Friday, September 30, 2016

What I learned while making a documentary

In 2015, DC Comics began officially crediting Bill Finger as the co-creator of Batman. It was a story 76 years in the unmaking.

And a documentary five years in the making.

In 2011, a production company and I had begun working on what is now called Batman and Bill, a documentary about my efforts to get Bill Finger that credit. We did marathon interview sessions in 2011 and 2016; in 2016, that consisted of interviews for three days, five to seven hours per day (and the first two of those days started two days after I got back from a month-long trip to Asia).

In the process, I learned a lot about filmmaking and storytelling in general, largely from co-directors Don Argott and Sheena Joyce.


  • If interviewing someone near a fridge, you might have to unplug it so the camera doesn't pick up its hum. To ensure you don't forget to plug it back in before you leave, put your car keys in it. Similarly, the third and final 2016 interview session was on a particularly hot July day, and because the air conditioning blows audibly, we had to shut it off.
  • Strive for variety: don't film too many interviews/scenes in the same room; shoot some scenes from multiple angles; if interviewing one person in different scenarios but on the same day, have the person change clothes sometimes.

  • Record room tone—the sound of a space when no one is talking. Apparently, not all relative silence is the same and filmmakers need to have those different room tones on hand to lay down at certain moments.
  • When filming a still image (i.e. a book cover), linger on it longer than may seem necessary.
  • When a person sits next to the camera to interview someone who is on camera, no one should stand next to the interviewer so as not to divert the gaze of the interviewee.
  • At times, Don would film me in my office with the main lights off. Even though he sometimes turned on small spotlights and sometimes natural light was present, it still seemed too dark to me, but it doesn't appear that way on film.


  • Documentaries tend to be more engaging when they are following a story that has a current component and can be resolved on film (as opposed to telling a story completely in the past where the resolution is already documented somewhere).
  • The on-screen text that identifies the name/title of a character or other information is called a "lower third." There is no standard on how often to re-identify people who speak multiple times throughout a documentary. If someone first appears at the beginning and then not again for 30 minutes or more, it is probably better to re-identify them. It can get tricky if the film has many talking heads. If you re-identify too little, it may confuse the viewer. If you re-identify too much, it may distract the viewer.

It's been an honor to work with Don and Sheena and their team, which included Demian Fenton and Alexandra Orton. They are all so good at what they do. They believed in Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman even before the book came out. I am very protective of my little slice of Bill's story and found myself trusting this crew quickly and for the duration. In doing their own original research and putting in the time to develop a deep grasp of the intricacies of the story, they leaped over my expectations. And no detail was insignificant.

I will be praising them more in the future.

I've watched various docs and mini-docs on superheroes and Batman in particular:

  • "Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman" (2005)
  • "Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story" (sometimes referred to as "Batman and Me: A Devotion to Destiny, The Bob Kane Story"; an extra on the 2008 DVD Batman: Gotham Knight)
  • Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics (2010)

Of course Bill was not given proper weight in any of them.

We had to make up for decades of neglect.

titles I proposed for our film:

  • The Batman Betrayal
  • Batman's Biggest Secret
  • Man and Batman
  • The Uncaped Crusader
  • Batman's Fingerprints
  • Batman Man
  • The Batmaniac
  • Finger Writing
  • Finger Pointing
  • Finger at Bat
  • Batman and Nobleman
  • Fighting for Bill Finger
  • Batman and Robbin' (kidding)
  • Giving Kane the Finger (even more kidding)

title the filmmakers proposed that I really liked:

  • Batman Created By

Both the book and the film were long, uncertain processes. I embarked on both with no guarantee that either would see the light of day (or the dark of a cinema): I wrote the book on spec (not under contract) and we started the film in 2011 before we knew if Bill would get credit. For a spell, no credit = no movie.

At one point, someone observed that a documentary with any penguins in it is more likely to be a hit, the most notable example being March of the Penguins (2005). Well, ours has a penguin. To be precise, a Penguin.

In closing:

I agree: no one wants a dumbass documentary. How would you feel about a kickass documentary?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mark, this was fascinating to read! Thanks for the "behind the scenes" look at the making of a documentary, the things to consider. Love this kind of stuff :)