Philip Bloom has a good post about what it takes to do the work, and I especially liked the lower end of the list:
10: An expensive camera won’t make you a better cameraman. It will make you more broke! Want to upgrade your T2i to a Scarlet? Why? Skills are learnt with lesser tools. Not expensive ones.
11: Learn how to do EVERYTHING. Learn how to produce, to direct, to edit, to shoot, to do graphics etc . Why? It gives you a greater appreciation of what everyone does. Don’t do it all, but knowing what is needed to do a certain job will make what you do better.
12: If you really have no talent at all yet still enjoy shooting for fun, keep at it. Eventually you will get better, and if it makes YOU happy who gives a crap what the critics say?
13: Gear…do you need it to make yourself better? Of course not. It may lift your production but it won’t make the content any better. Remember if you polish a turd it will still always be a turd. Concentrate on content, that is where the value is. Then if you have some extra cash go buy some nice toys!
It really is about the notio of mastery, of doing the repetitions, again and again, and finding the joy in it.
I’m going to LA to shoot two interviews this week, and I’ve been sorting out how to do the best possible setup that is easiest to carry. I decided I’m going to leave my Sony EX1 at home and double a 5DMk2 and a T2i. First I tried them side-by-side, but I find this pictured setup works best. That’s a Manfrotto ballhead that usually would hold the monitor. My main shot will be wide with the 5D: the tight shot will be with the t2i. Here, I have a 50 mm on the 5D, and an 85 on the T2i, which is equivalent to a 135mm on the 5D. I may try a 35/50 combo as well. I’ll use a Zoom H4n and double lavs for audio, and a Flolight 500LED on a light stand.
Curious if anyone’s played with this sort of setup – let me know! I don’t take comments here because of spam fatigue, but email me at documentarytech at gmail and I’ll add any comments at the bottom of the post…
UPDATE: Brent G wrote,
Yeah I’ve stacked two DSLR’s like you’ve got pictured here. It definitely works in a pinch, but IMO the video doesn’t cut together as well as two cameras shooting side-by-side. The eyeline keeps jumping up and down when the cameras aren’t on the same level. But again, when in a pinch stacking can work and is better than many alternatives. Just my two cents. Hope it helps.
Brent, I hear you. I have been playing with eyelines and it seems that the raised camera works if you want a relatively wide difference in how wide the shot it. In the above, you’ll see on the 5D (bottom) I’ve set up a pretty wide shot, whereas I go in tight with the top camera. The 5D, I hope, will be the shot I use most, with the tight one for cutting rather than jumping. I think if the shots were closer in framing, then the side-by-side makes much more sense. Thanks!
If you can describe a documentary as a series of moving images telling a true story, then almost anything can apply. From The New Yorker magazine’s iPad-embedded video interviews this week of Russian citizens in the time of Putin, to the insane urban-cycling videos of Lucas Brunelle, the definition of the form is exploding, both in terms of destroying the old definition and expanding into a new one. As Sundance announces its short-doc competition for next month, it almost seems as if what we think of as documentary is suddenly too limited.
When I came across RSA Animate on YouTube, a collaboration of the UK’s Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and Cognitive Media, I was entranced. The videos, which RSA spokesman Luke Robinson says have gotten a collective 40 million views, are simple in their conception: They match “idea speeches” from RSA to the whiteboard drawings of Cognitive Media’s director and “scribe,” Andrew Park.
“They work on the strength of ideas,” Robinson says, and it’s the fascinating mural-like drawings that give visual interest to what could otherwise be a more-typical person-at-the-podium video.
Park began drawing these large-scale works 15 years ago. Cognitive’s media’s website explains the thinking behind “scribing.”
A scribe works on large walls, using markers [and] pens to map conversations live at events, interpreting and drawing ideas quickly, using pictures, diagrams and symbols to make ideas visible and accessible. Over the last 15 years, working with lots of people, groups and individuals within many industries and professional cultures has given me tremendous insight. It has also helped me understand the different languages that these cultures can speak. The role of a Scribe in my view, is to act as a translator within these cultures to allow as many people as possible to understand the information being conversed.
RSA Animates feature deep thinkers often challenging conventional wisdom, such as Sir Ken Robinson’s takedown of conventional education models, which has garnered 6.3 million views. That’s not nearly as good as Can’t Sing Psycho Girl Freaks Out, but the RSA Animate videos have made deep thinking more popular than gift-wrapping a cat.
What makes the Animates work is Park’s intricate drawings, which divert from the speeches as they inform them.
Abi Stephenson, who produces the series at RSA, says the project grew out of a search for how to illuminate what was coming out of the RSA lectures.
We had been looking for an innovative way of disseminating our incredible lecture content for a while, but just couldn’t find quite the right way of doing it. At around the same time we had asked Andrew Park, who was, and is, an RSA Fellow, to do some live ‘scribing’ at one of events. This was the service Cognitive Media were offering at the time – going to conferences and meetings and sketching the ideas that came up, and providing a visual translation of them on a big flip chart. We asked Andrew to come to one of our events and create a visual record of it for our journal, when my colleague Sophie Charles had the bright idea of ‘animating’ it and creating a short film.
The speeches, hand-picked from those delivered at RSA, are edited down from the typical 30 minutes to something on the order of 10 minutes. The audio goes to Cognitive, and Park sets to work visualizing the information.
Stephenson says the series is irregular, because of the time involved in producing them, but continuing “as long as people still want to watch them.” She says the Animates have appealed to a much broader audience than typically attend the speaker series, and includes a lot of young children and teenagers.
“We deliberately wanted the videos to be as democratic and accessible as possible, so that these great ideas weren’t just limited to a restricted group of ‘lecture-going’ people.”
I’m sure this will cause disagreement, but consider that the RSA videos do some of what the best documentaries also do: They enlighten. They challenge. They explain. They entertain. And they are creative. It’s becoming easier to call works like these “documentaries” not just “web videos.”
That’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t have described them in that way – but then maybe my definition of ‘documentary’ is too limited. I think of a documentary as a visual record of multiple real-life scenes and events, mostly with a narrative or personal story at its centre. Because the RSA Animates are taken from keynotes and lectures, they don’t seem to really fit into that mould.
I’d argue they are, or at least made in a documentary tradition. Documentary films such as “What The Bleep Do We Know?” and “Freakonomics” use innovative graphic devices to tell a story over expository narration. Given Cognitive’s growing visibility, I wouldn’t bet against Park’s work popping up in a documentary soon.
Watch a few more of the popular RSA Animate videos below or on the RSA YouTube channel.
[THREE MORE EMBEDDED HERE WITH CPATIONS]
Here’s a press release that tells the story of what looks to be an interesting attempt at collaborative filmmaking:
Whether it’s Joan Rivers in “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” or Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s indelible “Grizzly Man,” the profile documentary works because it can tell a story about a person like no other. But on the other end of the spectrum, telling the story of someone who’s typical is one of the hardest kind to pull off in documentary work.
The form implies representativeness, that the person in the film speaks for all other people like him or her. These representative profile documentaries hinge on whether you can learn about all people through one (or a few). These types of films also carry considerable risk for the filmmaker: If an audience can’t generalize from the subject, it’s left with nothing else, and the film fails.
Vanessa Roth’s new documentary “American Teacher” takes the risk, choosing four teachers to speak on behalf of the country’s 3.2 million teachers. With the math stacked against it, can an audience get a complete picture from such a tiny sample?
An answer is found in the core of art. Novels and fiction films are the antithesis of statistics and news reports. They zoom in on a person or small group of people rather than letting the story be told by cold numbers. You can read statistics connected to an event — The Holocaust, or the Civil Rights Movement, or 9/11 — and feel nothing, or you can surface characters who make the event connect, be it in the multi-Oscar winner “Life is Beautiful,” the journalistic work Common Ground or the novel Netherland (possibly to be made into a film).
Roth, an Academy Award-winning producer for the 2007 documentary short “Freeheld,” comes from a lineage of such storytelling. Her father, Eric Roth, wrote the screenplay of the filmic Everyman, Forrest Gump, whose main character walks through the major events of the late 20th century as a voice of decency and good intention. But Vanessa Roth has chosen here to find the Everymen among the real and complex people out in the world. And that’s a taller order.
In films such as Sarah Klein’s “The Good Mother,” the subjects are taken (I abhor the word “casting” in documentaries) from a narrow sample: women in a Mother-of-the-Year competition. The same goes for Matt Ogen’s “Confessions of a Superhero,” about the lives of four superhero impersonators. On the other hand, James Moll’s stunning 1998 doc “The Last Days” picks five of the millions who survived the Nazi death camps. The art, in essence, begins with the selection.
For Roth, there were 104,857,600,000,000,000,000,000,000 American Teachers she could have made, according to my online permutations calculator. Aging Out, which explored three adolescents in foster care making the transition to adulthood and on which Roth was co-director, had similarly daunting options.
Some filmmakers in these situations have the luxury of winnowing. A long list, a short list, finalists (with alternates). Some start with multiple subjects and eliminate in the edit. And some see their hopefuls fall by the wayside through the legalities of permissions and releases.
Half of the battle was won for Roth by the film’s source material. It, along with The Teacher Salary Project, is based on the book Teachers Have It Easy, written by Dave Eggers (Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), Nínive Calegari and Daniel Moulthrop. Two of the teachers, Roth says, came right out of the book. Two others were found through a combination of suggestions and intuition.
In other films, Roth says she’s begun filming with more than the number of subjects she’d end with. But here, the right people had to come first. She sought subjects who were “captivating people to watch” and who together shared the collective experiences of the nation’s teachers. She sorted through letters and video diaries from prospective subjects and iterated from there.
“It wasn’t like we knew at the start we wanted to shoot four people from four different places. One person came up after we’d started shooting another, and another came up after that.”
The teachers also had to be changing. After all, characters need story arcs. She ultimately found one young teacher expecting her first child, juggling family while playing a pivotal role for her first-grade students.
“I had tried hard to find someone starting a family, because I wanted something to unfold over the year,” she says.
Another was working extra jobs to afford his chosen profession.
“It’s absurd,” Roth says, “that our teachers are cutting our grass or working at Best Buy.”
The teachers are in Texas, Brooklyn, San Francisco and New Jersey. They went to Harvard, North Texas, UMass. They have taught 6, 11, 15 and 20 years. But they are not meant to comprise a case study or demographic artifact. As much as those of us with children think we know our teachers, Roth finds something deeper, showcasing in her four subjects the hopes, aspirations, sacrifice and commitment of teachers across the country.
Roth, in bios, describes herself as an advocate as well as an artist, which makes sense. American Teacher is a piece of reportage as well as a piece of advocacy that aims at the nation’s education woes and how an investment in teachers could turn it around.
“I think the film we ended up with was true to the vision we started with, but I think to get there we went on all kinds of paths,” Roth says. “An earlier cut was less about profiling people and more about experts… It took a bit of massaging to get it back to what I initially hoped it would be.”
Is American Teacher the definitive word on the teaching profession? The math says no, but their stories do effectively represent.
American Teacher opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 30 and continues playing at festivals and community screenings through the rest of the year. Visit The Teacher Salary Project for screening information.
This post first appeared on PBS.org’s POV Docs website
Philip at HDWarrior has a great post this week about the efforts “back in the day” to overcome shallow depth of field that is so much in fashion these days, looking specifically at Orson Welle’s use of “deep depth of field” in “Citizen Kane.”
This gave the crew a nightmare as they had to bring in far more lighting when Orson decided his next shot was to be filmed at T11 or f11 to you and me. T11 in those days meant blasting the set with light in order to allow the iris to stop down to f11, if nothing else things must have got very hot indeed.
If on the occasion enough light was not the answer they would use a split lens to give them two seperate depths of focus now this was tricky as you had to make sure your foreground actors and background actors never crossed the “invisible” line.