At the Canon-sponsored panel “Let’s Talk Docs” session at the 2014 Cine Gear Expo in Los Angeles, non-fiction cinematographers Nicola Marsh (“20 Feet From Stardom,” “Burn”), Rick Rowley (“Dirty Wars”), Nick Higgins (“The Crash Reel,” “The Lion’s Mouth”) and Jerry Ricciotti (HBO’s “Vice”) shared stories from the frontlines. Even though each had a different approach to how they work in the typically run-and-gun atmosphere of documentary filmmaking, they all had good advice to disperse to the audience mostly full of other filmmakers. Here are their top tips:
1. Your gear should help, not hinder you — and the best camera might not be the most expensive one.
“The first thing I think about is how long the camera is going to be on my shoulder. It’s nice to shoot on a PL lens, but I can’t have that on my shoulder all day. I don’t want to have to stop shooting to take a rest. I also think about light sensitivity when planning shots. It’s really distracting to the subjects you’re shooting if you have a bunch of gear around them or take a lot of time setting it up. When it comes to filming in hostile environments, the cheaper the camera, the more I can get so I’ll bring 2 or 3. I’m quite forgetful and focused on what I’m shooting, so I don’t like to get really expensive gear.” — Marsh
2. Your emotions shouldn’t factor in.
“On ‘The Lion’s Mouth,’ [Lucy Walker’s documentary short about the actress Marianna Palka finding out she has Huntington’s Disease] when I was in the doctor’s office as she was receiving the news, I didn’t really react to it or think about it. But when I was in the same position with my mother as she was receiving terminally ill news, I was wishing I had a camera on my shoulder. That would have been better because I wouldn’t have to process the emotions.” — Higgins
“I’m paralyzed of heights, like deathly afraid, but I routinely stand on the edge of helicopters for aerial shots. I did it on ‘Burn’ a lot.” — Marsh
“Don’t create more confusion than you have to. If you can maintain a certain invisibility, it’s going to leave your subjects feeling more comfortable. You can imagine your interview subjects as wild animals – the more you move, the more spooked they’ll be. They take their lead from you.” — Higgins
3. There are pros and cons to working with a crew.
“I’m often a one-man band. I bring enough cards so I can shoot a whole bunch and just keep putting more in [and dump footage later]. If there’s the budget I’ll bring an assistant, but it’s generally just me and the director. On “The Crash Reel,” [director] Lucy [Walker] held our boom and we recorded sound straight to the camera.” — Higgins
“Generally it’s me, a field producer, the host and another cameraman. There’s no DIT or data manager though. We have four 1TB drives and every night I have to back up cards to two different drives and transcode it. That’s just our normal protocol. Usually we don’t have a sound guy and just hook up our subjects to lavs and record right to camera. But you know, we have had a sound guy completely save us before. They can keep recording the whole time while we might be getting other shots, and they’re able to get us sound bites that we never even saw coming [that we can use as VO].” — Ricciotti
“It’s a nightmare if I don’t have an assistant-slash-PA. And we almost always have a sound guy.” — Marsh
4. Buy the right camera for the right project.
“If you know you’re shooting something that will live in the doc, then pick the more expensive camera, light it more. You can afford to spend a lot of time and care shooting it, [as she did when shooting singers’ performances in Twenty Feet]. If you’re shooting tons of footage for hours and hours and maybe only a minute of it will end up in the final film, if at all, you don’t necessarily need that care and attentiveness in setting up.” – Marsh
“I’d pick bit depth and latitude over [4K] resolution. Being able to not have the background blown out and using depth of field to focus the eyes of the viewer is much more important to me. The rig would change in ways that would be difficult as well, if we had to shoot 4K. I only shoot with a completely stripped down camera, never mind dealing with all the bigger amounts of data I’d be handling shooting 4K.” — Rowley
“We have a shoot bible we adhere to as much as possible. It’s very clean and simple and classic. That’s the easy stuff, though. The hard stuff is deciding whether to light to our eye or to the space, and dealing with the location’s limitations. But you have to make that judgment when you’re there in the moment really.” — Ricciotti