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Attention, Filmmakers: Essential Tips on Shooting Your Documentary

Attention, Filmmakers: Essential Tips on Shooting Your Documentary

The DOC NYC Masterclass on Cinematography on November 17th featured Kirsten Johnson, DP of this year’s “Citizenfour” and “Born to Fly”; Ross Kauffman, DP of “E-Team” and Rex Miller, who helmed “Althea” and photographed “Private Violence.” Juan Martinez, senior product manager of Sony, showed off Sony’s $10,000 4K PXW-FS7 4K XDCAM Super 35mm, which seemed to impress Johnson (who immediately began recording the other panelists and the audience, though we never got to see any of the footage). The panel was moderated by Maro Chermayeff, Founder and Chairman of the MFA Program in Social Documentary at The School of Visual Arts in New York City.

READ MORE: The 2014 DOC NYC Bible

Here are some of the highlights from the Masterclass:

Detach and Listen

Kauffman told a story about filming in a war zone, and how he had to remember certain specifications (i.e. don’t film faces, because it could get his subjects killed) while remembering to aim his camera at the subjects without putting himself in danger. His shaky movements added verisimilitude and created a more visceral response, but you have to keep your head about you, he said. In this case, he listened to the people who lived in the zone, because they knew what to do. “Their reactions were smarter than mine. I took cues from them,” said Kauffman.

Miller put it succinctly: “You have to detach emotionally from your subjects.” He said he always checks the red button on his camera, making sure the camera is on; if you forget to put the camera on, it doesn’t matter how emotional a moment is. You won’t capture it. While filming a scene for “Private Violence,” Miller was alone and had to make the scene whole with only one camera, which is difficult. He was filming a scene of a young woman who was an abuse survivor; her former husband began sending her threatening messages and was on his way to their house. The family had to wait for a phone call from the police, who were out looking for the man while the young woman was on the cusp of breaking down. Miller had to make quick decisions—do I stay here or do I run and go capture the man’s impending arrest? Where do I go? How do I capture this moment vividly? Miller showed up to shoot one thing, and then another situation unfurled in real time.

Kauffman joked, “I’m calling you out, Rex. There’s no way you detached emotionally from that.”

Johnson said that domestic violence is harder to handle than war zone footage because it’s so personal and intimate. You have to always be listening, a sentiment Chermayeff shared. 

“Being a DP is being a listener,” Johnson added. “You’re never where you’re supposed to be. You have to always be listening so you know where to go, what to film.”


Shoot blind

While shooting “Born to Fly,” a film that depicts the intense acrobatics of Elizabeth Streb’s Extreme Action Company, Johnson said that “someone knocked out both of [her] contact lenses” making her effectively blind. Instead of telling her director, she continued to shoot. The blurry, opaque shapes helped her see her subjects differently — literally and figuratively. She became more keenly aware of her physical space. While concrete blocks and steel bars were swinging past her (which was very dangerous, she pointed out: “I don’t know what it would be like to get hit in the face with a cinderblock, but I can imagine”), she had to look through her camera screen in order to function. It worked so well, she decided to “shoot blind” several other times that week.

Sit down, stand up

“The old photojourno creed is, ‘If you need to get closer, get up and move closer,'” Miller said, discussing why he doesn’t use lenses to zoom. (“I like zooming,” Kauffman retorted.) Miller’s point, though perhaps not his dislike of lenses, is helpful: if you move around, you can find new angles, new ways of seeing things.

However, running around all willy nilly isn’t good, either. As Johnson said of her time filming “Born to Fly, “the ‘young people’ took their cameras and ran around all day, not realizing that you can’t capture motion if you, too, are constantly in motion. Albert Maysles, the 87-year-old iconic filmmaker, wasn’t able to run around like a young hothead, so he would pick his spot carefully, sit down, frame his shot, and wait for subjects to enter and exit the frame. His footage, of course, was beautiful, whereas the young kids’ run-and-gun shots weren’t so good, so take note, millennials, and learn from your elders.”

Invest in lenses

When asked what kind of camera a first-time filmmaker or photographer should buy, Kauffman said, “Invest in lenses.” Everyone else on the panel, even Martinez, agreed. “No offense, I still plan on buying your camera,” Kauffman told the Sony product manager, “But in five years there’ll be a new camera. The lenses will still be good for decades.”

Also, invest in a one pound bag of rice, which, according to Johnson, makes a great impromptu tripod.

But, more importantly, invest in sound people

“I insist on having a sound person,” said literally every cinematographer on the panel. A DP can do video and sound, but having a genuine, legitimate sound person makes your job easier, and makes the sound better, which is so vital to a good film. 

READ MORE: Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: Here’s What You Need to Know Before You Start Production

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