There are so many ways to approach filming documentary or factual content. Each way has its own strengths and weaknesses. There is something intimate and simple about being a single camera hero working with the holy trinity of director, sound recordist and cinematographer. Getting into larger factual shows that demand more multi-cam coverage also has its benefits of way more comprehensive coverage, but becomes more of a circus when it comes to size. But I think there are ways the multi-cam shoot can really capture emotional scenes so well.
I have been lucky over the last 10 years to find myself DP’ing formatted documentary series that bend the “reality” series format back towards its documentary roots. Perhaps to put it another way, putting the reality back into reality. 2021 was no exception to this run of luck as I was the lead documentary DP on a new series that I feel has one foot in traditional documentary film, one foot planted in the moment and a sightly suspicious eye on the past 22 years of reality tv production. I think that our work on this new international travel doc series has given me a bit more clarity on how I like to approach a multi-camera formatted doc series. Trying to create a space for experiences to flourish while keeping in mind that there is a format that needs to breath as well.
Keep it Real
It never ceases to amaze me what happens when you have a great format and you can just trust it. In these hybrid doc series, where the subjects go is a construction and the itinerary and activities are curated, but when things are going well the need for active direction seems to stop. It will be impactful for the camera when it is important to the subject and they are allowed to stay in the moment. You will always have something interesting to film when you bring people to a great experience and allow them to have that experience.
One of the ways I try to help as a cinematographer is to do what I jokingly call “holistic blocking” before the subjects arrive to a particular location. We can’t always do this, but I love to walk through the location with the director and talk about “why” we are here. Basically, trying to intuit where our subjects may go and what they may do. This sounds like just doing a reccy, and it certainly fills that need, but I like to think there is something more to it. I try to use what I have learned about my current subjects and access something a bit more anchored in the narrative of their story when I am walking around. This is even more important when multiple camera operators are going to be following the action. You have to take into account the lighting of the space and the axis in which you hope you will live.
From the very beginning we never do any traditional blocking like putting down marks or in any way treat our subjects like actors. Not surprisingly, this is easier to do when the experience is tangible and your subjects don’t feel obligate to be performative. I am certain this helps soften our subject’s awareness of the process of making TV and helps them stay in their moment. I think the benefit far offsets the few times any unhappy surprises or times the subjects “land weird”. If it is no good… just pause everyone, repo and carry on.
Invisibility not required
You would think that shooting three camera observational vérité is next to impossible after hearing how some professionals talk about the necessity for using small cameras for capturing successful vérité. Somehow, the small camera is needed to give the operator some kind of power of invisibility. Of course, this can be true in some instances where a discreet camera can avoid unwanted attention, but it doesn’t change the fact that our subjects know we are there and they know we are filming. Regardless of the size of the camera, I find it is the way camera operators move around the room when covering a scene that draws attention to the camera more than the camera itself.
You can watch any good documentary DOP work very quickly to get people to accept the camera being in their life, or get in their bubble. Rather than invisibility, I wish I had a way to keep our subjects from noticing all the efforts and attention the crew is giving them. Many seem unable to stop feeling some kind of responsibility to the crew and all the hard work they are doing. I used to think my presence was the roadblock, but now I wonder if the fear of not being “interesting” (like everyone is on reality shows) could be the #1 roadblock to getting people in front of camera out of their heads and back into experiencing the life we are there to capture.
Ask them to do it again… After
I have to begrudgingly admit many shows I don’t care to watch are enormously popular and they are popular for a reason. Not surprisingly, audiences just want to watch a story well told that can be easily followed. Something that feels like a story that the characters are a part of and flows naturally to its conclusion rather than one being just told.
My photogarphic beginnings as a photojournalist immediately goes into high alert when I feel the lines between factual and documentary start to blur. But you can’t throw out the format baby with your ethical bathwater. As I work on more and more series, I see one needs to be concerned about format as well as content.
In near real time you have to decide if it is worth interrupting the flow of what is happening for a do-over or just ignore the “bump” and let things be for the betterment of what is going to come. Maybe you can remember the geometry of the scene and get some pickups after the experience has found a sufficient completion. What used to make me cringe while shooting a redo of something, I am now seeing how it can benefit the storytelling.
Being frank with your inner voice is sometimes a difficult exercise. As much as touching the subjects all the time with direction and information is the wrong approach as well as letting them just go free. It isn’t easy knowing when to ask someone to do or say something again or try to change the direction of the conversation. Beyond even what is happening in the scene that is being shot, there is also the idea of what is going to actually end up in the edit. (Perhaps an exercise better suited to soothsayers than directors and DP’s)
In the past, I was reticent to ask people to do things again for camera as I felt it showed the subjects that they are making a tv show and what they are doing (their life) is somehow less important. Like just about everything else in life, reading the room and good timing are key. Now, I am seeing the benifit of the strategic, sensitive and well timed do-over. Your editor and producers will thank you for it.