quality, longer videos to promote my work. I’d long wanted to be more active on YouTube, but without a hands-on project, I never seemed to get around to it. I sensed the revolutionary implications of everyone walking around with a professional-quality camera at all times. I knew I needed to get my hands dirty to be a part of it.
I also had a more personal motivation. A few years earlier, my dad had had a cancer scare. Although he was now fully recovered, it had shocked me with the realization that he wouldn’t be around forever. As I looked forward to starting a family of my own, I wanted to document his life so my future kids would have the chance to know him like I did. And to better understand for myself how his attitudes toward art, creativity, productivity, spirituality, and life in general had so deeply influenced my own.
At first glance, this was an absolutely absurd project for a novice to take on.
I had made a few short videos on YouTube, but nothing anywhere close to this scale or complexity. I didn’t have any special equipment, had never used professional video editing software, and didn’t know the first thing about lighting or sound.
But I did have one trick up my sleeve: my system for digital note-taking, which I teach in my course Building a Second Brain. I knew that I could easily manage the information that I’d need to plan, organize, and execute the project using digital notes.
16 months later, on June 2, 2020, my dad’s 70th birthday, I screened the final cut for my family online. We watched it together at a coordinated time, and had a touching conversation afterward on Zoom about our shared memories.
It was truly one of the most special and meaningful moments with my family that I can remember.
A screenshot from my family’s post-screening conversation on Zoom
A month later I screened the film again for my followers using YouTube’s Premiere feature. I shared the starting time and a link with the subscribers of my weekly email newsletter, and over 100 of them showed up to experience it together.
As promised, I’m finally ready to share what I learned.
From how I managed the whole project using digital notes, to what I learned about interviewing, to what I discovered about creating virtual community, to the future potential of amateur films. I’ll share screenshots of all 21 notes I created along the way, explain how I used them, and give you my best advice on how to make a film of your own.
The role of digital notes
This project simply would not have been possible without digital notes.
From the very beginning, I needed an easy, lightweight way to manage large amounts of information. For example, scenes to shoot, questions to ask in interviews, filming tips, editing guidelines, examples to borrow from, lessons from other films, checklists to follow, and many other logistical details.
There are a few things that make notes uniquely suited to amateur filmmaking:
- They are casual, fitting easily into the small moments of the day
- They are multimedia, allowing you to capture text but also screenshots, still frames, pictures of backgrounds or locations, etc. in one centralized place
- They are mobile-friendly, allowing for easy entry and retrieval when you’re out and about filming
There are specialized software programs available for managing full-scale film projects. But I wasn’t a professional filmmaker and couldn’t afford to dedicate myself full time to the project. I didn’t need a sophisticated tool nor did I want to learn a new interface.
What I needed was a quick and dirty way of making small bits of progress whenever I had the time, approximately 1-2 days per month. Notes perfectly fit the bill.
There were five overlapping stages I moved through in this project:
Let’s examine the notes I used for each one.
For Praxis members only, click here to download the full content of all 21 notes shown below in Evernote and Notion formats. You can borrow from what I learned, explore how I construct notes, and even use my notes as a template for your own video project.
STAGE 1: RESEARCH
I knew right from the start that I would need a lot of exposure to good filmmaking. I had watched many documentaries throughout my life, but now I had a completely different motivation: to borrow the parts I liked and avoid the parts I disliked.
I polled my followers on Twitter and Facebook for recommendations of good documentaries, and within a few hours had several dozen. The popularization of video streaming services has made an endless variety of documentaries available to us at the click of a button. They don’t get as much attention as the latest hit series, but we’ve never had such easy access to the world’s best documentary films. Or as many options for distributing our own.
I put the list of film recommendations into a note, and over the next few weeks drew from this list for my evening watching, instead of the usual endless Netflix browsing. I noted the takeaways from each film below the title using bullet points:
I also decided to take an online course on filmmaking for more structured learning. I was delighted to discover that Ken Burns, one of the filmmakers I most admired, offered a class on documentary filmmaking on the Masterclass platform.
It only took me a couple days to watch the videos and take notes on that course, and I came away with a wealth of practical knowledge and timeless wisdom that Burns had to offer. Here’s a sample of my notes, which I returned to time and again as my experience grew:
From the very beginning of the research phase, I was already capturing footage. I turned on my camera and started filming anytime I was with my family, or when I had some downtime. I experimented with new angles, tried all the buttons, played with all the settings, and played back clips on my computer to see how they came out.
Once I started editing my footage in Adobe Premiere, I quickly realized that I would need to learn how the program works. I watched some free videos on YouTube, but knew that being able to ask questions of someone would help me move a lot faster. I hired a friend of mine, Joshua, to meet with me on Zoom and help me through those roadblocks.
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Premiere is an intimidating tool. It bristles with buttons and switches and toggles on every square inch. It is made for professional videographers and filmmakers, and thus offers a staggering array of the most finely tuned capabilities.
Luckily, almost as soon as Joshua and I started going through those options, I realized I would only need to know about 10-15% of Premiere’s features. I had no need for sophisticated video or audio effects, or stitching together multiple camera angles, or adjusting the exposure or color correction (thanks to the iPhone’s brilliant built-in image algorithms).
I only ended up doing three 1-hour calls with Joshua over the course of 6 months, plus a couple other short troubleshooting calls much later when I accidentally messed up my audio tracks.
Here are my notes from our calls:
I also saved a couple notes on potential topics for future exploration, such as how to organize large amounts of footage, how to do video transcription, and tips on how to interview one’s parents.
That was the extent of my research!
In the past, it would have been necessary to dive deep into the technical details of video formats, compression types, frame rates, lighting equipment, audio bitrates, and on and on.
With so much of that complexity now abstracted away behind the lens of my smartphone camera, I was left with far more time for the parts I really cared about: how to ask penetrating questions, how to construct a scene, how to tell a story, how to pack an emotional punch.
Even now, I barely understand most of the technical aspects of filmmaking. It’s simply not needed to get started anymore.
STAGE 2: PLANNING
My default approach to almost any project is to execute it in a “bottom-up” way.
What does that mean?
Instead of spending tons of time upfront creating detailed plans that might have nothing to do with reality, which would be a “top down” approach, I prefer to start taking action as soon as possible, and then see what kinds of plans emerge organically.
This project was no different. In fact, the very first shot I ever took ended up becoming the opening shot of the film. How’s that for getting right into the action!
My planning was thus very light, and almost always done in the midst of filming. For example, I made a bulleted timeline of my dad’s life to make sure I was covering each of the major stages.
Even a short, casual list like this one sparked ideas for people I could interview, places to visit, and questions to ask. I then recorded those new ideas in a separate note, so I had a quick reference and checklist of shots still left to take.
Much later on in the editing stage, I realized I could insert photos into my film, using the classic “Ken Burns” effect of slow panning. I whipped up a note with ideas of photos I could look for, which again served as a handy reference as I went through old photo albums.
These quick, lightweight planning methods provided me with a tremendous amount of direction without bogging me down in bureaucracy. The notes I’ve shared above took mere minutes and served as critical touchstones every time I decided to take out my camera.
STAGE 3: FILMING
As I said before, filming was not a specific stage. It took place throughout the project, from the first day I decided to commit to it, to almost the very week it was screened. But I’ll consolidate all the notes I found most useful here to give you a window into how I used them.
Most of my filming-related notes were made up of tips and guidelines to follow. In the heat of the moment, with precious seconds passing by, I needed to be able to look at a single list or risk being completely thrown off track.
For example, I created this note to summarize the most important settings for my wireless microphone, the Zoom H1n.
It includes the “need-to-know” settings at the top, and pictures of the entire manual toward the bottom in case I needed to find an obscure setting. This is a great example of how useful it can be to create a succinct summary of a body of knowledge, while also keeping the full details close by in case you need them.
I made a similar checklist of “filming tips” to run through every time I turned on my camera, to make sure I didn’t miss a critical step.
STAGE 4: EDITING
Similar to filming, I didn’t wait long to start editing. I knew from experience that the best learning would happen when I tried to take one “slice” of raw footage all the way to a final product, so I attempted to do that as early as possible.
And I was right: only by seeing the footage on a large screen, sitting back and imagining how they would feel to an audience, did I gain fundamental insights into how the original footage could be made better.
Things like how long to linger on someone’s face as they’re speaking, where the cut between shots should go, how fast to pan across a landscape to make it engaging but not too quick, how high or far away from a subject to hold the camera, etc.
It’s difficult to put this kind of tacit knowledge into words. Which is why it can only be gained through experience. It’s an endless list of micro and macro-adjustments that no YouTube video or textbook or course could teach me. I had to make every mistake (in some cases several times) to understand these principles for myself.