The best part of working on a documentary is that the outcome is uncertain. Just as the reason you read a book or watch a movie to see how it is going to end, it is the same anticipation when filming something unfolding right in front of you. You just need to be nimble enough in body and mind to not only keep up with the action, but to be ahead of it.
The urge to produce the moment; to get the best angle, light or geometry is hard to resist. It is a well accepted practice that has produced many shows. You have all the right angles; the scene cut easy and it looks great.
If you were waiting for the “but” part of the story, you have great doc instincts. It may look great, but how does it sound to you?
This may be a strange question coming from a cinematographer, but sometimes it sounds to me like fingernails on a chalkboard when two people are forcing some moment of cloying spontaneity. It is the sound of people in their heads and not in their lives.
Recently, I finished filming a day of verite and some interviews when our production coordinator came up to me (she was helping that day) and told me that she really enjoyed watching me work. It is always nice to get compliments, but I thought to ask her why. She told me that she could see how I almost disappear into a bubble of concentration with our subjects and it was fun to watch me move.
“Wow, thanks” was all I could get out at the time and hopped into the car to go home. But I started to think about it on the way. For the first time in my career a metaphor started to form about how I work. I know this may sound silly, but I am not in the bubble with my subjects… I am the bubble around my subjects. Their movements and their lives are what blow me around the world they are living.
It is a strange to have 15lbs of camera on your shoulder and filming someone with no idea what they are going to do, say or go. You open your senses and listen to everything everyone says and the sounds in the room and I kind of go into a external input state of no mind. I orbit around and the bubble that is that orbit moves when the subject moves. They are the force that blows me around. It is life that directs the observational camera, not the camera directing the life.
How I get there and how I keep myself from falling over furniture and curbs on the street is due to a lot of practice and hopefully a gentle hand to guide you away from obstacles and walls. I never seem to get tired or frustrated when I feel like I am the bubble. I don’t need to know where I am going or doing because the subject does the moving for me. If I don’t interrupt the doc subject with directions all the time they will tell me where to go and always give their best performance.
It isn’t hard to understand that the more you remind the subject that are a part of a TV show, they will get stiff. “Can you do that again, but this time could you stand here?” This is great for on camera professionals, but can be the death knell to real flowing interaction. There is a tone and pace to flowing conversation that is as skittish as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs if you try to direct it. Actors perform… Real life just happens. Sometime the director of photography just needs to let things happen.