Pictured above: On Strong Bodies Fight, the look of the natural environment played into our Malick-esque cinematography plan. Photo by Mark Weber.
Documentaries are such a wild card in filmmaking from a visual perspective. You have to expect the unexpected every time you venture out, which means both coming prepared with all manner of possible gear, while also understanding that you might not use any of it and just roll with the smallest camera you’ve got! You’ll wish for an Amira but realize that GoPro or even the smartphone in your pocket might be the only thing you can sneak in. You’ll bring every LED light kit in the trunk but get cornered into an 8’x8′ space for all your interviews. You’ll frame up those perfect shots only to find yourself waiting for half an hour for something – anything – to happen in front of your lens. (The opening of Kirsten Johnson’s 2016 film, Cameraperson, is a perfect look at that sensation.)
Because of the unpredictability of documentary filming, it’s easy as a viewer to think that the crew simply stumbled across certain elements or didn’t do any advance planning about how the film was going to look moment-to-moment or as a whole. Do documentary filmmakers really think about their color palette? Their composition style? You can’t truly control the locations you’re in or the events and sound bites you’ll capture, so what’s the point of thinking about things like frames within frames or texture or editing rhythm or all those cinematography and visual design terms you learned in film school?
Friends, it’s even more important to think about those things.
Every documentary I’ve ever worked on has benefitted from those preliminary conversations about the style of the film. On Strong Bodies Fight (2010), which chronicled the Holy Cross missions in Bangladesh and the Bengal Bouts student boxing tournament at the University of Notre Dame donating funds to the missions, director Bill Donaruma and I discussed the films of Terrence Malick and films like Raging Bull to differentiate the feel of the two different locations. This guided everything from our b-roll strategies (lots of slow motion and shots of nature in Bangladesh versus whip zooms and fast shutter speeds in the boxing ring) to the flow of the edit later.
Likewise, each fundraising documentary we’ve produced for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has brought with it conversations between myself and director Cole Simon about color palette, whether footage should be handheld or on a gimbal, and even debates about what sort of interview setup makes the most sense: should subjects speak direct-to-camera or to an off-camera interviewer? How shallow should our depth of field be? How abstract can we get with our edits? In one such video, we went for a full Requiem for a Dream-esque flash cuts to visualize the sensation of constant barrages of medication. In another, we shot b-roll entirely in slow motion on a gimbal to give the feeling of empowering our subject through camera movement.
Without these kinds of conversations, it’s easy to lose yourself in simply capturing whatever’s in front of you, without necessarily thinking about how intimate or distant the camera should be or how this “scene” will cut together. I still shoot day-in-the-life documentaries as though I’m setting up for standard coverage: first the wide establishing shots, then progressively tighter coverage, then inserts and other elements. I’m always thinking about whether I’m following or leading the subject with the camera. And I’m always trying to anticipate the moves of my subject, in the event I can’t ask them to do something again. It’s rare to get second takes in documentary filmmaking!
To that end, those creative preparations are even more important, because they enable you to improvise while still thinking about the end goal and the emotion you want to evoke from your viewer later. Don’t discount those conversations, any more than you would prepping for an interview or scouting a location or outlining the arc of your film. Your visual style may be what distinguishes your documentary from others.
View Strong Bodies Fight here: https://vimeo.com/155033405.
View the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation – Greater Illinois Chapter videos via their YouTube channel.
John Klein (www.windycitycamera.com) is a director, cinematographer, and producer in Chicago. His directorial work includes the award-winning short horror film, “Cry It Out,” and the feature films, “Happily After” and “Chrysalis”, and he’s lensed projects of all shapes and sizes, from the micro-budget web series, “Young Couple” to the Lifetime movie, “Nightlights”. He also teaches film production at DePaul University and Flashpoint Chicago.