SHOOTING DOCUMENTARY FEATURES WITH DIGITAL CINEMA GEAR
Back in the days, at least here in Spain, the word “documentary” usually meant low budget, hence broadcast camera and lenses (or even prosumer stuff), often one lighting camera person and a super skeleton crew that sometimes could get to just two people. But now, with the coming of new entertainment platforms such as Netflix, HBO, Amazon, and everyday longer etcetera, the documentary features suddenly turned in to a product that can be sold aside from the indy festivals and production circuit. Actually it can be even a profitable product and that has a huge influence on the budget of the project and hence the gear used to shoot it.
So, nowadays it is not unusual to shoot a documentary with cinema lenses, digital cinema cameras, and a crew quite similar to the one of a standard feature. And this, if on one hand is good because it means a bigger volume of gigs for us and the camera department in general, on the other, brings technical challenges that must be faced, especially from our angle.
FOCUSING THE REALITY
In a documentary, one of the crucial characteristics of the shooting is that you don’t know what is going to happen and we all know that for a focus puller it can be tricky. On the other hand, modern shootings with no rehearsals, no time for marks and a lot of times not even for measurements, have to get us used to work on the fly and be prepared almost for anything. My first post-covid job was precisely a documentary feature, which was meant to be shot with a broadcast camera and zoom combo, but ended up with an Alexa Mini LF at the open gate and Cooke s7i primes, usually wide open. Mostly handheld, with several oner shots involving a Ronin 2 and a couple of 360 degrees shot.
The good thing was that since our camera package wasn’t too discrete, while the subject of the movie was very delicate so the production organized for every character we were going to be with, a prep/rehearsal day so they could get used to the camera and crew and be more relaxed the day of the actual shooting. That “rehearsal” days were key to me as a focus puller since I could get to know both the location and the person we were going to shoot with, get the measures of the environment we would be moving in and study the body language of the character so I could anticipate his moves and/or his reactions in terms of movement. I also made sure to have a good rangefinder in my kit, which also helped me in quite a few situations where the first (and often only) take needed to be the good one.
On the bright side, I found this experience a wonderful training that has boosted my skills in terms of both reaction and improvisation. Catching a unique moment is one of the most rewarding feelings of our craft and I guess we all know that.
MEDIA AND BATTERIES
As said, the unexpected is an everyday feature of this kind of project, and that must be taken into account even on other aspects of the shooting, besides focus pulling. As a first assistant, you want to make sure you have enough media to fulfill the project’s needs, which are not always to be known in advance or prep. My advice on this is to cover yourself beyond rational limits, and do not trust too much what the DoP or director says previously, basically because is more than likely that once in the raging of the battle they will want more and more if they see something they like. When I was making the gear list, I asked the DoP how much time would she like to shot per day, approximately, so I could get from the rental house enough cards and at the same time my 2nd would advise the production on the number of hard drives we would need. DoP told me 1 hour, I asked the rental house 5 1Tb codex compact drives, enough to record 5 hours. Just in case. We never needed them all the same day, but on one given they got pretty close.
The same goes for batteries, actually, I made sure to include in the kit a high load hot swap adapter for v-mount batteries, so we could switch them in no time without having to reboot the camera. If that’s true that nowadays digital cameras switch on relatively fast, never forget that Mr. Murphy will be always there happy to screw your day.
I don’t know if this applies to every documentary feature project, but in my case, even though the budget was a little higher than a standard documentary, it was still way lower than the one of a regular fiction production, so I had to handle a lot of back and forth with some parts of the gear since we could have them only on given days, while we have to give them back when we were not using them. That means a lot of organization, tenths of phone calls, almost endless camera lists and to be the liaison between dop, production, and rental house, all this while shooting. In this, the app camlist was a huge help, but I have to admit that next time I’ll try to delegate more and rely on my 2nd (which I usually do, but this time for reasons too long to explain here, he got on board pretty late, so I didn’t have the time to put him fully up to page before the shooting started).
Actually I’m pretty curious whether exist some mnemonic techniques the key first ACs use on those huge blockbuster productions where this part must be really overwhelming.
So, your turn now: what are your experiences in documentary features shootings? Which tricks have you learned and which mistakes do you think your fellow focus puller should learn from? Any crazy story happened on a documentary set you’d like to share? We are listening... ;)