May 16, 2023

​​How to Build a Career in Documentaries with Chuck Braverman

Loring Weisenberger
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With a career spanning feature films, television, documentaries, and fiction, Chuck Braverman is a living legend. We had the privilege of hosting him on a recent episode of our podcast, On Production, and are proud to share his wisdom with our readers.   

In this post, we’ll highlight the principles that Chuck Braverman used to build his extraordinary career. We’ll cover Chuck’s top priorities, most valuable lessons, and insights drawn from decades of working across multiple formats. 

Let’s start with some background.

Introducing Chuck Braverman 

As a teenager, Chuck Braverman discovered a love of photography. This single hobby planted a seed that would later bloom into an epic filmmaking career.

Chuck’s passion for still images served as a bridge to moving pictures. While still in high school, his first professional experience in filmmaking was selling footage to local news networks. Bolex in hand, he chased fire engines and police cruisers so that their exploits could be seen on the evening news.

Chuck’s early forays into filmmaking naturally led him to film school. He attended the University of Southern California alongside other Hollywood heavy-hitters like George Lucas and Caleb Deschanel.

After graduating in 1967, Chuck charted a winding professional path that took him from short films to commercials, through independent features and mainstream TV. 

Chuck’s made music videos for artists like David Bowie and Cher. He’s directed episodes of hit shows like St. Elsewhere and Beverly Hills 90210. He designed the title sequence for Soylent Green and even did a stint as the senior vice president at Sony New Technologies, supervising a slate of story-driven 3D IMAX films.

And that’s just scratching the surface. 

Chuck’s three lessons for documentary filmmaking

More than anything, however, Chuck Braverman is known for his active role in the documentary community. He’s produced programs for major television networks and was nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary short Curtain Call.

Today, Chuck’s commitment to the documentary craft continues through Westdoc Online, an organization that creates community through in-depth conversations with the who’s-who of documentary filmmakers. Chuck is CEO of Westdoc Online and regularly hosts interviews himself.

Now that we’ve seen Chuck’s bona fides, let’s dive into his insight. Without further ado, let’s break down three key lessons from Chuck about building a career in professional filmmaking.

1. Put story at the heart of everything you do

For Chuck Braverman, the entire craft of filmmaking always has and always will revolve around a single, timeless, point. Story is king. 

“I don’t think the craft has changed. The three most important things that you learn- in either fiction or nonfiction- are story, story, and story.”

Filmmaking is storytelling, as far as Chuck’s concerned. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, a commercial, TV show, short, or feature film, the audience requires a compelling story. 

No matter what else changes, that simple fact remains steadfast. The rest is just bells and whistles. 

That includes technology

Over the course of his career, Chuck has navigated multiple extreme shifts in filmmaking technology. 

He worked through the monumental transitions from film to video and from linear to non-linear editing systems. He was making movies when digital cameras first appeared and continued to do so as they became the Hollywood standard. 

Now, Chuck is still active amidst the disruptive film technology of the present moment, in which marvels like virtual production and 3D previsualization are steadily becoming the norm. 

Even after facing such tremendous change, Chuck remains unphased. He’s still focused on his central filmmaking principle. 

“And it doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting on a Red, an Arri, or a Bolex, you gotta have a good story.”

Technological advances can make a filmmaker’s tools more fun and more impressive. At the end of the day, however, they’re still just tools. They’re only as valuable as they are useful. They’re only useful when they serve the larger purpose of telling a good story.  

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should neglect technical knowledge entirely. Filmmaking requires a firm foundation in craft that goes beyond specific tools. 

2. Learn the principles of photography

The first step in Chuck's development as both an artist and a professional was his early passion for photography. It taught him a cornerstone of cinematic craftsmanship: how to make and modify an image with basic photographic controls.

“If you want to be a director or a producer, you have to understand the principles of photography. And I always would emphasize, you have to understand what depth of field is. What is depth of field? How do you control depth of field? Why do you care about depth of field? Why do I care that this background is out of focus on purpose?”

A mastery of photographic principles allows filmmakers to take a big picture approach to their craft. To direct or produce a movie, you first have to know how to direct or produce an image. 

In other words, if you understand how an individual image is made, you’ll have more control over its use as a storytelling device.  

Note, however, that Chuck’s choice of words was very specific. His advice comes with a subtle but important qualifier. 

Understand principles, not tools

As far as Chuck’s concerned, the tail should never wag the dog. If your craft is rooted in technology, the application of your craft will be dictated by technology. However, if your craft is rooted in principles, technology becomes merely a means to an end. 

But it’s a thin line, right? Why does it matter? Check out how Chuck elaborates on his previously quoted comment:

“People that go to the movies, they don’t understand what [depth of field] is, but they know that something is happening that’s different.” 

By choosing to focus on principles in craft, filmmakers can more easily and intensely focus on creating an experience for the audience. 

Whether in the theater or at home, an audience will not be compelled by what camera you shot on or what lights you used. The story you tell and how you choose to tell it will draw them.   

3. Make connections and build community

The story of Chuck Braverman’s career underscores the importance of making personal connections. Yes, networking is critical, but it’s also about much more than that. Throughout his professional life, Chuck has been active in a series of supportive communities.

The trend goes all the way back to the very beginning. Early on, Chuck found important connections within his family. 

His mother, in particular, provided pivotal support at multiple intersections, enabling Chuck to pursue his passions. She even generated one of his first major professional opportunities.

“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was the number one show on television. And my mother was an amazing woman… She knew everybody and had been everywhere. She met Tommy Smothers and she came home and said, ‘I met Tommy. You have to go. He wants to meet you.’” 

From that chance meeting, Chuck was given the chance to direct a short film entitled American Time Capsule. The short was a huge success and launched Chuck’s career as a director. 

Chuck also built a sense of community among his peers. Having graduated during the golden age of film schools, his fellow students were an important source of support, collaboration, and crew over many years. 

“I did many, many commercials for big companies. And I started a production company, and that evolved and just grew. And [I] hired a lot of my former USC classmates, which is one of the benefits of going to film school today. Even though you can see and find and learn everything on YouTube, you’re not going to meet the next, you know, George Lucas or Caleb Deschanel or whatever.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg. From his first still photos to his first days directing television, Chuck has engaged with his community to create opportunities for himself and other filmmakers every step of the way.   

Chuck continues to build community with Westdoc Online

Westdoc Online is a bi-weekly interview series highlighting the best and the brightest from the documentary community. Westdoc started as a live conference back in 2009. It ran for five years before shutting down due to costs and a lack of time. 

In 2018, Chuck saw an opportunity to revitalize the best parts of the conference and make them free online. He took a chance, and it worked.

Five years and more than 120 episodes later, the Westdoc Online community is thriving. 

“It’s just been a wonderful experience talking and meeting with and interviewing all these filmmakers. I think something has magically happened, especially in the last year. Instead of me having to call up the filmmakers and the publicists, suddenly I have all the publicists calling me.”

From the latest documentary Oscar nominees to Wrapbook’s own Cameron Woodward, Westdoc Online features conversations that paint a thriving and diverse portrait of the documentary community.

You can catch up on all the episodes from the very beginning here

Wrapping Up

Special thanks to Chuck Braverman for sharing his time and expertise with On Production and the Wrapbook Blog. 

For more insight into the world of unscripted production, check out our conversation with Floor is Lava producer Irad Eyal or our guide to making a docuseries out of a documentary

Last Updated 
May 16, 2023


At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Loring Weisenberger

Loring is a Los Angeles-based writer, director, and creative producer. His work has been commissioned by a diverse range of clients- from Havas Worldwide to Wisecrack, inc.- and has been screened around the world. Through a background that blends project development with physical production across multiple formats, Loring has developed a uniquely eclectic skillset as a visual storyteller.

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