We are an odd lot, we camera hands of the documentary. Some of us have been guided by a passion for filming reality from the moment that, as kids, we picked up a camera and followed in the footsteps of elders such as Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock. Others of us, taking the route of one of my heroes, Haskell Wexler, turned back from our achievements in the big-crew world toward the more intimate challenges of cinema vérité.
But however we arrived in our present corner of the cinematographic world, a couple of generalizations pertain. There aren’t many of us. We love the challenges of new people, new places and new stories about real people and ideas. We love chance.
It might seem odd that a group of DPs — people devoted to producing beautiful images that tell stories — are so devoted to the unexpected. Shouldn’t we curse each change of plans, grind our teeth each time our perfect shot or lighting job is disrupted by the real world not hitting its marks?
Someone once tried to explain the difference between documentary and narrative photographers by likening my kind to jazz musicians. The classical musician can interpret, but is bound by his score (the script and the shot breakdown for the DP) and the direction of the conductor (the director). The jazz musician, however, is given merely a subject, a musical line and a rhythm around which to improvise. In the same way, we documentarians are handed a developing scene to shoot and the (pre-discussed) style and theme of the film, then turned loose on life as it happens. Our job is to show you reality through our eyes — by improvising.
Improvisation is our daily bread. For example, we are driving in a caravan in the backcountry of Sumatra. We expect that the politician whom we are following is going to pull up into a quiet, sleepy village of former headhunters and show the clash between arrogant politicians and humble rural people. We drive like madmen on the jungle track to get to the village before the Land Rovers and Hummers of the bigwigs do. Humble, sleepy village? We find first a bamboo arch welcoming us, then a thousand people in two ceremonial lines all dressed in their feathered finery and crazy colors, lined up by clan, looking expectantly at us. There is a moment of hesitation. Then they begin to sing and play drums, flutes and gourd instruments, each clan singing a different honoring song… to us.
What to do? Rethink the scene in the two minutes before the Big Cheese arrives. Improvise.
The scene we got was vastly more effective in making our point than the one we imagined. In our documentary work, we are not always that lucky, but things always change. And what we shoot is almost always better than what we can dream, because it is real. Real is best.
However, real does not mean chaotic, messy or inarticulate. In fact, our job is to come into a whole world of chance, a scene of a family fight in a house full of children, for instance, or a massive demonstration in the streets of a Middle Eastern city, and film it so that it makes sense. Not only must it make sense, it must work in the arc of the film we are making. Not only must we get the important shot, the one that tells the story, but it must also be visually strong and even beautiful.
We have to approach each scene we shoot as much like a chess player or a jazz musician, planning ahead as many moves as possible, seeing all the possible options. What would a pan do here? Should I move to shoot my subject silhouetted against a window, or reveal her face? When should I reposition to see another side of the conversation at the table, and should I do it gracefully so that my move can be used, or speed there as fast as I can?
To mix metaphors further, we are using our skill, our experience, our design sense and our intuition to improvise a trap for the chance occurrence. Does it just happen in front of our wide-shot and “get away” from us? No, our job is to make a shot that has meaning and power so that the scene is really photographed, trapped in the drama of the film.
After 30 years spent doing this job, I feel like I have learned something. Much of that has simply taught me how much I have still to learn. However, I have acquired some experience that adds up to a quantum of wisdom, which may benefit a rising cinematographer. So here are four key suggestions that have served me very well over the years.