One of the problems with documentary filmmaking has always been the observer effect, or the idea that the act of observation changes what one is observing. Of course we cannot get away from the philosophical problem of the observer effect, which we all just have to live with if we want to document anything at all. But the presence of the camera adds an additional hurdle to this idea. One simply cannot get away from the fact that subjects are aware of being filmed, documented or portrayed, and they are therefore implicitly self conscious in a way that they might not be in a situation that does not involve the camera, or lights or cumbersome sound equipment.
I have, in my career, often been jealous of radio journalists for this reason. It’s much easier to simply place a recorder on the table in between one’s self and the interviewee than it is to convince them to step in front of a big lens on a camera, often with other technicians listening in. It becomes a performance all of a sudden, and no longer the intimate, one−on−one conversation that is often required. Filmmakers get around this in various ways. Often they simply choose exhibitionist subjects, people who want to be in front of the lights and the camera. Or they set up an environment beforehand, so the subject can come and sit down for an interview without having to wait for lighting setups, sound checks, and the like. I have often had the experience of being preoccupied with the technical side of things while an interview subject candidly tells me everything I would have wanted to capture, and when I ask them to repeat themselves once I get the technical issues worked out, they freeze up, and their story is not the same.
But another way to get around this could be to simply shoot with smaller, less intimidating cameras. Of course, all things photographically seem to be compromises, and the compromise here is that often the images are simply not as good if you are using smaller equipment. However, that may be changing, as cameras are coming out that are better and better at capturing images, sound devices are coming out that are easier to use and have better functionality, and LED lights are coming in smaller and lighter weight packages. I often liken the large, Hollywood films that we are all so used to seeing to climbing Mount Everest, with multiple base camps, and Sherpas lugging equipment up and down the mountain to and from the camps, resulting in a slow, gradual ascent. Well, this smaller, light−on−your−feet style of documentary is more like the famous European climber Reinhold Messner, who would wait for the weather to clear and climb with only one partner quickly, get to the top and get off before the storms came. It’s more risky in a lot of ways, but it’s much more efficient, and it allows for possibilities that are not possible with the “base camp method.” For example, you just might get stronger emotional and impactful moments when you present yourself as a non−intimidating fellow human with some questions, rather than a production looking to exploit. It also leaves room for improvisation, finding good images that may not have been previsualized, and allowing the adventure of the story to take you where it leads.
In my last post, I presented to you a film I’d made in Amsterdam with my Sony FS5, and a relatively large 28−105mm zoom lens. It is an ENG camera (electronic news gathering), that allows me to capture quality images all by myself in a day exterior environment, records decent sound, and the large lens affords me the ability to get pretty much any focal length I needed all in one. So needless to say, I’ve been burned by large cameras and cumbersome equipment before and I was using what I consider to be the highest quality all−in−one camera I could find for that shoot. But it was still a royal pain in the neck (literally) to lug around a relatively heavy camera and tripod in an ancient city for 10 hours, and people were reluctant to talk with me once I pointed that big lens towards them. I found myself worrying about the sound, exposure and focus, and this caused me to constantly have to disengage with the subjects during interviews. Not to mention, as you can see below, it’s very difficult to eat a gelato with a camera and tripod slung over your shoulder.
When I got home, I started researching another approach. Small DSLR cameras are getting better and better by the month, and I decided to try an experiment. Could I make something of quality with just a small Sony DSLR, with an autofocus lens, and a small but high quality audio recording device?
Here’s what I chose to take: A Saramonic R−VRM1 Digital audio recorder. It pluggs straight in to the same boom microphone I’d been using on my FS5, and a Sony DSC−RX100V camera. A small digital stills camera with internal stabilization for hand−held shots, that shoots surprisingly great video.
Perhaps one of the pioneers of this approach is the photojournalist turned commercial director/cinematographer Bob Krist. Back in 2014, he started a blog called “Old Man In Motion” chronicling his approach and technique. I thought I’d take his advice and take a small table−top tripod, a beanbag that can be used to rest the camera on various surfaces, and a selfie stick. This way I could simply pop the camera in my pocket if I wanted to sit down for lunch, without worrying about protecting my expensive gear. (I have a funny story for another time about walking through a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles with one of my bigger cameras and gathering a following of curious Angelinos making comments about how expensive that camera must be, to the point that my subjects called off the shoot because we were very close to being robbed). Of course what I really wanted to find out was whether or not I’d be able to get the shots that I wanted.
The obvious drawback to this approach would be that I’d have to sync the audio later, but I decided that I’d try something new: I’d conduct all my interviews OFF camera, using just the small recording device, like a radio host, and then search for video images to complement the audio. I was thinking that I might be able to get more candid interactions with just the audio this way, and while I was making images I could devote all of my attention to that.
I’ll post my own attempt at this minimalistic style of filmmaking soon. In the mean time, I’d love to hear from you about your own projects done in this style. You can email me using the contact page on the website and you can find me on twitter @onejwells.