5 things you can do to produce Oscar award winning documentaries

Blog 10 February 2023,  Mwenya Chitambala

African stories and storytellers are making their mark in the world of film and taking their careers to dazzling heights in the process. Writer, producer and director Pippa Elrich joined the Africa No Filter Academy for a fire-side chat about her career and Oscar award winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher.

Passion, partnerships and discipline. These are just some of the tools that director, writer and producer Pippa Elrich used while spearheading My Octopus Teacher, Netflix’s Oscar award winning documentary.

She was speaking at Africa No Filter Academy Presents: Produce an Oscar Award-Winning Documentary with Pippa Ehrlich. Elrich spoke about the highs and lows of working on My Octopus Teacher, and how the Oscar win boosted her career.

Most importantly, she encouraged the audience to not let challenges like fund-raising, not having the latest camera equipment and indeed lack of international experience deter them from dreaming big and aiming for global platforms for their stories.

The fireside chat was hosted by ANF’s grant manager, Victor Mark-Onyegbu. Here are five things you can do to take your storytelling to the next level.

1. Tell stories beyond the usual stereotypes: Nature and conservation stories are typically told through a negative frame, something that can turn a great idea into yet another story that’s already been told.  Elrich set out to change this narrative with the documentary. “I’ve been working in conservation journalism and communication for a really long time, and I was quite frustrated with how that narrative was shared,” she said, adding, “I felt like a lot of how we tell stories about nature and conversation and the distraction of our planet is very negative, obviously, and based on facts but people are not moved by information. They are moved by strong emotional stories.”

She said creators must always put their audience’s reaction top of mind to create an emotive connection to the story.

“In documentary filmmaking you've got a shot of something that’s incredible that no one else has, that’s authentic and mind-blowing it doesn’t matter what camera it’s shot on,” she added.

2. Partner with the right people: My Octopus Story was filmed over several years by filmmaker and diver, Craig Foster. The story tugged at Pippa’s passion and heartstrings when she took diving lessons from Foster. Once the project was in production, they also collaborated with other filmmakers who had even more experience than the core production team. This, Elrich said, allowed the story to develop into the best version possible.

“When I heard Craig’s story about the experience he had with the octopus, I was just so moved and I was really excited because I thought this is an opportunity to tell a story about someone who has the same relationship with nature to what I do, and a very positive relationship with the national world, which is I think that’s a really powerful starting point.”

She added: “ It is crucial to have the right people who understand the aim of the documentary and how important the execution of the documentary is.”

3. Know your subject: This may seem obvious because research is part of the storytelling process. However, Elrich said creators need to expand their knowledge as far and wide as possible, including reading research and scientific papers.  It’s equally important for different talents that are involved in the production process to have deep knowledge of the subject, in Pippa’s case, of nature and conservation. To help edit the documentary into a compelling masterpiece, Elrich and her team roped in a production company that specialises in natural history, distribution and production. “They helped us get the film into a much better space and they brought on James Reid, who is my co-director, to help to do an interview with Craig because something you learn very quickly as a documentary filmmaker is the closer you become to your subject, the better you get to know each other, the harder it can be to interview someone because particularly for the format required for this film. We needed it to feel like Craig was telling us the story for the very first time and that’s how it feels in the film.

4. Get experts with an  international perspective: My Octopus Teacher is, in essence, an African story, but it was created to appeal to audiences beyond the continent. To make this possible, Elirch and her team worked with others who had the global experience they lacked, for instance her co-director. “James Reid is a very accomplished filmmaker with much more experience than I have so  his expertise was incredible,” she said. “And then you throw in sound designer, Barry Donnie, who’s been working as a sound engineer for 20 to 30 years and now one of the top guys (in his field). He has worked on many Netflix shows and Hollywood movies.”

She added: “What  started off as a very local African, South African team quite quickly became international  when people realised this was a film they wanted to get involved in and that was very helpful because it just meant that the intellectual capacity in our team was growing. It’s useful to have, particularly if you want to make something that’s international.  It's very helpful to have an international perspective.” This perspective allowed Elirch and her team to create a product with global appeal. Having an international perspective allows creators to understand what the audience is looking for and how you can tailor your story for them to be able to understand the story and buy into it.

5. Pitching for success: No stage of the production process is easy or straight-forward. This certainly applies to looking for distribution and streaming platforms for productions. In the case of My Octopus Teacher, getting on Netflix took time and patience.

“We tried to pitch it early on but what you discover quite quickly when you’ve made a film about a man who makes friends with an octopus is that it's not an easy story to pitch. It was something that people needed to see in order to buy into. So once we had a really good rough cut that we were happy with, we sent it to Netflix and that’s how we got their buy-in,” she explained, “But we were far down the road at that point. It’s nerve-wracking because you’ve invested so much time and energy and you have used every bit of money in your bank account and you just got to pray that someone likes what you’ve made.” The process can be filled with self-doubt but this is a natural reaction, not a challenge that should deter you from pitching. Boost your confidence throughout the pitching process by believing in your story and understanding what it needs in order to get the attention of those you are pitching to.

6. You have to be passionate: With an Oscar and several international awards under her belt, ElrIch has more resources and a choice of collaborators but this was not the case while working on My Octopus Teacher. Passion kept her going, she said.

 “This was kind of a magical film for me and a magical experience for me.  I was working with amazing people.” The passion everyone had fuelled the team to keep working on the production and refining it even before it was bought by Netflix. “You know when you wake in the morning, and you’ve just got something to do and you’re so excited to be doing it and you feel like you're doing what you meant to be doing? That was hugely motivating.”

Passion helped stay on course even when questioned making the documentary when experiencing financial struggles and rejections by streaming platforms and other distributors.