How a Cinematographer Should Approach Documentary Work

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This past week I had the opportunity to attend The Maine Media Workshops, where I took a class with Bestor Cram on "Documentary Camera." It was an incredible experience, full of valuable information that I will be sure to apply on my documentary projects moving forward. I thought it important to share some of the insights I gained from the workshop, so all of us can continue to improve ourselves and our craft.

The first installment in this series will go over how a cinematographer's should approach a documentary film.

 The foundation of the work is building trust.

This is the first thing a cinematographer should remember when he/she embarks on a documentary project. Documentary film is about getting at the truth about someone, some issue, some place, or some time. As the camera operator, you have to build trust between yourself and your subject, so they feel safe to share their story; safe to allow themselves to become vulnerable in front of the lens. At the fundamental level, you must express something about yourself to help you gain the trust of your subject.

Negotiate the boundaries of what you will be doing. 

Come in with a sense of what the story is that you want to tell. Give yourself that boundary. But understand that those boundaries will sometimes change as the story unfolds. Will you cross that boundary and allow the story to take on a new direction?

Also, be clear to your subject about what you expect of him/her. Express to your subject what you will/will not ask of them.  

There will be a time and a place to judge. That time is not when you are shooting. 

Capture your subjects honestly. Capture their stories. Don't judge their motivations and actions. Don't think about the statement your film will or will not make while you are trying to shoot it. That will only affect what you decide to shoot or not shoot. Production isn't the time to make judgment calls about what the film is or isn't. That will come later, in the editing room. 

Feel free to share your philosophies on documentary film and a cinematographer's role in the process.