On Documentary Filming

I recently had the pleasure of shooting for a documentary down in Birmingham, AL, about one of the people involved in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in 1963. For those who don’t know, that event was one of the most important parts of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The 50th anniversary of the bombing was this September (2013), so I had gone with a small film crew to cover the event, and interview some of the people involved.

I had never shot documentary footage, apart from some small controlled one-on-one interviews, so this was an interesting learning experience for me. I’d like to share some of the more important things which I learned over the course of my experience down there.

Batteries. You’re going to run out of them. I ran through four batteries over the course of a filming day – which I thought would be enough, but weren’t. If you have one thing which requires a strange and unique battery, you should have at least one spare, even if it’s new. Someone is invariably going to leave something on, chew up the battery, and leave you short a vital piece of equipment. If you’re shooting with a DSLR, try to get a multi-battery grip, so that you don’t have to change batteries as often.

One Shot. You only have one shot to get event coverage correctly, which means that, ideally, you should be covering from more than one angle, to provide not only options in editing, but some sort of redundancy. Otherwise, you can easily be left with a serious dearth of footage for what could be a vital part.

Focus and Calibration. Get there early, get set up, get everything metered and working properly before things start moving. You really can’t easily recalibrate during taping without potentially ruining footage. Did I forget to mention that you only get one shot with event footage?

Depth of Field: More is Better. You’re not shooting an art piece, you’re trying to cover something which probably only happens once, so you shouldn’t be shooting at f/2.8 or something ridiculous like that. Yes, you can sometimes take advantage of the hyperfocal distance of a lens to keep far-away objects in focus – but you should, most likely, find a fairly closed aperture to work with. This can be challenging in low light scenarios, where you’ll be fighting the specter of sensor noise at extremely high ISO levels when you close the iris more than a little.

Positivity. You need to be happy and in a good place when shooting people and interviews, especially in a one-on-one setting. Other people take certain cues from your body language and demeanor, and hostility will produce hostility. If at all possible, try to work on documentary projects which you like, or identify with.

Lens Changes. If you can avoid it, don’t. Wear cargo pants or a vest with lens pockets, much like most photographers, if you absolutely must change lenses. If you’re shooting a long distance, go with something like the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens, or if you are dealing with shorter distances, the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Carrying a few primes around will work well for static interview shots, but they’re going to be a real pain when you’re dealing with moving targets, no matter how quick you are with focus peaking assistance. If you’re shooting with a shoulder rig, you’re going to want an IS/VR lens, if you have one available – it cuts down on a lot of shudder and shake.

Bring a Spare. Got one lav mic? You might want to bring a second one. If there’s a small piece of equipment or accessory which, if missing, could screw you, it’s going to go missing. Especially when you’re far from home base and without the benefit of an equipment store.

You’re Going To Mess Up. This is pretty obvious – no matter how careful you are, something is going to get messed up. The trick is to try to make everything redundant enough that it doesn’t matter.

It’s Not About Your Equipment. Someone there is going to have a better camera, better lenses, and better everything than you have. Go far enough, and your rig is going to look bad to someone. Just remember, you’re there for a reason, so know your equipment, and use it as well as you can.

Rocking Out. If you’re interviewing someone who is rocking back and forth, bring it to their attention. It creates massive focusing, framing, and perspective issues. Don’t be intimidated; they can rock as much as they’d like, just as soon as you’re done filming.

Network. If you’re looking for an interview with someone, talking to some of the people around them may lead you to another interviewee who may produce even better results. There’s no cost associated with being polite.

Respect the Eyeline. For static interviews, don’t shoot up or down on someone’s eye-line unless you are trying to indicate something about that person. You should be even with their eye-line on initial shot setup. This is also a good idea when doing non-static interviews, when possible.

Make Two Copies. When you transfer the data off of your memory cards, make two copies, and if possible, don’t transport them together. Redundancy is the name of the game here, since even the best footage means diddly/squat if no one ever gets to see it.

Bring a Sound Guy. I know, you don’t think you need one – you’ve got a lav mic, right? A sound engineer is half of your production, since you’re in charge of the visuals. Also, boom mic operators generally should be fairly competent sound engineers, to avoid issues later on in the post-production process – when possible.

Don’t Go For The Cheaper Chicken. When booking accommodations, don’t go for the least expensive hotel – there’s a good chance that it’s in a dodgy part of town, and that extra 10 dollars a night might buy you not only a bit of security, but might buy you a better night’s sleep. Protip: the cheapest hotel is generally right next to a) train tracks with 24-hour train service, b) an open-air coal mine, c) a condemned house with mysterious block parties at all hours of the night, or d) all of the above…

Get Stills. If you’re doing a documentary with a bunch of Ken Burns effect style picture montages, you should try to either take stills yourself, or have another camera operator capture some for you. If you can, attempt to take pictures of landmarks or buildings when they are not occupied, unless it specifically works in your storytelling to have them occupied or surrounded.

There are many, many more things to think about when it comes to filming documentaries and documentary footage – but hopefully, these bullet points will help someone else avoid some of the pitfalls I experienced on my first documentary shoot. Good luck!