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Documentary Techniques
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Old July 2nd, 2009, 10:11 AM   #1
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Shooting and editing low-budget non-fiction.

I have many books on both editing and cinematography. But the emphasis of all of them is heavily in the narrative field.

Has anyone found any useful resources oriented towards the run and gun doc shooter?
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Old July 2nd, 2009, 11:12 AM   #2
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This is going to sound glib:

Learn by doing.

This IS my line of work and for the first THREE YEARS I hadn't grasped the concept of shooting for a sequence. Then I started editing my own stuff. Now editors LOVE me. I provide at LEAST two to three ways of covering a sequence for short, medium and long iterations.

Really. Sequences are your friend. Many times "montage sequences" are really just a cop out for not having the right material to edit something coherent. Which is not to say that montages don't have their place...
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Old July 2nd, 2009, 11:31 AM   #3
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Hi Doug,

I agree with Shaun on this. I am usually a very theory oriented person but in this case there is nothing like doing. I'd suggest searching out some local film/video society or clubs who might have some resources. Near where I live there are several groups. I got involved with one that puts teams together to work on any type of movies/documentaries that someone wants to make.

Here is a link to a short I worked on:

YouTube - RE:Invention

This one was made in three months from formation of the team to a screening in San Francisco. From this we received a lot of good feedback and are not creating a 30 minute version. As you notice the cinematic style is very "safe". For this particular piece we could only produce a 10 minute movie. So we ended up going with what really was sort of the established interview shoot technique. The movie was screened in June and we received very good feedback from some "industry experts". Armed with that and some more ideas our team in the process of creating what will hopefully be a much more emotional piece.

For these types of projects there really is nothing like experience. I also believe you have to develop your own style. There are some basic guidelines and "rules" but they all can and have been broken at some point.

As a note, YouTube totally F#*$ed the video. It did something in it's processing so that the motion looks terrible. Watch for basics and content.

The the group I'm involved with just to give you an idea of what types of organizations and groups can be found.

Scary Cow Productions - the indie film co-op


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Old July 3rd, 2009, 01:43 PM   #4
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Doug you can have a look at this book, it may help you:
The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide: A Down & Dirty DV Production by Antony Artis.
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Old July 3rd, 2009, 07:56 PM   #5
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Another book that may be helpful is:
"Directing the Documentary" by Michael Rabiger

Here it is at Amazon:
Amazon.com: Directing the Documentary, Fifth Edition: Michael Rabiger: Books
Read the short editorial reviews to get an idea what it's about. On Amazon you can also see the table of contents and some pages.

However, nothing is going to be totally helpful until you start shooting and putting the material together in sequences. Even if all the footage is run-and-gun and mostly a surprise, a story will come out of it.
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Old July 3rd, 2009, 08:39 PM   #6
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As well, learn to cut on action by SHOOTING to cut on action:
-finish each shot in a way that you can naturally pick up the same subject in a different framing or a different location and then get the next shot. A lot of people new to sequence shooting follow the subject around and never let them leave frame OR stop recording without "ending" the shot.

-in your own head, imagine what shot would NATURALLY go next in sequence after the shot you just finished. This comes easier with time. And remember to change your location and framing enough so that the next shot isn't a textbook jump cut. The Jump Cut Rules SHOULD be obeyed UNTIL you have a complete grasp of WHEN and HOW you can break them successfully. When I teach, the things I'm hardest on with my students are composition AND sequences/jump cuts. You don't get to break the rules until you can demonstrate you know what they are, in my book.
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Old July 4th, 2009, 11:13 AM   #7
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Shaun

"Allow subjects to enter/leave the frame" is a great tip. But it really has more relevance to narrative productions than documentary.

How often do you have the opportunity to let the subject leave the frame in a doc? Most times it's going to look staged. The BBC recently banned that type of artifice from its news dept productions.

Let's assume I'm an experienced cinematographer who is looking for tips on shooting run and gun docs and I turn up at one of your classes. What are the top ten tips you would give me?
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Old July 4th, 2009, 11:12 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Doug Bennett View Post
"Allow subjects to enter/leave the frame" is a great tip. But it really has more relevance to narrative productions than documentary.
I couldn't disagree more. I don't do dramatics. ALL my stuff is documentary/news stuff (with the OCCASIONAL exception, such as PSAs).

Of course, this is talking about B-Roll and not interview stuff. If your going for a walk-and-talk with your subject, allow them to walk off frame and pick them up again with different framing. Of course, you need to time the "frame break" to coincide with a completion of subject OR face having to use a cut away (as opposed to a cut in) until you can rejoin your subject with a new topic.
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Old July 5th, 2009, 09:03 AM   #9
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exactly. The frame break is unlikely to coincide with the completion of the subject and if the subject finishes a sentence and then walks out of frame it's going to look staged. Same with an open frame and the subject walking in. Very effective visually but it's fake - that's why the news organizations in the UK are moving away from it.

It is a great technique in narrative production though and every introductory text book recommends it.

I'm wondering if you would be prepared to share tips specifically related to doco?
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Old July 5th, 2009, 09:19 AM   #10
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But Doug, I can CHOOSE what time I pan away. Perhaps we are talking about something different but this is done everyday in every major (and minor market) in the world. I suspect the BBC decision must apply to something else entirely.

My storyboarding skills are awful so allow me to "talk" you through a possible sequence.

What we hear under all this is a conversation about "the neighbourhood"

Shot one:
Bob is walking past a row of shops on Main street and pausing briefly to look in each.
I as the camera operator am walking beside him so he is centred up in frame, walking toward frame right. As he passes Angne's flower shop, they share a "good morning/how are you exchange". At some point, I slow my movement allowing him to "break frame right".

Shot two:
I run ahead of Bob about a block and place my camera at a low angle on the sidewalk and get a compressed shot of him walking directly toward camera with out of focus feet walking left to right and right to left in front of him as he continues toward me. As a particularly large person walks in front of my lens, I choose to use this as a "natural wipe" and end my shot and run ahead again to Bob's shop.

Shot three:
at a three quarter perspective, I frame the door to Bob's shop. He breaks frame left, stops to unlock his door and goes in. I tilt up to show signage above the door that says "Bob's Antique Emporium"

Shot four:
Visually we come to the interview with Bob in his shop with him standing in front of a wall of artifacts.

The ONLY direction I need to have given Bob is "don't look at the camera". I haven't asked him to stop and do it again. He WAS going to his shop. I haven't prompted him to do ANYTHING he wasn't about to do anyway. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with this from an "artifice" point of view. And this is what shooters who UNDERSTAND sequences prepare for in their daily lives. I didn't tell Bob aI was going to set up these shots. I just allowed them to happen as we walked together.
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Old July 5th, 2009, 12:10 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Doug Bennett View Post
I have many books on both editing and cinematography. But the emphasis of all of them is heavily in the narrative field.

Has anyone found any useful resources oriented towards the run-and-gun doc shooter?
Can you be more specific about the kind of information you are looking for. For example, are you asking about:
1. Establishing a relationship with the doc subject for shooting real-life activities, sometimes in uncomfortable situations, during free-form daily activities;
2. Managing the crew unobtrusively;
3. Working totally alone and still getting good pictures and sound, and still staying with the story and not getting side-tracked by technical concerns;
4. Legal concerns about shooting on-the-go, how to handle person releases, how to get location releases, insurance, etc.
5. Getting B-roll to cover edits and transitions in the narrative (whatever that may be or how it may change during the edit).
6. Making sure there is footage to cover different takes on the story.
7. Getting regular people to act naturally in front of the camera.....
... and so forth.

I will also note that news coverage and documentary film making do not have a lot in common beyond the superficial. Good documentaries have much more in common with narrative fiction and the "cinema verite" genre of narrative fiction than with news.
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Old July 5th, 2009, 12:44 PM   #12
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I will also note that news coverage and documentary film making do not have a lot in common beyond the superficial. Good documentaries have much more in common with narrative fiction and the "cinema verite" genre of narrative fiction than with news.
Which of course introduces the sub-genres in news: spot news and news magazine.

Spot news is the fire on main street (and it's affects on the people who live in the neighbourhood, if done well; just a picture of a burning building if it's done poorly) while news magazine is the 5 minute mini feature on the refugee who provides counseling to recent immigrants (definitely more of a "Documentary" style, but still "news").
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Old July 5th, 2009, 02:31 PM   #13
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@ Jack
Number 3 - sort of, but in short form those concerns are addressed by the videojournalists fairly thoroughly.

The other items in the list - are outside the scope of my question.

My question relates only to an apparent absence of resources focused on cinematography and editing from the PoV of someone who has cinematography 101 and editing 101 covered, but wants to refine the run and gun/low-budget approach.

Your point regarding the supposed divide between docs and news video: What is the difference between a short-form doc and a long-form news video?

IMHO in 2009 the words "documentary" and "news video" are essentially meaningless in the context of cinematography/editing. I use the terms "run and gun doc", and "low budget non-fiction", in hope of avoiding confusion.

For my money some of the best "documentaries" are made by Errol Morris. But there is absolutely nothing run and gun or low budget about them. Likewise BBC news shows.
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Old July 5th, 2009, 04:38 PM   #14
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@ Jack
Number 3 - sort of, but in short form those concerns are addressed by the videojournalists fairly thoroughly.

The other items in the list - are outside the scope of my question.

My question relates only to an apparent absence of resources focused on cinematography and editing from the PoV of someone who has cinematography 101 and editing 101 covered, but wants to refine the run and gun/low-budget approach.

Your point regarding the supposed divide between docs and news video: What is the difference between a short-form doc and a long-form news video?

IMHO in 2009 the words "documentary" and "news video" are essentially meaningless in the context of cinematography/editing. I use the terms "run and gun doc", and "low budget non-fiction", in hope of avoiding confusion.

For my money some of the best "documentaries" are made by Errol Morris. But there is absolutely nothing run and gun or low budget about them. Likewise BBC news shows.
I guess I don't understand your question. If the two books referenced in this thread don't address your questions, there may not be answers.

If your talking about "how to shoot run-and-gun" style, it's nothing more than picking up the camera and shooting, using whatever "Cinematography 101" knowledge and skills you have. Nothing more to it.

If you're shooting alone, you'll probably have to use wireless lavs, white walls for fill, an on-camera light, etc. etc. etc., just whatever tools you have available and a hand free to grab. There is no magic.

If you're talking about how to get the "documentary look," I don't think there is such a thing. A documentary is a combination of anything and everything available. Some of it you'll shoot, some of it may be 100 years old. How to use this material is seen in any good documentary. (How not to use it is seen in any bad documentary.)

An excellent example to check our is "Man on Wire." This uses a story line of staged and shot narrative footage, together with newsreel, old home movies, newspaper clippings, interviews, and so forth.

If you haven't already, another movie you should watch (and watch the docs that go with it) is "Battle of Algiers." This is a brilliant piece of work in the cinema verite style, all written and planned but looking like newsreel.

Cinematography techniques are the same for high budget movies and low budget docs. Watch "Taxi Driver," and then watch the making-of documentary on the DVD. The scenes shot in the taxi were done with a handheld camera driving around New York all night. And check out Sophia Coppola's "Lost in Translation." They stole scenes with just the actor's and a camera person.

But if you're talking handheld, and the difference between Hollywood studio productions and low budget doc, and think Hollywood has an edge with its superior cinematogrphical skills, how do you explain garbage like Bourne 3?

The secret is not in the technique, it's in establishing trust with the subjects and finding a story to tell.

Okay, here's one idea: carry a second, small camera and mount it with a wide angle. Let it run. You may or may not want to use shots you're in to. Do your run-and-gun ignoring this camera, but it will give you some interesting shots.

And I don't consider the 3 minute fluff pieces on the news, whether they have the BBC imprimatur or not, to be documentary. A documentary tells a story, usually over time, frequently with contrasting perspectives. (Of course there is also the pseudo documentary or progaganda film, such as Leni Riefenstahl's work for Hitler or Al Gore's work on global warming, or Michael Moore's work in general.)

You might consider longer pieces like they put on 60 minutes documentary, but I don't. They are either news features or news exclamatories. Not documentaries.

However, the same techniques are used to shoot them, if that's what you are interested in. Since you are not interested in the things in my list, am I right to understand that you are looking at this from the point of view of a cinematographer/cameraman, not a director or producer?

To get specific ideas on how to improve what you are doing (and ideas about how to do it differently), you should post a sequence you have shot and rough edited. Then we can offer practical suggestions on how you might shoot this type of material as a one-man-band.
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Old July 5th, 2009, 04:57 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Doug Bennett View Post
@ Jack
Number 3 - sort of, but in short form those concerns are addressed by the videojournalists fairly thoroughly.
Ah!, I see... So, your initial question, Doug, should have been:
"Has anyone found any useful resources oriented towards one-man documentary filmmaking?"
Short answer: no.
Slightly longer answer: yes, on DVinfo. There are several threads that discuss
various takes on the peculiarities of going solo.
My personal experience (as stated elsewhere):
working in solo mode is all about mastering the fine art of making compromises,
which translates into "minimizing the likelihood of badly screwing things up".
I strongly believe that perfect is the worst enemy of good - and there's only
so much that we can do with two hands, two eyes, and one brain.

Best

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