How to Shoot Great Coverage When Time Is Short

Producing documentaries can be exciting because stories can often lead you into unexpected places. However, they can also be frustrating, especially when you miss a particularly significant moment, or when you simply don't have enough time to get the coverage or the sound bites you need. So...

  • How do you build rapport with a documentary subject when faced with significant time constraints?
  • How do you get the coverage you need when you are only authorized to be in a certain location for a very short period of time?

I have faced this scenario a lot over the past few years, and although your situation may be different from mine, let me offer up some suggestions on how you can overcome these challenges.

BUILDING RAPPORT

The foundation of any good documentary is trust. This is why building rapport is so important. But when you only have a documentary subject available for 1-3 hours, the temptation will be to throw him/her right in front of the camera and get started immediately. Resist the urge to get coverage as quickly as possible. It's important, even when time is short, to make your subject feel comfortable so that he/she will be willing to open up to you on camera.  Here are some suggestions for building rapport with your subject quickly:

  • Introduce yourself - Some shooters hang out in the background, leaving the introductions and chit-chat up to the producer. But you as a camera operator need to greet the subject as well. Be pleasant, outgoing, and approachable. Don't be that quiet camera op who always hides out behind the camera.
  • Greet your subject before he/she sees your camera set up - I've written about this before in an article on how I like to conduct interviews and it's an important point to remember. Many people are intimidated by the thought of going in front of a camera. You don't want them to see the camera, the lights, and the entire crew just standing around when they first walk in. They will immediately feel self-conscious and guarded. Rather, go out to meet them in a place where they can't see your setup. After you've had the chance to speak with them about the project, about what you want from them, and about what they can expect, then bring them onto the set.

GETTING COVERAGE

  • Shoot with two cameras - Using two cameras is a great way to get a variety of coverage in a short amount of time, but it can lessen the feel of immediacy and presence to your footage. In an earlier post, I wrote about using the Close & Wide technique, meaning that you use the widest focal length available on your lens and then physically move in closer to your subject. This gives your subject a certain presence on camera and gives the viewer a sense that he/she is right in on the action. Conversely, when you shoot with two cameras, the tendency is for the camera operators to remain on the fringes of the scene, for fear of getting in each other's shots. Shooting with two cameras definitely has its place when time is tight, but be aware of the impression this kind of approach might leave on the viewer. Does it serve the story you're trying to tell by shooting with two cameras?
  • Don't linger on wide shots - Quickly get an establishing shot and then move on. There's no need to keep coming back to another wide shot. You won't be using an establishing shot very often in the edit.
  • Use the 7-second rule - This is another reminder from an earlier post on documentary filmmaking. Don't plant yourself in one place and shoot the scene as it plays out. Always be thinking of how you can reframe the shot to get additional coverage. Hold for at least seven seconds, then move. And by "move" I don't mean "pan the camera." I mean walk to another area of the location and reframe from there. Now, not every shot should only be seven seconds long. Your editor will hate you. Your camera work should still be patient. Just don't stay in the same spot the entire time. Your editor will hate you for that too. You have to strike a balance between patient, deliberate camera work, and camera work that displays variety.

That's it. I hope these tips will help you the next time you find yourself pressed for time during a documentary shoot. Have any of your own advice to pass along? Leave it in the Comments section below.