How we made our new documentary

This is a production summary of our documentary FORMAT FRANKFURT.

In late summer 2010 we moved with our company from a small town to Frankfurt. We only knew the hot spots but not the places where the locals would go. We also didn’t know any people living in the city, so first Frankfurt felt very big and strange in a way.

After a few months we really felt comfortable in Frankfurt. But because we didn’t knew what the city really was like and we noticed that other people felt the same way Marcel came up with the idea to make a film about the city and the people living and working in here so anyone from out of town could see and feel what the modern Frankfurt really is like.

Check out the latest trailer:

We started researching and found out that there was not a single full-length film about the city. We were amazed because we did a 60 minutes documentary about a small town two years before and expected that a city with 600.000 citizens would already have a its own film.

Our intention was to show everything how it really is, the good and sunny sides but also the problems and conflicts between people. It should be a real documentary and not a commercial for the city!

We wanted to give the audience a new look at the German culture and show that there is more than bratwurst, prezel and beer. Especially Frankfurt has become a very international city with people coming from all over the world. There are not many native Frankfurters anymore which becomes very visible in FORMAT FRANKFURT.

Here is also an 8-minute long video that takes a quick look at how we made FORMAT FRANKFURT:

To get inspired I looked out for similar movies about German cities. I only found one about Berlin which also caught my attention because Michael Ballhaus (Cinematographer “Gangs of New York”, “The Departed”) directed it. I remembered the documentary because I saw the trailer in summer 2009 and I really liked it but I’ve never seen the whole film. In late 2010 we watched the film and were excited by the concept and cinematography. All in all the film wasn’t that good but the idea behind it. What impressed us the most was the point that there wasn’t a narrator or a sort of commentary: Only people talking in front of the camera without any judgment from a person off screen.

In Ballhaus’ movie most of the people are celebrities. We instantly knew that we wanted to show the average citizen or people who work in Frankfurt but live somewhere else.
Anyway, to get a bit of attention in the local press we contacted a few celebrities that are from Frankfurt or work in the city such as Steffi Jones (former pro soccer player), Marco Schreyl (television and radio host) and music producer Hassan Annouri who grew up in Frankfurt. They were the first people we interviewed in early 2011.

Filming started in February 2011. Our first shoot took only 30 minutes. We shot an interview with former soccer world champion Steffi Jones who grew up in a social troubled area. So when you only have 30 minutes to shoot an interview you have to be prepared. We had our questions, one microphone, two tripods and two DSLRs.

The interviewee and Marcel sat on a chair to talk. I was behind the cameras making sure everything is all right and not out of focus. I was using the good old Canon 550D (Rebel T2i) because the T3i (EOS 600D) wasn’t even announced at that point of time. The second camera was the Canon 7D. We used a 50mm lens and a 70-200mm lens (which was over 20 years old and still sharp and crisp). There was no panning or zooming so it was easy to control both cameras. After we finished the interview I checked the footage and everything was fine. After transferring the footage to the computer I did some color grading tests in After Effects and I liked the look of the image. There was no difference visible between the T2i and the 7D.

Until summer we shot a few more interviews. We wanted to make a project trailer to get more attention. We shot some B-roll and made a first trailer. Since we haven’t had so many contacts in Frankfurt we decided to find interesting people through the newspaper. We told the press about the project and then also released the trailer so people could imagine what the final movie might look like.

It was almost like a casting call but we didn’t looked for actors but for people who could tell a story or show something secret and special that most people just don’t know.
Many people contacted us, more than we would have thought. It was not always easy to find out whether somebody has something interesting to tell or just wants to be in front of a camera. But we knew this could happen and we wanted to give many people the opportunity to show us what Frankfurt means to them. We were afraid that only one kind of people would be interested but after filming with the first 15 people we realized that we found a good mixture of people.

I thought a lot about the look, I wanted it to be cinematic. That doesn’t mean a crazy shallow depth of field but 24 frames per second and a certain color. It was clear that we would use DSLRs to get that look and also a lot of flexibility, because we wanted it to be dynamic in terms of camera angles and movement: Run and gun shooting style!

Another point for the small setup was that we didn’t had any legal permission to shoot. From a legal perspective it’s necessary but we didn’t had any problems during the production.

Between summer and winter 2011 we filmed around 40 people. On some days we shot multiple interviews and then there was a longer break. It was not a constant shoot because we did not make any money with this movie at this point so we also had to do our commercial work and continued to shoot the doc in our spare time.

The great thing about this kind of project is that you meet a lot of people and you get to know them, sometimes really close. What we noticed in the two years is that the city might look big and international but in terms of people knowing each other it’s like a small town. We interviewed people separately and found later out that they know each other or are connected in some way. In the end we interviewed nearly 50 people.


Our original plan for the movie was to shoot until the end of 2011 and edit FORMAT FRANKFURT from January to March 2012 so we could get a summer release. But we met some new people who we knew would also be great for the film. After all we shot interviews until March. We met with some marketing people and talked about distributing and selling the movie but after three months of talking we decided to go separate ways. They promised us a big release and said that they could get us more celebrities for the film but nothing happened.

On a sunny summer morning in August I started with the editing. Hundreds of hours of footage had to be watched! I made a lot of notes and always watched scenes again to make sure they are working out as they should be. The hardest part was to choose the right order for the sequences. A lot of people said the same things so I had to pick the most unique statement because we don’t wanted to have a movie where everybody tells the same story without knowing.
In December the movie got a clear structure. I moved some sequences around and after a while it looked more and more familiar and logic. I also did a lot of fine tweaking. Cutting out little sentences that aren’t important and removing some “uhmm’” but not too much so it doesn’t sound unnatural.

While being in post-production and noticing that a few b-roll shots are being missing, we did some pick-up shots in late 2012. Mostly shot with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. There is also a super slow motion sequence in the film that we captured with the Sony FS700 which delivers good looking footage but is uncomfortable to shoot with due to the bad ergonomics.

One of the hardest parts of the post-production was the color grading. As I said before, I didn’t wanted a normal looking image like you see on the news. I wanted a cinematic look. I did a lot of different tests. I started with a very flat look, moved to a more contrasty looking style. In the end I didn’t liked any of the styles after watching FORMAT FRANKFURT for the second time. I came up with the idea of making a mix of flat and colorful grading. I figured out that the colors had to be strong and all in all a summer touch even some shots were greyer because we shot them in winter. Pushing down the highlights and overexposed parts of the image really made a difference to me. It gave the image more dynamic range – at least it looked so.

Even Adobe CS6 was released in May 2012 the major part of the film was edited in Premiere Pro CS5.5 which didn’t had features like the Warp Stabilizer which I used on several shots. A lot of visual effects that aren’t really visible were done in After Effects. The final edit was finished with CS6 and CC a few weeks ago.

Due to other projects and having trouble finding a theater to premiere our film, for one year almost nothing happened. At this point of time the film was almost finished.

A really big concern and problem was music. We needed music, obviously. In the film a band called SKINNY JEANS is covering a song by Rihanna and we filmed their performance on the street. It was great. Unfortunately if you want to distribute a film featuring such a song cover you first need to get the okay from Rihanna and then register the covered version in Germany by the GEMA who is responsible for music royalty and licensing. After that you have to pay for the usage in the film. Since that would have cost a few thousand Euros we decided against it and cut the sequence out. This is a thing that can make your work undoable very easily. If you are planning on doing a documentary about music be careful and get in touch with a lawyer first – before you hit the record button.

Since the whole production didn’t cost that much except our time and energy licensing music would have been the most expensive part of the film. Why? We knew that we would show the film a few times in a cinema plus DVD distribution. These two forms of distribution require two different licenses in most cases (this depends on where the music is licensed from). In summer 2013 we realized that releasing the film online would make sense because of our international audience (that’s you!).

Technically these are three different licenses. In the end we would have been paying a few thousand Dollars for royalty-free music. Two months later we received an e-mail from a music library based in Newcastle, UK. They wrote that they would like to support us in terms of getting great music for our YouTube videos and also our documentary. We are very glad and happy that gave us access to their great library of music. For FORMAT FRANKFURT we needed a variety of titles. Dance, classical, electronic and much more. Thanks to Matt and Mark for supporting us!

Watch the film in HD:

FORMAT FRANKFURT is now available worldwide for streaming and downloading in Full HD on Vimeo on demand. The film is 78 minutes long and has an English voice over (female and male) because reading subtitles for almost 80 minutes can be really tiring and boring. In short sequences there are some subtitles but not much. You can stream the film for a period of 48 hours for 4.99$ or stream and download it for 8.99$ (the HD file is ca. 3GB big). To watch the film you need to register on Vimeo.

In Germany the film is available on DVD and now also on Vimeo on demand but it’s a different link and only accessible in German speaking countries so nobody from the accidently buys the German version without understanding any word. Unfortunately we don’t have a much behind the scenes footage but will feature different production steps and clips in our online course on how to make a documentary which will be released later this summer.

If you want to support us or just like to watch a new film make sure to head over to Vimeo and watch FORMAT FRANKFURT!

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