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Old November 28th, 2009, 03:13 PM   #1
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From filmmaker to documentarian

I've been making short films for quite a while now, so I'm familiar with sound, lighting, aperture etc. But I've only worked in controlled situations, and I'm tackling a couple of documentary projects where conditions may not always be ideaL

I'd like the benefit of the experience of documentarians to avoid the pitfalls of shooting in the field: manual focus or automatic (and in case of the latter, fast or slow focus)? Lavalier or shotgun mic? 24f (film look) or 30f (sharpness in quick movemenrts)? How comprehensive must release forms be?

Some of the footage will be sit-down interviews in a café with excellent daylight coming through the window (off-screen), and I'll be using a lapel mic to filter out ambient noise. But what I'm really concerned about are open spaces where I have to do with available light (don't want the bleached-out look of a camera-mounted light), gatherings that I'll be filming (so no lapel mic) etc. Because this is a long-term project and I'm paying all expenses out of pocket for now, I can't hire a sound guy and lighting technician to follow me around unless it's absolutely necessary so I will be trying to plan ahead as much as possible. But while there won't be any investigative reporting situations where anything could happen, there might be an element of uncertainty.

Any advice is appreciated.


J.
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Old November 29th, 2009, 04:18 AM   #2
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As for lighting. You really should try and get a 3 or 4 piece lighting kit, some bounce board or a soft box and some diffusion gels.

You can also bounce light off the ceiling to brighten the room then bounce some fill on the faces of the subject.

Try not to mix your lighting (color. Daylight mixed with tungsten etc). Do some test shots to figure that out before you start your doc.

Go manual. Are you doing the interviews? It can be hard (and distracting to the interviewee) if you are trying to run the camera AND conduct the interview.

I'd comment further but I am dead tired at the moment.
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Old November 29th, 2009, 06:18 AM   #3
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Denny, I appreciate your reply but controlled situations and light kits isn't what I was asking about.

J.
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Old November 29th, 2009, 02:22 PM   #4
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I was not meaning a studio situation. If you can take a small light kit with you then you can set that up in most locations.

You could also look into a couple of battery powered lights.

Otherwise. Try to avoid sun and tungsten in the same shot. Your going to have to color balance for one of them and the other source will look either blue or orange. Especially avoid sun on the faces if you are color balancing for tungsten.

I like 30P over 24P for docs. It doesn't look like video as much as 60P and 24P is to flickery for my tastes for the style of doc you are doing.

If you are running a lav on one channel run a shotgun on the camera on the other channel. Wire up the interviewee. You can always add your questions in post.

Make sure your in camera audio limiter is turned on in case you get high levels. It's hard to operate a camera, monitor audio AND interview a subject. :)

Are you going to be behind the camera while interviewing or setting up the shot then sitting down with the subject?
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Old December 3rd, 2009, 07:51 AM   #5
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I'm no expert on this by any means but I think there are many different types of documentary styles and they all can work. You've, of course, seen those done with big crews under relatively controlled conditions and they have their own polished look. At the other end of the spectrum one can include shows like "Stormchasers" which are arguably more reality TV than documentary but their stuff is all pretty basically shot. No dedicated sound folks. No lights, but that works too.

Without knowing more about how you want the finished product to look, it's hard to go farther with specific thoughts. Once you figure that out then your decisions are made for you.

BTW... a light bounce and some C stands can help a lot for those "coffee shop" shots.
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Old December 3rd, 2009, 01:22 PM   #6
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I think you are asking the wrong question.
I know what a film maker is. I don't know what a documentarian is. I had to look it up.
I can see what you are getting at but I think you are heading in the wrong direction. Making documentaries is film making.
Many of the questions you ask are film making questions.
You should be able to apply the skills that you have and when you start running into uncertain territory, doing things you haven't done before, you will find the answers somewhere in DV info.
If you can't, then ask.
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Old December 3rd, 2009, 02:30 PM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jacques E. Bouchard View Post
(...) there might be an element of uncertainty.
Jacques,

you're a filmmaker, right? Then you're basically good to go.
Don't worry about "elements of uncertainty":
most of the time, they're what makes documentary filmmaking
such a fun undertaking! Go for them, look for them, crave
for all those "elements of uncertainty" -
and when you meet them, improvise
using what you have at hand and what you already know about filmmaking.

Bonne chance, et amuse-toi!

Vasco
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Old December 5th, 2009, 11:59 AM   #8
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Jacques

here's a few things of the top of my head. Carry a photoflex to use as a bounce for the those cafe situations where you have strong sunlight coming through the window. This would deal with having touch much contrast on your subject.

A lot of my shooting is in uncontrolled situations. Auto or manual focus? 95% of the time I use manual but then use the push auto focus to actually focus. Can it miss? Yes, but rarely. If getting a shot fast matters you'll probably get more usable footage than if you're always using the focus ring. And if people or things are constantly moving in and out of your frame you don't want auto focus to suddenly choose one of them. There's also nothing to stop you from using the ring if you're uncertain that the push auto has done its job well or not.

Getting the right audio levels. I often split the signal from one source and adjust my channels so that one is lower than the other and not likely to distort if there is an unexpected increase in dB. In post I take the best parts of each channel and duplicate and adjust as required. There is some signal loss by splitting it, so ultimately an increase in noise but if its a question of that, over having distorted, unusable audio, the choice is clear.

As for lighting outdoors, without crew and a serious lighting package, the short answer is that you can't. If there's lots of contrast you decide to either let some things blow out or shoot your subject in silhouette. I only use a camera mounted light if there's no light or I'm indoors but I want my subject to "pop" a little from the BG. Just as you see some news footage.

In the end a one man crew entails some compromise. You decide what you are willing to compromise with and know there will be at least some circumstances where you wish it was better. For me, when it comes to documentary, content rules while not making it painful to watch or listen to.
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Old December 5th, 2009, 12:58 PM   #9
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What would help would be to have an assistant.

Wait a minute! We're in the same city, aren't we? :-)
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Old December 6th, 2009, 02:32 PM   #10
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Thank you everyone for your replies.

Jase: your post offered precisely the kind of helpful tips and expertise I was looking for. And you didn't get hung up on "documentarian" either ;-).

I shot some footage last weekend in a cluttered 8X10 room where four people were meeting. I could not set up lights or reflectors because of the limited room, but also because I did not want my presence to inhibit the group's natural dynamic (I was an observer rather than an interviewer). I used a camera-mounted spot with a diffuser for additional lighting, but given the circumstances it was impossible to achieve the polished look of a studio shoot (which is where I think some people fail to understand my situation).

Good point on the manual focus. I'm not taping "To Catch A Predator"-style, so the subjects are (for the most part) stationary and I can always do a quick re-focus with the button during a group conversation. What I've been doing is leaving the camera running even when I'm changing position so the audio is constant. That way I can still use the audio over other shots that I took in the room (the cat perched on the bookshelf, the spines of the books, the steam rising from a cup of tea, etc.).

RE: audio. Excellent technique. However I may have no choice in café interviews since ambient noise prohibits the use of even a hypercardioid shotgun. I'm using a wired lapel mic to filter out the noise.
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Old December 6th, 2009, 02:34 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Richard Gooderick View Post
I think you are asking the wrong question.
I thought so at first, until I received so many precise answers. :-)
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Old December 6th, 2009, 02:45 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Denny Lajeunesse View Post
Are you going to be behind the camera while interviewing or setting up the shot then sitting down with the subject?
In most cases I'll be asking a few questions and letting the interviewee talk freely. I won't include my questions in the edited documentary. Those will be the easiest to do as they're perfectly static.

In other cases, I'll be taping meetings between the subject and government officials, and I should be able to set up a few lights. Which reminds me, I need to get a second lav mic.

I will have to take some shots of the cavernous interior of an abandoned theater that has no power, but a few concentrated spots will add to the effect I'm going for, rather than evenly lighting the whole place.


J.
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Old December 7th, 2009, 01:47 AM   #13
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Jacques

Good to hear that was helpful. One of the things, as I'm sure you know about working alone, is just carrying all the gear by yourself. Going as light and compact as possible helps. While I have C stands I rarely use the whole thing. For setting up a photoflex I take a small light stand, (lighter and more compact than the stand part of a C stand) and I put the head and c stand arm on that. Add a pony clip and you've got a way to use that photoflex where you need it.

From time to time, I also go with 2 cameras, especially if its a live event that I know will go for more than an hour. One set up with a fixed wide frame. I always have something to cut to if I mess up with the camera I'm operating. Also, if you're smart about when you change tapes you'll never miss any of the event. I don't bother miking the second camera properly. Instead I run a feed from my Mixpre into a Sony D50 which can record for hours with a big enough card. Word of caution though, once you've set up the second camera, don't spend a lot of time thinking you can readjust the frame from time to time. Sooner or later you'll get caught doing that just as you should be reframing your main camera (as I have) and then you won't have a shot from either camera.
Not sure how relevant a second camera is to you, but there it is.

I don't know what camera you're using but I have an XH A1 and an HV30 for a second cam. A good enough match. I use the Mixpre for 2 reasons. First it allows me to send a line level signal to the camera, much less noisy than if I went with mike level. Its also way easier to adjust the gain than on the camera itself. The ergonomics of the XH A1 gain control are lame IMO.

In case you're interested in how I mount the mixer and the D50. I use this:

Mighty-Wondercam (Videosmith) | Aux Box for Rover | R05 | B&H

to go under the camera. I then rivetted a metal plate to the inside of the box which extends out far enough so the mixer is sitting at the back and just below the camera, right in front of me. Lots of heavy duty velcroe and the mixer is secure.

For the D50 I use a cold shoe along the lines of this.

Custom Brackets | Cold Shoe | MC | B&H Photo Video

You just need it to have the right size of screw that will match the threads on the side of the auxillary box

And one of these.

Bracket1 | Universal Swivel Mount with 1/4-20 Screw | UNIVSWVLMT

The first screws into the side of the box. Attach the swivel mount which then screws into the underside of the D50. A stereo mini cable from the "Tape Out" of the mixer and into the Sony and you're good to go. The D50, btw allows 96k/ 24 bit recording, so much better than the compressed audio recording thats part of HDV

And say hi to Montreal for me. I grew up there. Love that place.
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Old December 7th, 2009, 02:20 AM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jacques E. Bouchard View Post
In most cases I'll be asking a few questions and letting the interviewee talk freely. I won't include my questions in the edited documentary. Those will be the easiest to do as they're perfectly static.

In other cases, I'll be taping meetings between the subject and government officials, and I should be able to set up a few lights. Which reminds me, I need to get a second lav mic.

I will have to take some shots of the cavernous interior of an abandoned theater that has no power, but a few concentrated spots will add to the effect I'm going for, rather than evenly lighting the whole place.


J.
Since you are recording your questions, and thus do not need to lav yourself, I would put a lav on the subject and have a shotgun on the cam for safety.

Different shotgun sizes might help with ambient noise somewhat. Depends on the room and mic positioning.

Are you plugging straight into the camera? If so keep that alc on. If you have a mixer then give Dean Miles book "Location Audio: Simplified" a read. I was a student of Dean's 6 or so years ago. Just found out he has had a book out since 2006. Real guru of location sound.

Good luck on your endeavor! BTW, what is the Doc about?
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